Addressing Remaining Poverty and Reducing Inequalities

ADB and its partners are ensuring that developing member countries across Asia and the Pacific are resilient through projects that provide people and governments with quality education, better health, and inclusive and adaptive social protection. They are prioritizing projects that make education, health, and social protection systems across Asia and the Pacific stronger and better prepared to overcome future shocks and crises.

Operational Priority Thrusts

ADB’s Strategy 2030 will pursue the following:

  • achieve better health for all
  • improve education and training
  • ensure social protection for everyone
  • generate quality jobs
  • increase opportunities for the most vulnerable people

The pandemic is waning, and economies have opened. After more than 2 years, hope may finally be emerging in countries across Asia and the Pacific. Many are on the road to recovery, but the pace has been slower than hoped for or anticipated, especially with the convergence of multiple other crises such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine and extreme weather events. This polycrisis has severely disrupted the region’s growth.

The pandemic’s slow recession is exposing the region’s chronic problems. These include the piling up of learning losses and job mismatches that beset the education sector, and a lack of progress toward universal health coverage and social protection in many parts of the region.

To effectively address these, ADB and its partners started shifting their response to the pandemic and its effects in 2022. From vaccine procurement and emergency response, they helped developing member countries address learning gaps and skills enhancement, strengthen their health systems, and ensure social protection, especially among poor and vulnerable people. The focus shifted to building resilience and strengthening systems to ensure sustainable development.

ADB’s Strategy 2023 Operational Priority 1 (OP1) aims to address remaining poverty and reduce inequality in Asia and the Pacific. To reach OP1’s objective amid the polycrisis gripping the region, ADB and its partners prioritized projects on sustainable development and digitalization. In 2022, they focused on projects that helped countries enhance the systems and infrastructure needed to build resilience against the challenges that continue to hound the region. There were 124 cofinanced projects, and 88 of these directly focused on reducing poverty and addressing inequalities. Nine of these projects tackled education, five directly addressed health sector concerns, and at least five were stand-alone social protection projects.

In 2022, ADB and its partners focused on projects that helped countries enhance the systems and infrastructure needed to build resilience against the challenges that continue to hound the region.

ADB partnerships in 2022 focused on projects that build people’s resilience, such as the Promoting Innovative Financial Inclusion Program in Indonesia, which is ensuring vulnerable populations have more access to finance through digital innovations.

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Education for All

Governments across Asia and the Pacific prioritized health services during the pandemic, draining their education budgets. This contributed to massive learning losses and aggravated the skills and job mismatch of graduates in the region. The pandemic exacerbated poor learning outcomes and unequal access to education, further derailing the pursuit of education for all. In 2018, estimates showed that 16 million children remained out of primary school and 34 million out of secondary school. Over half of children in developing Asia can hardly read and do basic math equations. Most adults in the world with low reading proficiency live in Asia and the Pacific, and most with less than a primary education live in South Asia. This further affects the employability of many youth and graduates in the region’s developing countries, as their skills do not match the needs of the market.

The quality of education in the region needs to be prioritized. More years immersed in quality education equate to higher economic rates as additional years of higher education improve an individual’s chances of getting good jobs. An educated workforce contributes to greater productivity and fosters more innovation. However, students are unlikely to pursue higher education if the quality of basic education is still below par.

ADB and its partners are helping governments across the region address this issue through projects like Supporting the School Education Sector Plan in Nepal. This initiative is backed by seven development partners. It is now improving basic and secondary education in the country by strengthening teaching and learning, accelerating the recovery from learning losses caused by the pandemic, and improving the capacity of governments, especially local governments, to plan, monitor, and report progress in the education sector.

A skills mismatch is another persistent problem in the education sector. Many graduates, despite high educational attainment, cannot find jobs even as many employers cannot fill vacancies. ADB and its partners are working to address this challenge through projects such as the Improved Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) for Employment Project, which strengthens the TVET system and prepares students to be more competitive and responsive to employment and industry demands. This initiative is a partnership between ADB and the Government of Australia.

Online learning has provided various opportunities to improve access and learning across the region. These opportunities need to be tapped. Projects such as the Innovation in Education Sector Development in Asia and the Pacific are needed because they link various partners to work together to develop the knowledge and human resource capacity of participating developing member countries, improve student learning, and enhance labor market linkages. Initiatives like this ensure students are future-ready and equipped with skills that match the increasingly digital world. This project is a collaboration among ADB, the High-Level Technology Fund, and the Republic of Korea e-Asia and Knowledge Partnership Fund.

Over half of the children in developing Asia can hardly read and do basic math equations. Most adults in the world with low reading proficiency live in Asia and the Pacific.

Health for All

The priority of ADB partnerships for health shifted in 2022. From vaccine procurement and provision, the focus shifted to partnerships for post-pandemic recovery and resilience, and preparedness for future pandemics. The Sri Lanka Health System Enhancement Project, cofinanced by the Japan Fund for Prosperous and Resilient Asia and the Pacific (JFPR) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, demonstrates this shift. It is assisting Sri Lanka to develop a more responsive and comprehensive primary health care system to provide better health services to its geographically and socioeconomically deprived populations. Another example is the Philippines’ Build Universal Health Care, a project supported by the JFPR. This initiative is helping the country provide quality and equitable health care and improve the efficiency of its health systems. Projects such as these strengthen service delivery as well as the provision of health care for all through reforms in policies and systems.

To prepare for future pandemics, ADB partnered with the Republic of Korea and JFPR in 2022 to implement a component of the Regional Support to Address the Outbreak of COVID-19 and Potential Outbreaks of Other Communicable Diseases. This initiative trained personnel from 12 countries in vaccine manufacturing. It also collaborated with partners in the newly instituted Pandemic Fund hosted by the World Bank. The Pandemic Fund supports the DMCs in preventing and preparing for pandemics.

More challenges in the health sector are coming ahead, demanding more and deeper collaboration. A gloomy global economy dampens the region’s hope for faster recovery. The rising prices across Asia and the Pacific are affecting people’s well-being and health care consumption. They are not just confronting the pandemic but also the rise in noncommunicable diseases. Cardiovascular diseases, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, and diabetes caused over 75% of deaths in Asia and the Pacific in 2017. These diseases are compounded by climate change, rapid urbanization, and demographic shifts, which render populations more vulnerable to future disease outbreaks, increase demand for reproductive and elderly health care, and threaten nations’ health systems.

Specifically, climate change is a major risk to health systems in the region, whether they may be small island states threatened by rising sea levels or countries in South Asia facing extreme heat, changes in rainfall, and an increase in disease-carrying vectors. The systemic challenge posed by a warming planet requires increased investment in surveillance and response. This means improvements in how climate-driven disease trends are tracked, the strengthening of primary care, and improved resilience of communities.

More investments are needed to strengthen and sustain public health systems, increase public health response capacity, recruit and train health workers, and achieve universal health care coverage. Progress in the provision of universal health care in the region has been uneven, with most DMCs unable to reach the global average for health coverage. Poor countries in Asia and the Pacific also do not have enough health care subsidies and easy payment options, burdening the people with bigger out-of-pocket medical expenses. These need to be addressed urgently. As Patrick Osewe, ADB’s chief of health sector group, said, “Investments in universal health coverage are investments in economic growth…progress toward universal health coverage can ensure that people have access to the health care they need without suffering financial hardship, and it can also help drive better economic development outcomes.”

More investments are needed to make public health systems stronger and climate-resilient, increase public health response capacity, and achieve universal health care coverage.

Using Digital Technology to Improve National Health Financing in Asia and the Pacific fosters greater digitization of health systems in Armenia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and Nepal, enhancing access to affordable health care and saving more lives.

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Social Protection

The polycrisis has erased at least a decade of development progress. Its consequences overwhelm the poor and vulnerable groups such as older people, people with disabilities, women, children, informal sector workers, and migrants. Partnerships are needed to ensure a collaborative and coordinated approach to help DMCs protect their poorest and most vulnerable people who are exposed to these risks. They are needed to help make social protection systems more efficient, inclusive, and sustainable.

ADB’s ongoing partnership with Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) is exploring opportunities to accelerate the digitalization of social protection systems and strengthen the efficiency and effectiveness of social protection programs in various DMCs. ADB’s continuing partnerships with the Urban Climate Change and Resilience Trust Fund, Japan Fund for Prosperous and Resilient Asia and the Pacific (JFPR), and the High-Level Technology Fund have also led to deeper engagement with the work on the social dimensions of disaster and climate resilience and community-based adaptation, disability inclusion, and development of long-term care systems and services. ADB, the Asia-Pacific Climate Finance Fund, and the Republic of Korea e-Asia and Knowledge Partnership Fund have also teamed up to expand social protection inclusion. Their project, Developing Insurance Markets for Sustainable and Resilient Societies in Asia and the Pacific, is crafting innovative insurance solutions using new technologies.

Priority must be given to digitalization and improving digital delivery systems to provide better social protection. They are critical to strengthening the adaptability and shock responsiveness of social protection systems. Countries with digital payment schemes, interoperable databases, and other such digital systems can quickly facilitate emergency support to citizens. The Food Security and Livelihood Recovery Emergency Assistance Project, with support from the JFPR and World Bank, is helping Sri Lanka upgrade its information technology system to facilitate the cash grant beneficiary selection, verification, monitoring and communication, and other services for poor families and farmers. It does this while providing emergency assistance to boost people’s access to food and protect their livelihoods.

Financing for social protection systems is also a critical challenge in the region. Not many countries have sufficient funds to provide quality social protection for all, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many countries into recession. Partnership in this area is imperative. Social protection is one of the fundamental components for building and maintaining resilience. Without it, all progress gained can be easily lost.

The Strengthening Social Resilience Program in Bangladesh protects the poorest and most vulnerable people who are most exposed to overlapping shocks and risks.

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The year 2022 was a transition period for ADB and its partners, especially in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the poverty it caused among many communities. Their response to the pandemic rapidly evolved from emergency and budgetary assistance to systems strengthening, including digitalization. This shift signals the start of the region’s economic recovery and a stronger focus on resilience building.

However, headwinds are ahead, brought forth by new challenges, including climate change. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, which disrupted many a nation’s journey to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, has triggered sky-high inflation rates, soaring oil prices, and food insecurity. Thus, growth may be slow in the coming months. Asia is expected to do better compared with other regions, but the horizon remains gloomy. Partnerships can cushion these blows through projects that build resilience into its educational, health, and social protection systems for the poor and vulnerable population.