Photo : © WHIB / P.Virot
As a major hub of the UN, Bangkok boasts leading experts in several fields of regional and world concern. UN Special spoke with senior ESCAP officials in areas as diverse as economics, IT and disaster management, labour issues, Asian road and rail connections, trade facilitation and the environment.
Several ESCAP-based experts commented for UN Special on issues of contemporary concern, including the economics of Asia in 2001, the impact of information technology on disaster responses, such as in Japan, the need for labour rights and standards, and on public health issues in an emerging economy such as Thailand.
Economist sees “turbulence” for Asia
Nagesh Kumar, chief economist at ESCAP, looks out his office window in western Bangkok and evokes the vast scope of UN Bangkok’s reporting region, which stretches from Turkey on the Mediterranean to the northern Pacific Ocean.
The Asia-Pacific region, reports Kumar, has broadly recovered well from the 2009 world economic downturn, and is now the “growth pole of the world economy”.
However, “like the West, liquidity is not finding its way to productive uses”, he says. The East is booming, but inward capital flows “bring volatility”, and the temptation to “make a quick buck” in an easy-money environment.
Inflation is again a risk, especially if it affects food prices, as it did in 2008. There has been a hike of 3 per cent in food prices for vulnerable groups. The conclusions of the ESCAP Survey are clear: Governments need to “protect most vulnerable” and to “take care of the populace”.
Bangkok, pôle d’experts
En tant que pôle majeur de l’ONU, Bangkok peut se vanter de la présence d’éminents experts dans plusieurs domaines d’intérêt régional et mondial. UN Spécial s’est entretenu avec des fonctionnaires de haut rang de la CESAP dans des domaines aussi divers que l’économie, l’informatique et la gestion des catastrophes, les questions de travail, les liaisons ferroviaires régionales, la facilitation du commerce et l’environnement.
Nagesh Kumar, économiste en chef de la CESAP, préconise de « mettre de l’argent entre les mains des 500 millions de nouveaux consommateurs en Asie ». Sachiko Yamamoto, directeur de l’OIT pour la région Asie-Pacifique, appelle à un « rééquilibrage des économies asiatiques afin de produire moins pour l’exportation et plus pour la consommation intérieure ». Tiziana Bonapace, chef de la section TIC et développement de la CESAP, note que « les efforts après le tsunami au Japon ont été marqués par la montée des médias sociaux et de leur pouvoir. Des vidéos dramatiques des événements ont été tournées par des particuliers avec leurs téléphones portables ou leurs appareils photo », ce qui conditionne les secours. Tandis que le docteur Somchai Peerapakorn, de l’OMS/ Thaïlande, note l’émergence de plusieurs problèmes de santé publique « de pays riches », dont un taux élevé d’accidents de la circulation et une forte augmentation de la consommation d’alcool importé.
The worldwide fiscal stimulus in 2009 “contained” the economic damage. But some Millennium Development Goals will not be “met” on present trends, especially in South Asia and the Pacific region. Throughout the area, “incomes are rising consistently”, but inequality is also growing. The Asia-Pacific region needs a “more inclusive pattern of growth”, concludes Kumar.
He urges revisions to the Asian export-oriented model: it is not suitable any more: “The West was over-consuming and must restrain its demand”; however, this impacts Asian exporters. Solutions include “putting money in the hands of the 500 million new consumers in Asia”. Prosperity means there will be more middle-class consumers, but rising consumption must be gradual and not a shock.
Infrastructure gaps can be overcome domestically: highways, etc., perhaps in partnerships. Telecom expansion, for example, could reap “huge” licence fees.
Capital controls “could create more stability”, as in the world crisis of 1997, when Malaysia bucked the trend and imposed controls, standing alone in that matter.
In China, the new giant of the region, property values are “rising fast”, but there is less currency speculation. Meanwhile, the Thai baht is up to 35 to the US dollar. The ESCAP Survey warns: as in 2008, when markets fell fast, the issue of volatility is now resurfacing. Already in India, some short-term funds are being withdrawn. In short, for 2011 in Asia, “stability will be a major issue”.
Sachiko Yamamoto, ILO Assistant Director.General
Labour: “Pressure from buyers” can
Ms Sachiko Yamamoto, director of ILO for the Asia-Pacific region, gives thoughtful, fact-based, diplomatic answers at her ILO office, which covers “a broad spectrum of social protection, rights, conditions of work” in a “very diverse region: both industrial countries and not”.
ILO’s goal: rights-based quality jobs, and the “protection of certain basic minima”, she says. In the Asia-Pacific region, “the common thread is a lack of decent employment, especially for young people”. The biggest challenge is the informal economy (without contracts, union reps) “In India employment is 80 per cent informal; in Asia is 60 per cent overall”, she notes.
How to promote labour standards
in this context?
“You cannot build sustainable growth on the basis of labour exploitation”, says Yamamoto. You need “pressure from buyers to respect labour standards”.
Is Asia now stuck in “jobless growth?” Various challenges arise from the dominance of export industries, including a lack of education and skills in the job market. As a result, “export crises hit hard”, for example, the garment industry which employs “mostly young women”. Factory conditions in economically fast growing counties always include “cost cutting” to increase labour production.
Echoing her economist colleague Nagesh Kumar, Yamamoto calls for moves to “rebalance Asian economies to produce less for less exports, more for domestic consumption”.
ILO works with brand buyers (WalMart, H&M, etc.) to make sure factories observe rights for labour; they “only buy from ILOcertified factories”, which respect the 8 fundamental ILO conventions.
As for China, the new giant of the region, Yamamoto notes that it has its own rules, but not freedom to organize. In China, “there is tremendous growth, and a big effort to make people think living standards are increasing”. Labour movements there occur “more spontaneously”. She hopes the freedom to bargain will emerge, with “more dialogue and legal protection” and “unique contract law”. “Encouraging things are happening” in China, she says, but many union reps are still jailed.
The UN promotes “three aspects of sustainability” for labour: women must be integrated; there must be a coordinated macro-economic policy to promote more sustainability and “we hope that [Asia’s] jobless growth changes to... decent work”.
The Japan disaster and social media
The Asia-Pacific region is the “most disaster- prone region... both weather-related and man-made disasters”, says Tiziana Bonapace, Chief of the ICT and development section at ESCAP. A person in Asia- Pacific is “28 times more likely” to suffer disaster: typhoons, floods (Australia 2011), earthquakes, tsunamis (2004 and 2011).
In an interview with UN Special, Bonapace emphasized that there is more risk of disaster when there is a high population of poor people. Whether it be earthquakes or other natural disasters, affluence makes disaster risk-reduction easier. Buildings are built more solidly, and health facilities are better established.
Ms. Tiziana Bonapace
How can information and communication technology (ICT) reduce disaster risks? One great progress has been the emergence of mobile phones as the “phone for the masses”. With SMS text messaging ubiquitous, even in Bangladesh and Afghanistan, there is 99% penetration by mobile networks.
“The calculation of a State is different” reflects Bonapace, “It establishes a disaster management centre and/or a ministry. This can involve warnings through sirens and loudspeakers, by TVs, etc.” However, mobile communication is less centralized and more person to person, very effective in areas that are “isolated but disaster prone”. The risks also differ by national income: for underdeveloped countries, the costs are human, while for developed countries, there are more capital costs.
ICT is also part of early-warning systems (buoys) to measure seismic activity (Hawaii, Hong Kong), and satellite reconnaissance for early warning of disasters.
What did the March 11 tsunami disaster in Japan reveal? In a preliminary assessment, Bonapace’s ICT division noted that “Japan has the most advanced early-warning system including one for tsunamis, that consists of 300 sensors (of which 80 are acquatic) around the archipelago, monitoring seismic activity at all times. This helped in saving thousands of lives considering the hugeness and unprecedented force of the tsunami. Yet, despite all the preparedness, the force of nature proved so powerful that in addition to the immediate losses in human life and economic assets, Japan experienced grave second-round effects”.
Again, more individualized IT media showed their new role; “Post-tsunami efforts in Japan also witnessed the rise and power of social media. The most dramatic videos of the unfolding events were captured by individuals using their phones or cameras, and posted on websites, such as YouTube or other interactive social media networks. Furthermore, the Government was able to send out advance warnings to vulnerable sectors such as railroads and utilities, and to the public through television, Internet and text-messages.
“Mixi, which is a Japanese version of Facebook, was used to enhance disaster relief efforts, while database and mapping tools such as Ushahadi and Esri were deployed to collect information from social media for crisis mapping purposes (i.e. geographical locations of the origin of text messages) in order to better understand the disaster.”
In future, “it is expected that in the immediate aftermath of disasters, more extensive use will be made of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, wikis and blogs, both by the Government and the survivors of disasters, provided that alternative telecommunication infrastructure could be set up quickly and extensively in the disaster area. Social media increasingly will be used to determine the whereabouts and well-being of family and friends, and to receive constant updates on the situation.”
“Different functions of Google are already available, for instance through Google’s Person Finder developed after the Haiti earthquake and Google’s Crisis Response Center, which provides specific information on the event.”