Abandoning Asia’s Poor

NEW YORK -- More than half of Asia’s population -- 1.8 billion people -- live on less than $2 a day; more than 600 million of them try to survive on less than $1 a day. With food prices now soaring, most of Asia’s “working poor,” who are already struggling on degraded lands, in sweatshops, on streets and at homes, risk further destitution.

Yet the Asian Development Bank – an institution whose mission is to reduce poverty – last month approved a new corporate strategy (ADB Long Term Strategic Framework 2008-2020) that is ominously silent on the importance of employment and social protection for the poor. A handful of influential ADB bureaucrats with large salaries, secured pensions, comprehensive health insurance, subsidized housing, and education for their children, have apparently decided that financing subsidized housing, health, nutrition, and child protection programs is not a priority. Nor do they consider land reform, employment services, or pensions for all Asians a priority.

Instead, these officials have decided to refocus ADB operations on three areas: inclusive economic growth, environmentally sustainable growth, and regional integration, with a heavy emphasis on private-sector development. The ADB is abandoning crucial public support for social development.

The new strategy is a reversal of the policies of the late 1990’s, when the ADB changed its objective from “economic growth” to “poverty reduction.” The ADB’s earlier policies were based on broad-based growth, good governance, and social development. Ten years later, only an empty corporate motto of “an Asia and Pacific region free of poverty” is left.