The Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), the UN Education, Science and Culture Organisation, (UNESCO), the World Bank (WB) and the UN International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) have been carefully following the short-time effects of the pandemic and climate variability and have also been carrying out intensive research on the potential long-term effects on education and other associated socio-economic aspects that are slowly emerging within the developing and low-income countries, particularly in Asia and the Pacific regions.
ESCAP in its report published in the third week of January this year has made some interesting comments about the evolving circumstances pertaining to development within the Asia-Pacific region, comprising 58 countries and territories. It may be noted in this context that this region is home to approximately 4.5 billion people, and its demographic landscape is diverse in terms of population growth and size, composition by age and sex, and spatial distribution.
Analyst Baher Kamal has apparently been following the changing circumstances and has drawn attention to some interesting facts. He has noted that while life expectancy has increased significantly and poverty has been comparatively reduced within a billion people, both income poverty and multidimensional poverty continue to exist alongside affluence within and between countries. The largest world's region's multidimensional poverty is made up of several factors that constitute poor people's experience of deprivation, such as poor health, lack of education, inadequate living standards, lack of income, disempowerment, poor quality of work and threat from violence. The impact has often been greater on poor people, women, older persons, persons with disabilities and other marginalised groups.
ESCAP in this regard has observed that "inequalities still persist, with income, consumption and wealth concentrated among the top deciles of the population. Non-monetary inequalities exist between regions, gender, race, ethnicity, geography and age, as well as in access to services, including sexual and reproductive health services." Such a scenario does not help matters because research by ESCAP has indicated that "the gains from socioeconomic development have favored the wealthiest, with the wealthiest 5 per cent of the population controlling close to 70 per cent of total wealth in the region."
The report also explains that poverty, inequality and high fertility are closely associated. Poor households tend to have many children owing mainly to lack of access to and knowledge of contraceptives, low autonomy among women, and the demand for children for economic or household support. Kamal in this regard has observed that contraception is less accessible to women who are poor, less educated and living in rural areas. These fertility differentials are perpetuating intergenerational poverty and inequalities.
ESCAP has also correctly pointed out that one big problem within this region is the relative absence of decent jobs and employment opportunities for the youth during this current period. There appears to be an osmotic effect arising out of the factor that their skills are generally not matching market requirements. Research has indicated that the share of workers in unpaid jobs in Asia is twice as high for young people aged 15-24 as compared to adults aged 25-29 years.
In this context it has also been noted by ESCAP that "workers' fundamental rights, especially those of women and marginalised populations, have also been challenged by the rise in vulnerable employment, especially concentrated in agriculture, and is affecting women more than men." It has also been observed that in South Asia and East Asia, approximately 40 per cent and 30 per cent respectively, of identified victims of human trafficking and forced labour are children. Vulnerable employment connotes jobs involving inadequate pay, low productivity and adverse working conditions.
Such a scenario casts its shadow and induces migration to escape from inequalities of opportunity. However such a dynamic is not resolving matters satisfactorily all the time. Many migrants face other forms of inequalities such as precarious working conditions, human rights abuses and irregular employment in their countries of destination. Migrants remain vulnerable to coercion, discrimination, exploitation and substandard labour conditions and benefits. Female migrants in particular, are often victimised on the grounds of both being female and being migrants. They face labour exploitation, including confinement, lack of pay and lack of rest days. ESCAP has also indicated that reports have revealed that undocumented female migrants have no access to sexual and reproductive health services.
ESCAP in its carefully researched report has also referred to the growing socio-economic impact that is being created because of internal migration which has continued to grow in volume in the past few years. Increased internal migration is resulting because of fewer work opportunities in traditional agriculture and better employment opportunities in urban areas.
Such unplanned urbanisation is having its own dire effects. It has been suggested by some urban planners that "by 2050, two out of three people are expected to live in urban areas, with about 10 per cent of the urban population living in megacities, and the rest living in medium-sized and small cities." Meanwhile, ESCAP has suggested that "approximately half of all urban dwellers in South Asia live in slums. In countries such as Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam, with large populations, 30 to 60 per cent of the urban population lives in slums." Those in slums end up facing challenges-- poor health conditions, lack of sanitation and risk of exposure to pollution, including high carbon emissions.
The Asian Development Bank in its Outlook 2020 report has also drawn attention to the fact that the pandemic and climate variability factor is seriously affecting tourism-driven economies in the Pacific region- in particular in the Cook Islands, Fiji, Palau, Samoa and Vanuatu.
The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have also warned that within this matrix have also raised significant questions about what to do with regard to growing malnutrition, achieving Zero Hunger and food security. Currently, these organisations are indicating that the Asia and Pacific region countries have to solve the problem of their undernourished people because the majority of them are unable to afford a healthy diet, driven by high prices of fruits, vegetables and dairy products.
No discussion or analysis will however be complete without referring to how the pandemic is seriously affecting the education sector that creates the ladder for climbing out of the hole of poverty. The alarm bell in this regard was rung by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in the message delivered by him on January 24, 2022 to mark the International Day of Education.
He pointed out that education in different educational institutions is being disrupted because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This situation has been exacerbated over the last two years. This scenario has affected more than 1.6 billion students all over the world. It has been pointed out by him that unless coordinated action can be taken "the share of children leaving school in developing countries who are unable to read could increase from 53 to 70 per cent". That would be a calamity.
Analysts have observed that in some countries, on average, learning losses have been roughly proportional to the length of the closures. However, there has also been great heterogeneity across countries and by subject, students' socio-economic status, gender, and grade level. "For example, results from two states in Mexico show significant learning losses in reading and in maths for students aged 10-15. The estimated learning losses were greater in maths than reading, and affected younger learners, students from low-income backgrounds, as well as girls disproportionately."
It has also been estimated that 260 million children from Brazil, Pakistan rural India, South Africa and Mexico are not even in school. This is the leading edge of a learning crisis that is directly and indirectly threatening countries' efforts to build human capital and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Without foundational functional learning and skill development, students often fail to thrive later in school or when they join the workforce.
This has led UNESCO, the Word Bank and UNICEF to observe that "they don't acquire the human capital they need to power their careers and economies once they leave school, or the skills that will help them become engaged citizens and nurture healthy, prosperous families. Importantly, a lack of foundational literacy skills in the early grades can lead to intergenerational transmission of poverty and vulnerability." They have also quantified the economic dimension of this drama. According to the three world bodies' report, simulations estimating that school closures have resulted in significant learning losses and these are now being corroborated by real data.
Reference has been made in this regard to the right to education being a human right that is enshrined in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration calls for "free and compulsory elementary education".
An excellent example of this is Bangladesh, where the process is being taken forward for the past few years through the free distribution of textbooks at the beginning of the school year. This has continued to push our literacy rate upwards and brought smile to the face of millions of students all over the country.
Higher education is also being made accessible to all consistent with the Convention on the Rights of the Child which was adopted in 1989. Belief in supporting education and imparting skill development in this age of digitalisation is also helping to reduce poverty and carry the country towards socio-economic development.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.