Sat, 19 Jul 2003

It takes partnership to fight poverty

Richard Ondrik Philippine Daily Inquirer Asia News Network Manila

Arriving by jeepney, bus and taxi and on foot, protesters descended on Metro Manila's Ortigas central business district recently during the annual meeting of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Though they came from a variety of organizations and with myriad messages, they shared one important thing in common: a fervent desire to see better living and working conditions for the people of the Philippines and beyond.

By the hundreds, they voiced concerns ranging from the affordability of electricity and water, to transparency and accountability of public institutions, and the protection of core labor rights.

While there may not always be agreement on the specific approaches to these vital issues, the demonstrators and the ADB have a great deal in common, in particular their shared goal of reducing poverty in the Philippines and across the Asia-Pacific region. This, in fact, is the ADB's central goal.

The ADB realizes that fighting poverty is not a challenge that can be tackled by just one entity or sector of society. The combined forces of all key stakeholders are necessary, starting first and foremost with the poor themselves, together with governments, the private sector and organized civil society, including nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and labor unions and networks.

All of these stakeholders make an important contribution to nurturing an environment in which poor people can improve their livelihoods, and in assuring that decision-makers and the public at large are aware of the issues and tradeoffs inherent to development.

International financial institutions like the ADB also play a key role by generating project funding, setting high environmental and social standards, promoting participation of stakeholders, and providing technical advice. The ADB is a public institution, working in partnership with the governments and peoples of the countries we serve.

Despite Asia's remarkable progress since the ADB's founding in 1966, the region is still home to two-thirds of the world's poor. In the Philippines, millions of people still suffer the indignity of poverty every day. This is unacceptable.

Poverty is an extremely complex problem with many causes and many outcomes. The ADB has long recognized that NGOs have experience and expertise in a wide range of areas that can help us in our effort to improve the living conditions of the most disadvantaged in Asia and the Pacific.

To more effectively tap this experience and expertise, and improve cooperation with such organizations, the ADB set up its NGO Center in 2001. NGOs now participate in over half of all ADB projects, from Tajikistan, where NGOs are implementing a project to help farmers increase agricultural production, to Nepal, where an NGO is administering a micro-finance project aimed at poor women, and Papua New Guinea, where NGOs are helping manage a skills development trust fund that creates jobs for students in vocational and entrepreneurial courses.

In the Philippines, we are working closely with NGOs to clean up the Pasig River, support renewable energy development in Negros Occidental province, and improve community infrastructure and basic services in 23 communities around Metro Manila.

The ADB has worked closely with community-based organizations to improve the living conditions of forest-dwellers, fisherfolk and agrarian reform communities, and to create sustainable micro- credit operations and micro-finance institutions. The ADB is proud to have developed a close working relationship with these grassroots organizations and looks upon them as key partners for its future work in the country.

In recent months, the ADB has taken two major steps designed to substantially expand and deepen its serious engagement with NGOs. In early May, it adopted a new framework designed to strengthen nongovernmental participation in ADB activities, train ADB staff on how to work effectively with civil society organizations, and also provide training for public officials in member countries to improve government-NGO cooperation.

The way the framework was designed illustrates the value the ADB puts on cooperation and the sharing of ideas. The action plan is the result of consultations and discussions with over 500 representatives of civil society organizations, governments, the private sector and ADB staff held at 14 workshops around Asia and in Australia.

In early June, the ADB approved a new US$500,000 grant fund to help NGOs design and carry out innovative projects aimed at reducing poverty and improving cooperation between these groups, governments and the ADB. This fund is seen as the first step in developing a long-term mechanism for direct financing of NGO initiatives targeting the poor.

Asia and the Pacific have made huge strides forward in recent decades. In the early 1970s, more than half the population of the region was poor, average life expectancy was 48 years, and only 40 percent of adults could read and write. Today, the percentage of poor people has fallen to about one-third of the population, life expectancy has increased to 65 years, and about 70 percent of adults are literate.

This is real progress representing concrete improvements in hundreds of millions of peoples' lives. But there is still an immense amount of work to be done. A quick walk through Makati City gives a clear picture of the progress achieved in the Philippines. But a walk through Manila's Tondo district just as clearly highlights the challenges we all still face.

The Asian Development Bank is determined to fight poverty and to work steadfastly toward a better future for the Philippines and the rest of Asia and the Pacific. And in doing so, it will continue its close collaboration with any group that can help it achieve these essential goals.

The writer is the Asian Development Bank's acting country director for the Philippines.