The countries of developing East Asia and Pacific – among the most successful in the world in reducing poverty and improving living standards – need to adopt a new thinking if they are to achieve inclusive growth going forward.
Growth that is inclusive – one that reduces poverty while providing upward mobility and economic security for all – will require countries to go beyond its successful “growth with equity” model, reports Riding the Wave: An East Asian Miracle for the 21st Century. Prospects for upward mobility are seen as increasingly elusive, reflecting a sense that income and wealth are becoming more concentrated while access to basic social services remains limited and often of poor quality. Achieving economic security for all is more difficult, particularly as the region faces newer challenges: rapid aging, less certain growth prospects, and greater urbanization.
Inequality is a growing concern to citizens across the region. Over 90 percent in China and over half in the Philippines think that income differences in their countries are too large. In Indonesia, almost 90 percent of the population thinks it is urgent to address inequality, while eight in ten urban residents of Vietnam worry about disparities in living standards.
“It’s a historic achievement that nearly a billion people in East Asia moved out of extreme poverty in just one generation,” said Victoria Kwakwa, World Bank Vice President for East Asia and the Pacific. “But for the region to sustain inclusive growth, countries will need to address the challenges of fully eliminating extreme poverty, enhancing the prospects for economic mobility, and assuring economic security for all.”
The region has transformed from being comprised of mostly poor countries in the 1980s to a group of middle-income countries made up of varying economic classes. By 2015, almost two-thirds of the region’s population were either economically secure or middle class – up from 20 percent in 2002.
The share of the extreme and moderate poor has fallen dramatically, from almost half the population in 2002 to less than an eighth in 2015. But the percentage of individuals vulnerable to falling back into poverty – those who live with US$3.10 to US$5.50 a day – has remained constant between 2002 and 2015, at about a quarter of the population.
Policies for inclusive growth need to recognize and address the varying constraints faced by different economic classes. Policies for the remaining extreme poor need to ease their barriers accessing economic opportunities, as well as sustain broad-based growth, so as to help them move up the income ladder. Access to services such as healthcare and infrastructure, as well as mechanisms to manage risks, will need to be improved to help the economically vulnerable. The priority for the economically secure and the middle class is to improve the provision and quality of public services, such as housing, water and sanitation.
Three pillars can underpin the policy agenda. The first – fostering economic mobility – requires closing gaps in access to jobs and services, improving the quality of jobs, and promoting financial inclusion. The second pillar — providing greater economic security — includes bolstering social assistance systems, expanding social insurance, and increasing resilience to shocks. Strengthening institutions is the third pillar, and includes progressive taxation policies to raise resources and improvements in the effectiveness of inclusive spending programs. Better management of rapid aging and urbanization as well as enhancing competition will also help.
“The policy agenda for inclusive growth can constitute a new social contract for governments across the region,” said Sudhir Shetty, World Bank Chief Economist for the East Asia and Pacific region. “Its elements would address the needs of each economic class while remaining fiscally responsible and raising revenues in an efficient and equitable manner.”
The report uses a five-part grouping of countries and recommends tailored policies for each. Malaysia, and Thailand – ‘Progressive Prosperity’ countries that have largely eliminated extreme poverty and fostered a large middle class – can prioritize meeting the growing aspirations of the middle classes while mobilizing and using resources to address remaining disparities. China and Vietnam – ‘Out-of-poverty-into-prosperity’ countries with large swaths of their populations now economically secure or middle class – should also address the aspirations of their middle classes as well as the needs of their vulnerable populations, while also preparing for rapid aging.
Indonesia, the Philippines, and Cambodia, are described as ‘Out-of-extreme-poverty’ countries which have low levels of extreme poverty but also still small middle classes; they can prioritize improving economic mobility and integrating social protection programs. ‘Lagging progress’ countries such as Lao PDR and Papua New Guinea, with still high levels of extreme poverty, can strive to reduce poverty more quickly by investing in basic education and promoting financial inclusion while also strengthening social assistance and resilience. The Pacific Island countries are distinct and will need to focus their policies on exploiting existing economic opportunities such as tourism and fishing, leveraging labor migration opportunities, and investing in disaster mitigation and prevention.
Developing East Asia has led the world in showing how rapid and broadly shared growth can lift millions out of poverty. With these policies, countries across the region can effectively confront the new challenges they now face and achieve inclusive growth.