In the last 20 years, rapid economic growth in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) has reduced poverty and brought prosperity to many of its 420 million people.
Much of the growth has relied on natural resources, which generate up to half of the total wealth in some GMS countries.
But the “grow-now-clean-up-later” approach has worsened environmental degradation due to air, water and soil pollution, deforestation, overuse of natural resources and production of vast quantities of waste.
All six GMS countries—Cambodia, the People’s Republic of China (PRC, specifically, Yunnan province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region), Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Thailand, and Viet Nam—have improved their management of natural resources and ecosystem services.
For example, all are shifting from using fossil fuels for energy. The PRC is phasing out coal plants and generating far more energy from renewable sources such as wind, solar and water than any other country. Thailand has the largest solar capacity in Southeast Asia.
In 2006, the Core Environment Program (CEP) was launched under the GMS Economic Cooperation Program administered by ADB.
The CEP has so far invested $50 million to help GMS countries improve environmental policies and planning processes, build climate resilience and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from freight transport.
It has also raised $98 million for biodiversity conservation and helped create 2.6 million hectares of biodiversity corridors.
Still, much more needs to be done. We have yet to turn the tide on environmental degradation and pollution. A changing climate makes that challenge even harder.
Technology holds the key. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is already underway. Artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning, robotics, nanotechnologies and other exciting advances are rapidly reshaping economies and communities.
Their emergence makes it more important than ever that GMS countries ensure their policies not only keep pace with technological developments, but encourage them.
Emerging technologies can help ensure that future growth is “green” – a win-win for the environment and the economy. These technologies are more affordable and many green policies will eventually pay for themselves.
They are cleaner and help countries use natural resources, including land, water and energy, more efficiently. The result will be more sustainable infrastructure, reduced pollution and better waste management.
For example, recent advances have reduced the price gap between renewable and fossil fuel-derived energy, making renewables more competitive. Localized renewable energy mini-grids and enhanced battery capacity have proven more effective in delivering electricity than large power distribution networks requiring large capital investments and higher maintenance costs.
Modern communications can now reach remote areas at relatively low cost, connecting communities with services and producers with customers. Many small- and medium-sized enterprises in the GMS which lacked access to finance and markets can now trade in regional markets and receive electronic payments.
New and emerging technologies are already improving environmental management. Drones, remote sensing and WebGIS systems are being used to ensure fishery and forestry activities are sustainable.
In Viet Nam, plans to scale nationally a WebGIS platform for forest monitoring will better protect millions of hectares of important forest areas.
Farm management software is being applied in countries including the PRC and Myanmar to improve productivity through efficient use of land and water. Early warning and simulation data analytics, based on information from satellites and drones, is making communities better prepared for disaster.
New bioengineering techniques are climate proofing infrastructure and protecting local communities in Viet Nam and elsewhere.
Waste and pollution—byproducts of the subregion’s rapidly expanding cities—can be tackled by electric vehicles, fuel-efficient technologies and automated traffic management systems, which also help countries achieve their greenhouse gas reduction targets.
Technologies to transform solid waste into usable energy sources are advancing rapidly and will help clean up the subregion’s urban centers, reduce pollution and mitigate climate change.
The challenge facing GMS countries is how to scale up the emerging technologies that meet their development priorities. Private sector involvement and financing will be crucial.
But governments can pave the way by ensuring their policies and regulations encourage innovation and welcome technological change.
Technology isn’t the only ingredient of green growth. More traditional approaches such as biodiversity conservation and environmental governance must also be scaled up and enhanced.
The traditional and the technological can go hand in hand as the GMS shifts toward cleaner, greener growth. The GMS Core Environment Program will play an important role under its new five-year strategy that has prepared a pipeline of environmental projects and prioritized two regional green growth investment projects totaling $540 million.
It is also creating a new marketplace for the exchange of ideas and expertise on green practices and technologies.
By working together, the subregion and its development partners can build even greater prosperity at reduced cost to the environment.
First published in ADB
Asia Needs a Region-Wide Approach to Harness Fintech’s Full Potential
Asia’s policy makers should strengthen cooperation to harness the potential of new financial technologies for inclusive growth. At the same time, they should work together to ensure they can respond better to the challenges posed by fintech.
New technologies such as mobile banking, big data, and peer-to-peer transfer networks are already extending the reach of financial services to those who were previously unbanked or out of reach, boosting incomes and living standards. Yet, fintech also comes with the risk of cyber fraud, data security, and privacy breaches. Disintermediation of fintech services or concentration of services among a few providers could also pose a risk to financial stability.
These and other issues were discussed at the High-Level Policy Dialogue on Regional Cooperation to Support Innovation, Inclusion, and Stability in Asia, organized by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Bank Indonesia, and the ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office (AMRO).
The panel comprised Ms. Neav Chanthana, Deputy Governor of the National Bank of Cambodia; Mr. Diwa Guinigundo, Deputy Governor of Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas; Ms. Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President and Chief Executive Officer of Women’s World Banking; Mr. Ravi Menon, Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore; Mr. Takehiko Nakao, President of ADB; Mr. Abdul Rasheed, Deputy Governor, Bank Negara Malaysia, and Mr. Veerathai Santiprabhob, Governor of the Bank of Thailand. Mr. Mirza Adityaswara, Senior Deputy Governor of Bank Indonesia, gave the opening remarks at the conference and Ms. Junhong Chang, Director of AMRO, gave the welcome remarks.
“Rapidly spreading new financial technologies hold huge promise for financial inclusion,” said Mr. Nakao. “We must foster an enabling environment for the technologies to flourish and strengthen regional cooperation to build harmonized regulatory standards and surveillance systems to prevent international money laundering, terrorism financing, and cybercrimes.”
“Technology is an enabler that weaves our economies and financial systems together, transmitting benefits but also risks across borders,” said Ms. Chang. “Given East Asia’s rapid economic growth, understanding and managing the impact of technology in our financial systems is essential for policymakers to maintain financial stability.”
“Asia, including Indonesia, is an ideal place for fintech to flourish,” said Mr. Adityaswara. “In Indonesia’s case, there are more than a quarter of a billion people living on thousand of islands, waiting to be integrated with the new technology; young people eager to enter the future digital world; more than fifty million small and medium-sized enterprises which can’t wait to get on board with e-commerce; a new society driven by a dynamic, democratic middle class which views the digital economy as something as inevitable as evolution.”
Despite Asia’s high economic growth in recent years, the financial sector is still under-developed in some countries. Fewer than 27% of adults in developing Asia have a bank account, well below the global median of 38%. Meanwhile, just 84% of firms have a checking or savings account, on a par with Africa but below Latin America’s 89% and emerging Europe’s 92%.
Financial inclusion could be increased through policies to promote financial innovation, by boosting financial literacy, and by expanding and upgrading digital infrastructure and networks. Regulations to prevent illegal activities, enhance cyber security, and protect consumers’ rights and privacy, would also build confidence in new financial technologies.
Cutting-edge tech a ‘double-edged sword for developing countries’
The latest technological advances, from artificial intelligence to electric cars, can be a “double-edged sword”, says the latest UN World Economic and Social Survey (WESS 2018), released on Monday.
The over-riding message of the report is that appropriate, effective policies are essential, if so-called “frontier technologies” are to change the world for the better, helping us to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and addressing climate change: without good policy, they risk exacerbating existing inequality.
Amongst several positive indicators, WESS 2018 found that the energy sector is becoming more sustainable, with renewable energy technology and efficient energy storage systems giving countries the opportunity to “leapfrog” existing, often fossil fuel-based solutions.
The wellbeing of the most vulnerable is being enhanced through greater access to medicines, and millions in developing countries now have access to low-cost financial services via their mobile phones.
Referring to the report, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that “good health and longevity, prosperity for all and environmental sustainability are within our reach if we harness the full power of these innovations.”
However, the UN chief warned of the importance of properly managing the use of new technologies, to ensure there is a net benefit to society: the report demonstrates that unmanaged implementation of developments such as artificial intelligence and automation can improve efficiency but also destroy quality jobs.
“Clearly, we need policies that can ensure frontier technologies are not only commercially viable but also equitable and ethical. This will require a rigorous, objective and transparent ongoing assessment, involving all stakeholders,” Mr. Guterres added
The Survey says that proactive and effective policies can help countries to avoid pitfalls and minimize the economic and social costs of technology-related disruption. It calls for regulation and institutions that promote innovation, and the use of new technologies for sustainable development.
With digital technology frequently crossing borders, international cooperation, the Survey shows, is needed to bring about harmonized standards, greater flexibility in the area of intellectual property rights and ensuring that the market does not remain dominated by a tiny number of extremely powerful companies.
Here, the UN has a vital role to play, by providing an objective assessment of the impact that emerging technologies have on sustainable development outcomes – including their effects on employment, wages and income distribution – and bringing together people, business and organizations from across the world to build strong consensus-led agreements.
Our Trust Deficit with Artifical Intelligence Has Only Just Started
“We suffer from a bad case of trust-deficit disorder,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres in his recent General Assembly speech. His diagnosis is right, and his focus on new technological developments underscores their crucial role shaping the future global political order. Indeed, artificial intelligence (AI) is poised to deepen the trust-deficit across the world.
The Secretary-General, echoing his recently released Strategy on New Technologies, repeatedly referenced rapidly developing fields of technology in his speech, rightly calling for greater cooperation between countries and among stakeholders, as well as for more diversity in the technology sector. His trust-deficit diagnosis reflects the urgent need to build a new social license and develop incentives to ensure that technological innovation, in particular AI, is deployed safely and aligned with the public interest.
However, AI-driven technologies do not easily fit into today’s models of international cooperation, and will in fact tend to undermine rather than enforce global governance mechanisms. Looking at three trends in AI, the UN faces an enormous set of interrelated challenges.
AI and Reality
First, AI is a potentially dominating technology whose powerful – both positive and negative –implications will be increasingly difficult to isolate and contain. Engineers design learning algorithms with a specific set of predictive and optimizing functions that can be used to both empower or control populations. Without sophisticated fail-safe protocols, the potential for misuse or weaponization of AI is pervasive and can be difficult to anticipate.
Take Deepfake as an example. Sophisticated AI programs can now manipulate sounds, images and videos, creating impersonations that are often impossible to distinguish from the original. Deep-learning algorithms can, with surprising accuracy, read human lips, synthetize speech, and to some extent simulate facial expressions. Once released outside of the lab, such simulations could easily be misused with wide-ranging impacts (indeed, this is already happening at a low level). On the eve of an election, Deepfake videos could falsely portray public officials being involved in money-laundering or human rights abuses; public panic could be sowed by videos warning of non-existent epidemics or cyberattacks; forged incidents could potentially lead to international escalation.
The capacity of a range of actors to influence public opinion with misleading simulations could have powerful long-term implications for the UN’s role in peace and security. By eroding the sense of trust and truth between citizens and the state—and indeed amongst states—truly fake news could be deeply corrosive to our global governance system.
AI Reading Us
Second, AI is already connecting and converging with a range of other technologies—including biotech—with significant implications for global security. AI systems around the world are trained to predict various aspects of our daily lives by making sense of massive data sets, such as cities’ traffic patterns, financial markets, consumer behaviour trend data, health records and even our genomes.
These AI technologies are increasingly able to harness our behavioural and biological data in innovative and often manipulative ways, with implications for all of us. For example, the My Friend Cayla smart doll sends voice and emotion data of the children who play with it to the cloud, which led to a US Federal Trade Commission complaint and its ban in Germany. In the US, emotional analysis is already being used in the courtroom to detect remorse in deposition videos. It could soon be part of job interviews to assess candidates’ responses and their fitness for a job.
The ability of AI to intrude upon—and potentially control—private human behaviour has direct implications for the UN’s human rights agenda. New forms of social and bio-control could in fact require a reimagining of the framework currently in place to monitor and implement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and will certainly require the multilateral system to better anticipate and understand this quickly emerging field.
AI as a Conflict Theatre
Finally, the ability of AI-driven technologies to influence large populations is of such immediate and overriding value that it is almost certain to be the theatre for future conflicts. There is a very real prospect of a “cyber race” in which powerful nations and large technology platforms enter into open competition for our collective data as the fuel to generate economic, medical and security supremacy across the globe. Forms of “cyber-colonization” are increasingly likely, as powerful states are able to harness AI and biotech together to understand and potentially control other countries’ populations and ecosystems.
Towards Global Governance of AI
Politically, legally and ethically, our societies are not prepared for the deployment of AI. The UN, established many decades before the emergence of these technologies, is in many ways poorly placed to develop the kind of responsible governance that will channel AI’s potential away from these risks and towards our collective safety and wellbeing. In fact, the resurgence of nationalist agendas across the world may point to a dwindling capacity of the multilateral system to play a meaningful role in the global governance of AI. Major corporations and powerful member states may see little value in bringing multilateral approaches to bear on what they consider lucrative and proprietary technologies.
There are, however, some important ways in which the UN can help build the kind of collaborative, transparent networks that may begin to treat our “trust-deficit disorder.” The Secretary-General’s recently-launched High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, is already working to build a collaborative partnership with the private sector and establish a common approach to new technologies. Such an initiative could eventually find ways to reward cooperation over competition, and to put in place common commitments to using AI-driven technologies for the public good.
Perhaps the most important challenge for the UN in this context is one of relevance, of re-establishing a sense of trust in the multilateral system. But if the above trends tell us anything, it is that AI-driven technologies are an issue for every individual and every state, and that without collective, collaborative forms of governance, there is a real risk that it will be a force that undermines global stability.
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