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Smarter Food Policy Could Boost Health and Economic Recovery of Asian Cities

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Across the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical importance of reliable food systems that provide healthy and affordable diets to all. That is true also in Asia where cities, large and small, contend with a wide range of food-related issues on a daily basis but often lack a dedicated or coherent set of food policies.

Arguing that food systems are central to the topmost priorities of Asian cities, from nurturing jobs and businesses that are core to a city’s identity to managing waste and congestion, a new World Bank book calls for cities to “get smart to get RICH”—that is, to pursue policies that foster reliable, inclusive, competitive, and healthy (“RICH”) food systems that are better aligned with cities’ contemporary challenges and aspirations.

RICH Food, Smart City seeks to put food on the menu of urban decision-makers in Asia to generate positive feedback loops between healthy people, a healthy planet, and healthy economies,” said Martien van Nieuwkoop, Global Director of Agriculture and Food, World Bank. 

Based on the first systematic survey of urban food policies in 170 Asian cities in 21 countries, undertaken in partnership with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the study finds that only 8% of surveyed cities are “food-smart”—intervening in the food system in ways that are forward-looking, holistic, and inclusive. Nearly three-fourths are either at an early stage of effective engagement or fully in reactive mode, responding to problems as they emerge. A reactive approach could prove very costly, both in terms of realized risks and missed opportunities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has served to highlight the essential functions of urban food supply chains and businesses and the vulnerability of urban populations to food insecurity. Even before lockdowns and other responses to the pandemic impacted people’s purchasing power and disrupted supply chains, many residents of cities, especially low-income ones, faced challenges accessing safe, affordable, and nutritious food. In 2016, some 23 percent of urban residents in emerging Asia surveyed by the FAO reported being food insecure. Chronic malnutrition is similarly widespread. More than one-quarter of children under five are stunted in urban Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Lao PDR, Nepal, and Pakistan, indicating that shortcomings in urban food systems could curtail the economic prospects of many Asian cities and their youngest generation.

Moving from a reactive approach to a more proactive management of food systems holds considerable promise for urban policy makers wishing to make progress on issues that matter to citizens, from food safety and affordability to good health, job opportunities, freedom from pollution and congestion, prosperity, and livability. Asia’s growing middle class and its demand for higher quality, more diverse, and convenient foods also provides enormous business, employment and revenue-raising opportunities for cities.

However, risks associated with urban food systems and changing demand patterns will need to be managed carefully. These include risks related to disease, biosafety, and environmental degradation. In 2017, the proportion of deaths attributed to dietary risks reached 30 percent in East Asia, 22 percent in Southeast Asia, and 19 percent in South Asia, according to the Global Burden of Disease. Overweight and obesity levels are growing nationally, and obesity prevalence tends to be three or four times higher in urban areas than in rural ones.

Many cities in emerging Asia are national if not international ‘hotspots’ for biosecurity and food safety risks, food waste, and the accumulation of plastic packaging waste. The rapid encroachment of cities into natural ecosystems and peri-urban cropland also raises risks to cities’ fresh food supply. Well-informed urban leadership is much needed to turn these urban, national, and even broader food system challenges around.

RICH Food, Smart City argues that city leaders and planners have a key role to play in molding the future trajectory of food systems and offers many examples of how they might do so. The study addresses cities of different sizes and resource levels, presents a menu of potential solutions, and provides concrete illustrations of the many policies and programs that Asia’s cities can learn from and implement to improve food system outcomes. For example,

  • Measures to protect peri-urban cropland and develop short supply chain marketing channels can sustain a critical source of fresh produce to cities, contributing to urban productivity, resilience, and circular economies.
  • Investments in upgrading community markets that provide fresh food can help ensure more equitable access to nutrition and reduce the incidence of foodborne and chronic illness.
  • Neighborhood food loss and waste partnerships and initiatives can support waste prevention, secondary food use, composting, and the bioeconomy.
  • Institutional food procurement and marketing standards, paired with technical support to food businesses, can exert significant influence over food markets and dietary patterns in ways that support public health and welfare, the environment, and local economies.

With their power to influence the uses of space and the built environment, to regulate and stimulate private enterprise, and to shape public service delivery, cities’ embrace of food policy can be game-changing, according to the book.

“Municipal leaders are uniquely placed to develop and pursue integrated food policies that respond to citizens’ needs and boost cities’ overall resilience” said Gayatri Acharya, study co-author and Lead Economist, World Bank. “We hope this study will inspire them to seek ambitious solutions for sustainable and healthy food systems that improve the welfare of urban populations.”

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Post-COVID-19, regaining citizen’s trust should be a priority for governments

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The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated governments’ ability to respond to a major global crisis with extraordinary flexibility, innovation and determination. However, emerging evidence suggests that much more could have been done in advance to bolster resilience and many actions may have undermined trust and transparency between governments and their citizens, according to a new OECD report.

Government at a Glance 2021 says that one of the biggest lessons of the pandemic is that governments will need to respond to future crises at speed and scale while safeguarding trust and transparency. “Looking forward, we must focus simultaneously on promoting the economic recovery and avoiding democratic decline” said OECD Director of Public Governance Elsa Pilichowski. “Reinforcing democracy should be one of our highest priorities.”

 Countries have introduced thousands of emergency regulations, often on a fast track. Some alleviation of standards is inevitable in an emergency, but must be limited in scope and time to avoid damaging citizen perceptions of the competence, openness, transparency, and fairness of government.

 Governments should step up their efforts in three areas to boost trust and transparency and reinforce democracy:

 Tackling misinformation is key. Even with a boost in trust in government sparked by the pandemic in 2020, on average only 51% of people in OECD countries for which data is available trusted their government. There is a risk that some people and groups may be dissociating themselves from traditional democratic processes.

 It is crucial to enhance representation and participation in a fair and transparent manner. Governments must seek to promote inclusion and diversity, support the representation of young people, women and other under-represented groups in public life and policy consultation. Fine-tuning consultation and engagement practices could improve transparency and trust in public institutions, says the report. Governments must also level the playing field in lobbying. Less than half of countries have transparency requirements covering most of the actors that regularly engage in lobbying.

 Strengthening governance must be prioritised to tackle global challenges while harnessing the potential of new technologies. In 2018, only half of OECD countries had a specific government institution tasked with identifying novel, unforeseen or complex crises. To be fit for the future, and secure the foundations of democracy, governments must be ready to act at speed and scale while safeguarding trust and transparency.

 Governments must also learn to spend better, according to Government at a Glance 2021. OECD countries are providing large amounts of support to citizens and businesses during this crisis: measures ongoing or announced as of March 2021 represented, roughly, 16.4% of GDP in additional spending or foregone revenues, and up to 10.5% of GDP via other means. Governments will need to review public spending to increase efficiency, ensure that spending priorities match people’s needs, and improve the quality of public services.

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Sweden: Invest in skills and the digital economy to bolster the recovery from COVID-19

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Sweden’s economy is on the road to recovery from the shock of the COVID-19 crisis, yet risks remain. Moving ahead with a labour reform to facilitate adaptation in a fast-changing economic environment, and investing in digital skills and infrastructure, will be crucial to revive employment and build a sustainable recovery, according to the latest OECD Economic Survey of Sweden.

The pandemic triggered a severe recession in Sweden, despite mild distancing measures and swift government action to protect people and businesses. GDP fell by less than in many other European economies in 2020, thanks to reinforced short-time work, compensation to firms for lost revenue and measures to prop up the financial system, but unemployment still rose sharply. Solid public finances provided room for further stimulus in 2021 to buttress the recovery.

 The Survey recommends maintaining targeted support to people and firms until the pandemic subsides, then focusing on strengthening vocational training and skills and increasing investment in areas like high-speed internet and low-carbon transport. Addressing regional inequality, which is low but rising, should also be a priority as the recovery takes hold.

 The Survey shows that Sweden has been among the most resilient OECD countries in the face of a historic shock. Yet, like other economies, it faces challenges from demographic changes and the shift to green, digital economies. Investments in education and training, and labour reforms along the lines negotiated by the social partners, will support job creation and strengthen economic resilience. Building on Sweden’s leadership in digital innovation and diffusion will also be key for driving productivity.

 After a 3% contraction in 2020, interrupting several years of growth, the Survey projects a rebound in activity with 3.9% growth in 2021 and 3.4% in 2022 as industrial production resumes and exports recover. The recovery in world trade is bolstering the Swedish economy, however the country remains vulnerable to potential disruptions in global value chains.  

The pandemic has aggravated a mismatch in Sweden’s job market, with unfilled vacancies for highly qualified workers coinciding with high unemployment for low-skilled workers and immigrants. The public employment service needs strengthening to provide better support to jobseekers, including immigrants and women, and labour policies should strike the right balance between supporting businesses and workers and supporting transitions away from declining businesses towards growing sectors.

A rising share of youths and older people in the population, especially in remote areas, is affecting the finances of local governments, which provide the bulk of welfare services. Strengthening local government budgets and ensuring equal welfare provision across the country will require providing tax income to poorer regions more efficiently and raising the economic growth potential across regions through investments in innovation. Improving coordination between government entities and reinforcing the role of universities in local economic networks would help achieve that aim.

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Fewer women than men will regain work during COVID-19 recovery

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Generations of progress stands to be lost on women and girls' empowerment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: ILO

Fewer women will regain jobs lost to the COVID-19 pandemic during the recovery period, than men, according to a new study released on Monday by the UN’s labour agency.  

In Building Forward Fairer: Women’s rights to work and at work at the core of the COVID-19 recovery, the International Labour Organization (ILO) highlights that between 2019 and 2020, women’s employment declined by 4.2 per cent globally, representing 54 million jobs, while men suffered a three per cent decline, or 60 million jobs. 

This means that there will be 13 million fewer women in employment this year compared to 2019, but the number of men in work will likely recover to levels seen two years ago. 

This means that only 43 per cent of the world’s working-age women will be employed in 2021, compared to 69 per cent of their male counterparts. 

The ILO paper suggests that women have seen disproportionate job and income losses because they are over-represented in the sectors hit hardest by lockdowns, such as accommodation, food services and manufacturing. 

Regional differences 

Not all regions have been affected in the same way. For example, the study revealed that women’s employment was hit hardest in the Americas, falling by more than nine per cent.  

This was followed by the Arab States at just over four per cent, then Asia-Pacific at 3.8 per cent, Europe at 2.5 per cent and Central Asia at 1.9 per cent. 

In Africa, men’s employment dropped by just 0.1 per cent between 2019 and 2020, while women’s employment decreased by 1.9 per cent. 

Mitigation efforts 

Throughout the pandemic, women faired considerably better in countries that took measures to prevent them from losing their jobs and allowed them to get back into the workforce as early as possible. 

In Chile and Colombia, for example, wage subsidies were applied to new hires, with higher subsidy rates for women.  

And Colombia and Senegal were among those nations which created or strengthened support for women entrepreneurs.  

Meanwhile, in Mexico and Kenya quotas were established to guarantee that women benefited from public employment programmes. 

Building forward 

To address these imbalances, gender-responsive strategies must be at the core of recovery efforts, says the agency. 

It is essential to invest in the care economy because the health, social work and education sectors are important job generators, especially for women, according to ILO. 

Moreover, care leave policies and flexible working arrangements can also encourage a more even division of work at home between women and men. 

The current gender gap can also be tackled by working towards universal access to comprehensive, adequate and sustainable social protection. 

Promoting equal pay for work of equal value is also a potentially decisive and important step. 

Domestic violence and work-related gender-based violence and harassment has worsened during the pandemic – further undermining women’s ability to be in the workforce – and the report highlights the need to eliminate the scourge immediately. 

Promoting women’s participation in decision-making bodies, and more effective social dialogue, would also make a major difference, said ILO. 

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