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SOC/4876
13 February 2019
Fifty-seventh Session, 6th & 7th Meetings (AM & PM)

Impact of Natural Disasters Increasingly Affecting Those Most Vulnerable, Speakers Say as Commission for Social Development Continues Session

Around the globe, more frequent disasters — both natural and human-wrought — are increasingly affecting society’s most vulnerable members and hindering efforts to eradicate poverty, said expert panellists today as the Commission on Social Development continued its work.

As representatives of Governments, civil society groups and advocacy organizations gathered to address the priority theme “The empowerment of people affected by natural and human-made disasters to reduce inequality”, they considered a range of disasters proliferating around the world — from violent storms to collapsed infrastructure to conflicts and forced migration.  Speakers focused on the special needs of youth and older people in disasters, as well as the estimated 1 billion people with disabilities around the world.

Opening the segment, moderator Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo, Global Disability Adviser at the World Bank Group, said that while all people face the threat of disaster, one’s real risk is often determined by social factors.  More than 350 million people are impacted by disasters and conflicts each year, she said, warning that their impacts — especially on vulnerable groups — can affect the ability of States to achieve the goals enshrined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson, President of the AARP Foundation, noted that after Hurricane Katrina struck the United States city of New Orleans in 2005 nearly three quarters of those who died were over age 60.  Following Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017, the median age of adults who stayed behind or died was 50.  Noting that the populations of many countries are ageing — and that globally the number of people over age 60 is expected to surpass 2 billion by 2050 — she called for a range of policy responses to protect older persons and poor communities.

Mesbah Ansari Dogaheh, Head of Office for Social Development, Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Iran, said States parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities are obligated to ensure safety before, during and after disasters.  Spotlighting good practices, he cited evacuation procedures during Japan’s 2011 earthquake and typhoon, and the robust support provided by disability-focused non-governmental groups after a 2017 earthquake in Iran.

Meanwhile, Mosharraf Hossain, Director of Global Policy, Influencing and Research, in the Action on Disability and Development International, described action on the ground following a cyclone in Bangladesh, which left many people with disabilities confined to their homes.  Disability organizations visited from residence to residence and later successfully advocated the Government to adopt new accessibility policies.  However, “there is a long way to go”, especially as Bangladesh now also hosts the world’s largest refugee operation following an exodus of Rohingyas from neighbouring Myanmar.

Marcie Roth, President and CEO of Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, said the rates of disability could be significantly higher than the current global estimate of 15 per cent of the population.  Meanwhile, persons with disabilities are two to four times more likely to be injured or die in the case of a disaster.  Underscoring that the unique knowledge and leadership skills of people with disabilities are critical to adequate disaster responses, she called for more disaggregated data, better indicators and efforts to reduce barriers and stigma.

During the ensuing interactive dialogue, delegates and discussants described policy responses — both successful and less so — to natural and human-made disasters.  Some delegates also outlined broader policies, including development and humanitarian assistance, aimed at boosting countries’ ability to develop inclusive risk reduction plans.

In the afternoon, the Commission held an interactive dialogue with senior United Nations officials on its priority theme for 2019, namely, “Addressing inequalities and challenges to social inclusion through fiscal, wage and social protection policies”.

The Commission will reconvene at 10 a.m. Thursday, 14 February, to continue its work.

Panel Discussion

This morning, the Commission convened a high-level panel on the theme, “The empowerment of people affected by natural and human-made disasters to reduce inequality:  Addressing the differential impact on persons with disabilities, older persons and youth”.  Moderated by Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo, Global Disability Adviser at the World Bank Group’s Social, Urban, Rural and Resilience Global Practice, it featured the following panellists:  Mesbah Ansari Dogaheh, Head of Office for Social Development, Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Iran; Mosharraf Hossain, Director of Global Policy, Influencing and Research, in the Action on Disability and Development International; Marcie Roth, President and CEO of Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies; and Lisa Marsh Ryerson, President of the AARP Foundation.

Two lead discussants also participated.  They were Abdullah Eren, Chief Adviser to the President of Turkey and Director of the Turkish Agency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities; and Jolly Amatya, member of the National Youth Council of Nepal, Executive Director of the Sustainable Fish Farming Initiative and representative of the United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth.

Opening the segment, Ms. MCCLAIN-NHLAPO said today’s topic reflects the importance of further exploring the impact of disasters on vulnerable groups, as well as the related role played by social policies.  “Globally, we are increasingly witnessing the frequent occurrence of natural and man-made disasters,” she said, adding that more than 350 million people are impacted by disasters and conflicts each year.  While all populations face the risk of exposure, one’s real risk is often determined by social factors.  Meanwhile, the impact of disasters — especially on vulnerable groups — impacts the ability of States to achieve the goals enshrined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Mr. DOGAHEH, exploring “how disability-inclusive we are before, during and after an emergency”, outlined some of the responsibilities borne by States parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  Those include ensuring their safety in disasters.  While the 2015 Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction called for disability-inclusive risk reduction strategies, that framework “is not yet a toolbox for concrete practices”, and persons with psychosocial and mental disabilities are most exposed to risk.  Spotlighting good practices, he cited Japan’s 2011 earthquake and typhoon — during which persons with disabilities were evacuated first — and Iran’s 2017 earthquake when disability-focused non-governmental organizations provided support on the ground.  However, global surveys find that persons with disabilities largely lack disaster preparation knowledge and remain excluded from most disaster risk plans.

Mr. HOSSAIN stressed that all disaster risk reduction and humanitarian strategies must be inclusive of the world’s 1 billion persons with disabilities.  That population often has lower coping capacities and is excluded from preparation programmes, he said, sharing his own experience as head of a disability rights organization in Bangladesh.  After a cyclone there — when persons with disabilities became confined in their homes — the organization visited from home to home and later successfully advocated the Government to adopt new accessibility policies.  However, “there is a long way to go”, especially as Bangladesh now also hosts the world’s largest refugee operation following an exodus of Rohingyas from neighbouring Myanmar.  The rights of persons with disabilities living in those refugee camps must be fully respected, he stressed, also calling for an inclusive, “bottom-up approach” developed with the meaningful participation of persons with disabilities.

Ms. ROTH said recent research shows that one in four people in the United States has a disability — higher than the global estimate of 15 per cent.  Warning against reducing disability to a simple label, she said the term can refer to older persons, children and youth and other factors that lead people to require additional support.  The Sendai Framework recognizes that women and persons with disabilities are not only disproportionately impacted by disasters, but that their knowledge and leadership skills are critical to an adequate disaster response.  However, major gaps currently exist, including a lack of disaggregated data, inadequate indicators and persistent stigma and institutional barriers.  Indeed, she said, persons with disabilities are two to four times more likely to be injured or die in the case of a disaster.

Ms. RYERSON noted that nearly three quarters of the deaths following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 were among people over age 60.  Following Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017, the median age of adults who stayed behind or died was 50 years old and mortality rates were highest for the oldest, poorest residents.  Noting that the populations of many countries are ageing — and that globally the number of people over the age of 60 is expected to surpass 2 billion by 2050 — she said that in the United States, people over 65 will outnumber children by 2035.  Governments play a critical role in pre-disaster mitigation and post-disaster recovery, but philanthropy is also important and broad efforts are required to establish long-term resilience.  Outlining AARP Foundation’s work to help inform a range of policy discussions, she emphasized that poverty exacerbates the risks faced by older persons and that the poorest communities are often the hardest hit.

Mr. EREN outlined Turkey’s experience providing support to some 4 million Syrians fleeing their country’s conflict.  Noting that those most impacted are children, youth and older persons, he said the country seeks to leave no one behind, including those with disabilities.  “The protection of these 4 million people has never been part of a political campaign” and is purely humanitarian in nature, he stressed, describing Turkey’s open-door policy and especially the work of its education agency.  “We cannot be spectators to nations and communities losing their livelihoods and their future due to inhumane actions, nor can we be unresponsive to the needs of disadvantaged communities and persons around the world,” he said.

Ms. AMATYA, describing the work of the Sendai Stakeholders Children and Youth Group, said it works to facilitate the active engagement of young people in all disaster risk reduction activities at the United Nations.  The Group is particularly motivated by emerging issues, such as protracted disasters, emergencies yet to be noticed and the “symptoms of an unsustainable world”, she said, agreeing with other speakers that there is a long way to go towards realizing the principles of the Sendai Framework.  Recalling that her home country of Nepal was struck by a massive earthquake in 2015 — with some 8 million people affected — she said information and communications technology (ICT) deployed by young people became a vital means of overcoming communication barriers in its aftermath.  For example, a Global Position System (GPS) mapping tool helped to expedite relief efforts.

As the floor was opened for questions and comments, speakers recounted national experiences with natural and human-made disasters, ranging from storms to earthquakes to war.  Agreeing with the panellists that the poorest, oldest, youngest and most vulnerable citizens are the most exposed to risk, they outlined strategies that worked — or did not work — to meet their special needs.  Some delegates also outlined broader policies, including development and humanitarian assistance, aimed at boosting countries’ ability to develop inclusive risk reduction plans.

For example, Brazil’s delegate recalled that just weeks ago a massive dam collapsed in the state of Minas Gervais, killing 65 people and injuring scores of others.  In the aftermath of the disaster, the Government worked quickly to minimize the impact on the local population, paying special attention to such vulnerable groups as indigenous communities.  In addition, he said, Brazil is working to identify the causes of the collapse and to hold those responsible to account — including with potential criminal liability.

Other speakers focused on the impacts of human-made disasters such as wars and conflict.  The representative of the Philippines recalled that thousands of young people were displaced in 2017 from the southern city of Marawi following its seizure by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) fighters.  While the displaced youth were taken in by neighbouring communities, they often faced social disruption, bullying and discrimination.  In response, the Government developed peace education programmes and interventions that empowered youth leaders to serve as communicators, bridging gaps and combating radicalization.

The representative of Ukraine outlined psychosocial support programmes — including mobile outreach teams targeting the most vulnerable people — deployed by her Government in the east of the country following military aggression in 2014.

The representative of Syria responded to the statement delivered by the representative of Turkey, accusing that country of sponsoring terrorism in Syria.  Turkey’s representative rejected those allegations as baseless and said the representative of Syria lacks legitimacy, to which Syria’s speaker responded on a point of order.

Several delegates also sounded alarms about the accelerating impacts of climate change, underlining the links between a degraded environment, more frequent natural hazards and the resulting impacts on vulnerable groups.  The representative of France, for one, recalled that a heat wave in the summer of 2018 posed a major threat to many older persons across Europe.

The representative of the European Union said the bloc’s foreign aid strategy emphasizes the need to go beyond immediate needs, also addressing rehabilitation and development.  In Lebanon, for example, the Union is working with the Government to develop a social assistance programme for the most vulnerable people, including Syrian refugees.  In Africa, it is working with countries to tackle the root causes of forced migration.  Meanwhile, it is broadly supporting the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s “Employment and Decent Work for Peace and Resilience Recommendation”; streamlining the rights of persons with disabilities in its emergency response and recovery programmes; and has adopted an external investment plan with a focus on fragile countries.

A representative of the non-governmental organization Help Age International emphasized that inclusion of and respect for persons with disabilities in disasters is enshrined in the core humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence.  However, given that they still face more challenges in disaster situations, she asked the panellists to advise how the Commission can steer more inclusive policies and practices and how persons with disabilities, older persons, youth and others can be included in all stages of humanitarian response.

Other speakers asked the panellists to reflect on the role of non-governmental organizations; how best to use technology to improve disaster risk reduction; how to collect more disaggregated data; and how stronger disaster risk reduction strategies can contribute to efforts to wider efforts to combat inequality.

Ms. RYERSON emphasized the importance of intersectionality and called for a reversal of the common idea of persons with disabilities as “problems to be solved, rather than assets to be leveraged”.

Ms. ROTH welcomed all the hard work across countries to optimize — rather than silo — disability issues.  However, she warned large non-governmental groups to avoid speaking for persons with disabilities or “sucking up all the air in the room”.

Mr. HOSSAIN, on the other hand, underscored the diversity within the non-governmental community itself.  Issue-based organizations especially should continue to raise their voices, he said.

Mr. DOGAHEH agreed with other speakers that smaller non-governmental organizations tend to be marginalized.  Best practices must be “named and praised”, he said, drawing attention to such critical issues as helping people deal with post-traumatic stress disorder after disasters and protecting the service animals on which persons with disabilities rely.

Also speaking were representatives of Argentina, Morocco, Switzerland, United Kingdom and Finland.

Representatives of several intergovernmental agencies and non-governmental organizations also participated, including the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and Soroptimist International.

Dialogue with Senior United Nations Officials

Moderated by Elliott Harris, Chief Economist and Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the Commission held an interactive dialogue with senior officials of the United Nations system on the priority theme “Addressing inequalities and challenges to social inclusion through fiscal, wage and social protection policies”.

Panellists were Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary, Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), via video link; Mounir Tabet, Acting Executive Secretary, Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA); Kaveh Zahedi, Deputy Executive Secretary for Sustainable Development, Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP); and Abdoulaye Mar Dieye, Assistant Administrator and Director of the Bureau for Policy and Programme Support, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The dialogue was also facilitated by lead discussants, Vinicius Carvalho Pinheiro, International Labour Organization (ILO) Special Representative to the United Nations and Director; Paul Ladd, Director United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD); and Ursula Wynhoven, International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Representative to the United Nations.

Mr. HARRIS said that the sessions so far have provided opportunities to discuss inequality in global terms, but there are some specificities regarding how inequality can manifest in each region.  Today’s discussion offers an opportunity to share what has worked and what has not and draw lessons that might be applicable elsewhere.

Ms. BÁRCENA outlined ways to promote equality and inclusion in the Latin American and Caribbean region.  Global disruptions, such as slower economic growth, higher interest rates, illicit funding flows, trade tensions, weakening of multilateralism, climate change and growing inequality, are happening in her region as well.  The 2030 Agenda places quality at its centre, with the call for “leaving no one behind”.  Sustainable Development Goal 10 is on reducing inequalities.  ECLAC has identified equality as a fundamental value of development and as a non-negotiable ethical principle, centred on a rights-based approach.  Economic and social evidence shows that inequality is inefficient.  Equality is a prerequisite for achieving economic and social progress, for closing structural gaps and for achieving convergence with higher levels of productivity and decent jobs.  Despite recent progress, Latin America continues to be the most unequal region in the world.  Social policy should be guided by the principle of universalism to build a welfare State, recognizing the sensitivity to difference and geared towards equality of rights.  Universal policies in education, health and social protection contribute not only to social inclusion, but also to strengthening human capacities, increasing productivity and economic growth.

Mr. TABET said that in the Arab region, inequality has been compounded by conflict.  Youth, older persons, persons with disabilities and displaced persons are the four groups facing high levels of inequality and exclusion in the region.  About 30 per cent of youth are unemployed.  About 70 per cent of workers do not have pension coverage.  About 29 million people are forcibly displaced in the region, with Syrian refugees representing 20.5 per cent of the population in Lebanon and 7.1 per cent in Jordan.

ESCWA analysis highlights that fiscal policy choices need to consider setting medium- and long-term fiscal rules to guide and sustain adequate social expenditure, with an aim to accelerate progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, while maintaining a balanced and sustainable set of fiscal policies.  ESCWA is developing a comprehensive social expenditure monitor to inform policy analysis and reform, improve social protection, reduce poverty and inequality, enhance human capital and innovation, and promote gender equality and inclusive growth.

Mr. ZAHEDI said that in the Asia-Pacific region, more than a billion people have been lifted out of poverty, and economic growth has been robust in the region.  These are the stories of success; however, inequality is on the rise in the region.  It lies not just in income, but in opportunities and access to basic services, like sanitation, energy and education.  ESCAP member States are investing in social protection as it is key to achieving many of the Sustainable Development Goals.  Governments should not consider social spending a cost.  It is an investment.  Developing countries in Asia spend only 3.7 per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on social protection, compared with the 11 per cent global average.  If these Asian countries increase social spending to the global average, 233 million people will be lifted out of poverty by 2030.  ESCAP has aligned three service lines, namely policy-oriented research and analysis, intergovernmental consensus-building and technical support and capacity-building, to support member States in delivering on their social development ambitions.

Mr. DIEYE said that “we are collectively walking at a snail’s pace, yet we have powerful weapons in our policy arsenal to address inequalities,” adding that fiscal policy is one of them.  Nordic countries have enjoyed both favourable economic growth and the narrowing of social gaps, providing an example of how fiscal policy can be more actively used to achieve equity while enhancing efficiency.  Three sets of policies are required.  First, expanding the fiscal space.  In developing countries, the ratio of tax to GDP averages at 13 to 17 per cent, compared with 45 per cent in Nordic countries.  Re-distribution policies are key instruments Governments have used to tackle poverty and inequality.  It is equally important to think of broader macroeconomic policies that can tackle inequality at its core and prevent the kind of market failures it leads to.  Countries are more unequal when there is “jobless growth”, such as growth driven by a few sectors, like oil or capital-intensive sectors.  UNDP has been advocating for countries to adopt integrated policies that leave no one behind.

Mr. PINHEIRO said that the global goal on decent work is off track, with a yellow light blinking.  There are still 3.3 million people without decent jobs.  The gender gap still exists, and equal pay has not been be realized.  Indicators on reducing child labour improved but bringing it to zero by 2030 is unfortunately impossible given the current state.

Mr. LADD stressed the importance of addressing inequality in a comprehensive and integrated manner and in a way that promotes social mobility.  The world is moving towards universal social policy due to the high cost associated with targeting groups.  He said there is a growing debate on wealth taxes.

In the ensuing dialogue, delegates asked questions or shared their national experiences in implementing social protection.

The representative of Syria stressed the negative impacts of unilateral economic sanctions on the country, while Brazil’s delegate explained how his country carried out free health coverage and free school tuition but highlighted the need to align its pension system to international norms.

The representative of Mexico asked about data on migrants in Central America, while Iran’s delegate sought more information on the social protection toolbox available on the ESCAP website.

The representative of Finland said his citizens are “happy taxpayers” as the country has achieved a good cycle of economic growth by investing in schools, health and social security.  A healthy workforce is needed for economic growth, which in turn upholds welfare States.  However, this model is challenged from inside the country.

Mr. TABET said that the Arab region has, due to long-term exposure to violence, significant challenges in addressing stunting.  There is a whole generation of young people who are disabled and stunted.  Breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty and inequality will require significant resources.

Mr. ZAHEDI said that to leave no one behind, the needs of people with disabilities must be met.  Fiscal space is important, but public spending is not necessarily linked to the level of GDP in some countries.  Even countries with low GDP spend a lot on social protection because it is a policy choice and they began to look at it as an investment.

Mr. DIEYE said that targeted investment on education and health is critical to reducing inequality.  But that’s not enough.  UNDP measures impacts of social spending on each category.

Ms. BÁRCENA said regional commissions can contribute to knowledge and data on the matter of social exclusion.  ECLAC has a database on inequality at household levels.  On migrant data, ECLAC is working on countries of origin.  They migrate because of unemployment, violence, family reunification, climate change and poverty.

Mr. HARRIS said that after the 2008 economic crisis, countries with social protection in place recovered faster.

The representative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said that rural people are at risk of being left behind.  Only one in five agricultural workers have access to basic social protection, which is a critical component to reducing rural poverty.

Representatives of three non-governmental organizations also took the floor, asking about global wealth taxes, limited fiscal space for many Governments and the role of the private sector in social protection.  They also called for the protection of the rights of care workers, and how older persons can remain a productive workforce after they reach retirement age.

The representative of the Philippines said that Government expenditure is important.  His country also taps the private sector, for providing social insurance and for financing microenterprises.

Mr. DIEYE talked about how illicit financial flows cause losses in least developed countries.

Mr. ZAHEDI said that in Asia, ageing of the population is a big issue.  Countries become old before becoming rich.  To maintain older persons as part of the country workforce can be driven by policy.  Sharing the gender perspective was highly appreciated.

Mr. TABET said the world is not ready for multilateral cooperation on taxation.

Mr. HARRIS said some private capital investment companies are looking at opportunities to invest with “impacts”.  Private capital is flowing into the health-care and education industries.  This might be the case of mobilizing the private sector in social protection indirectly.

For information media. Not an official record.