Experts on social policy envisioned a world after the COVID-19 pandemic that embraces more localized and inclusive forms of governance and a stronger focus on education to build resilience for weathering future crises, on day three of the Commission for Social Development’s fifty-ninth session.
Their ideas emerged during a panel discussion — held via video-teleconference — on the theme “Social policy to promote a more inclusive, resilient and sustainable recovery: Building back better post COVID-19 for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda in the context of the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development”.
Moderated by Pedro Conceição, Director of the Human Development Report Office at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and lead author of the Human Development Report, it featured presentations by Jordi Curell Gotor, Director of Labour Mobility, Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusions, European Commission; Megumi Muto, Vice-President, Japan International Cooperation Agency; Cristina Duarte, Under-Secretary-General and Special Advisor on Africa to the Secretary-General of the United Nations; David Smith, Coordinator of the Institute for Sustainable Development and Director of the Centre for Environmental Management at the University of the West Indies; and Victoria Tolosa Paz, President of the National Council for the Coordination of Social Policies in Argentina. Sangheon Lee, Director of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Employment Policy Department, was lead discussant.
María del Carmen Squeff (Argentina), Commission Chair, delivered opening remarks, saying that correcting the inequalities laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic is essential for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 and ensuring that no one is left behind. To that end, States must act across several social and economic areas, she said, adding that the forum would be an opportunity to share national experiences in that regard.
Mr. Conceição said that the relevance of social policy for an inclusive post-pandemic recovery “is almost self-evident”. He noted that COVID-19 has had a far greater economic impact on women than on men, with fewer women in the labour force and old social norms about the expectations of women vis-à-vis domestic work and childcare reasserting themselves. The pandemic has also demonstrated the reduced life expectancy of historically marginalized groups. Social policy is essential to build back better, he said, adding that there are many examples in history in which social policy has produced outcomes that endured for decades and even centuries.
Mr. Jordi, underscoring the pandemic’s impact on the world of work, said it has given urgency to a host of issues which already needed to be addressed. Its impact has been uneven, with some social groups — including the homeless — suffering more than others. “The list of vulnerable people is pretty long,” he said, agreeing that building back better requires taking the social dimension into account. He added that compared to past crises, and at the European Union level, the pandemic has prompted massive investments to try to mitigate its impact. Going forward, the real challenge will be to ensure that this approach is not abandoned in the post-crisis period.
Ms. Meto said that Japan, with its history of “mega-sized natural calamities,” is managing to get through the pandemic in part through a risk reduction approach. Looking at COVID-19 through the lens of the 2015 Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, she said that working on vulnerability means protecting and empowering people so that they can face future hazards with a higher degree of preparedness. She went on to describe the manner in which the Japan International Cooperation Agency is working on several fronts to build resilient social protection and health systems in such countries as the Philippines, India, Kenya, Viet Nam, Burkina Faso and Tajikistan. “Building back better is not just greener, but very deeply social, and even an opportunity to rethink resilience governance,” she added.
Ms. Duarte said that the pandemic is an opportunity to shift from a charity-based approach to one that puts human capital at the heart of post-pandemic recovery and sustainable economic growth. Development gains over the past 20 to 25 years have been significant, “but this is unfinished business”, she said, emphasizing that in many countries in Africa, a large proportion of children are getting inadequate schooling, entailing a huge opportunity cost. Sixty per cent of children born today will be half as productive as they could be if they had a full education. She called for a reconceptualization of social policies with a greater focus on financing, value for money, increased human capital investment and more equitable income distribution.
Mr. Millard said that cities, which lost their attraction somewhat during the pandemic, can make a strong comeback, creating an opportunity to build a “new localism” when carefully contextualized. Social policies could be geared towards more inclusive governance, with structural reforms that give value to people’s agency and innovation. Providing an example, he said that trials have shown that basic income schemes, rather than making people lazy, can have positive impacts on well-being, skills and enterprise. More local, open, bottom-up and less bureaucratic governance can lead to improved dialogue, greater inclusion and economic democracy, he added.
Mr. Smith noted that COVID-19 is one of about 20 pandemics that the World Health Organization (WHO) is monitoring and that some richer countries are showing higher levels of deaths from the coronavirus than poorer ones. Emphasizing that human capital is the most important part of a nation’s wealth, he said that education improves people’s resilience to disasters, even when factors such as income are removed. Tertiary education is vital for sustainable development and achieving the Goals. He went on to set out several ideas, including free basic Internet access for all, open-source software, keyboard computers — rather than tablets — to enable students to produce content, and more teacher training.
Mr. Lee emphasized that when the pandemic hit, demographics, climate change, technological progress and globalization had already increased the risk faced by the most vulnerable groups in society. For many young people, COVID-19 has made their transition into the workforce impossible. Well-designed social protections systems are a precondition for labour flexibility, as they ensure that workers can move securely from one job to another, even if that entails periods of unemployment and inactivity. Noting that 4 billion people around the world have no access to social protection systems, and that many temporary measures put into place by Governments for the pandemic have ended, he said that now is the time to mend gaps and ensure adequate social coverage for workers irrespective of their type of employment. “This is a critical precondition for countries to be better prepared for future challenges in a changing world or work that can, at any point, be hit by a crisis,” he said.
In the ensuing dialogue, delegates and civil society representatives alike expanded on the ways that societies have weathered the COVID-19 crisis and asked about how to increase access to digital technology in the areas of health, education and other public services to improve outcomes.
In that context, the representative of the Philippines said innovative mechanisms for delivering social services during the COVID-19 crisis must be developed, as the face-to-face approach has changed. In education, content will need to incorporate technology know-how to help students develop their creativity. Given the higher demand for publicly provided social services, the livelihoods of private providers should be protected, while new public-private partnerships should be included in the formulation of social policies. As the pandemic has challenged the way social indicators are monitored, she said other means must be found for undertaking this task, especially for nutrition outcomes.
The representative of Argentina, pointing out that her country tops the rankings of countries that enacted policies to tackle the pandemic, cited in particular a national action plan against gender-based violence through 2022; as well as a new decree and programme for gender and diversity, which provides minimum wages for six months and psychosocial services to those at risk of gender-based abuse.
The representative of the Dominican Republic, pointing out that his country has increased access to education and health care, said it is also looking to harness traditional knowledge in its pandemic response. Cuba aims to bolster the digital skills of older people through an “Info Literacy” programme, which introduces them to digital tools.
The speaker for Cuba, acknowledging that the current global order increases existing inequalities, said many developing countries, small island developing States and least developed countries must decide whether to pay their debts or address COVID-19. Calling for “reliance inclusive social policies”, he pressed developed countries to fulfil their official development assistance (ODA) commitments.
The representative of Japan acknowledged there are many policies — from risk management to digitalization — that can be enacted to “build back better”. However, given constraints around resources and time, he asked panelists how Governments should prioritize these policies.
The speaker for Senegal enumerated the Government’s many efforts to ensure shared prosperity, a commitment enshrined in the national social protection strategy, which itself takes a life cycle approach. Senegal established a team for social protection and national solidarity, along with a register of households living in extreme poverty, a national stipend system and an equality of opportunity map, in particular for persons with disabilities.
Among the civil society representatives to take the floor was Shifa Abbas, Imamia Medics International, who recognized the role of digital technology in the provision of health care. “Equitable heath care necessitates digital equity,” she said, asking panelists about the most forward-looking policies that can be taken at the national level.
Sue Wilson, Congregations of Saint Joseph, said that if countries seek to create “a better normal”, they must first address the disfunction at the root of financial and economic systems that have produced poverty and other social ills. She asked panelists which policies or economic incentives might support a shift towards more localized, circular and shared ownership models.
Pierrette Cazeau, President, Haiti Cholera Research Funding Foundation, inquired about making broadband accessible for all low-income families, who have experienced the agony of lacking these services due to their high costs, and whose children have lagged behind, as a result.
Mr. CURELL GOTOR singled out the training and skill building of young people as particularly important, so they can move from job seekers to job shapers, as well as social protection in the form of well-functioning social safety nets. It is essential to ensure equal access to information technology services across the world, he asserted.
Ms. MUTO shared what JICA is doing in the areas of digitalization of health-care delivery, first by ensuring hospital-to-hospital peer learning. In terms of reaching out to beneficiaries, she pointed to blended finance schemes in which private companies have participated and noted more broadly that JICA is using natural assets to promote a shared or recycled economy. It is involved with projects that combine forestry conservation, with livelihoods and sustainability education.
The Commission then heard from panelist VICTORIA TOLOSA PAZ, President of the National Council for the Coordination of Social Policies, Argentina, who described that country’s efforts to tackle hunger. She pointed first to a universal income policy, which seeks to raise the incomes of those working in the informal economy, as well as a cash transfer initiative and a food stamp programme. During the pandemic, the Government aimed to ensure children were properly fed, also working to help citizens alleviate debt repayment and cover electricity, water and gas bills, alongside other efforts to improve food sovereignty. “The Government is focused on protecting the most vulnerable,” she said, while also restoring economic value chains. “Public policy is vital because Argentina is committed to sustainable development,” and looking to increase living standards. She went on to describe a national plan to lower child morbidity and mortality, as well as measures to increase access to sanitation for children, noting that fiscal efforts are under way to facilitate these programmes. With inequality most acutely felt across 44,000 hectares of the country, she said the focus is on the informal economy, single family households and women-headed households, where the Government can best target hunger and ensure the full development of children.
Ms. DUARTE, addressing the question about forward-looking digitization policies, said that for more than 20 years, the education policy equation has involved the provision of schools, desks, books and teachers. Today, Governments must factor in connectivity. Access to information and knowledge today goes beyond books and teachers. To bring education to remote areas that lack electricity, Governments must factor in green renewable batteries. “When you address human capital on a forward-looking basis, you need to pay attention to policy coherence and policy integration,” she said, pointing out that information and communications technology (ICT) giants are arriving in Africa and Education Ministers must ask the question: “What must I do with these giants arriving in Africa in terms of providing content?” The only way to address the digital divide is to adopt forward-looking human capital policies, she asserted.
Mr. MILLARD responded to delegates by stressing that the decentralization of Government structures must be combined with openness and transparency. He addressed the issue of Government interaction with local communities, noting that “this idea of collaboration across all actors in society is extremely important.”
Mr. SMITH noted that there is plenty of coverage in urban areas, however access is an issue. In rural areas, the problem is reversed. He recommended that countries work with development banks and companies to end these problems.
In the afternoon, the Commission held an interactive dialogue with senior United Nations officials on the priority theme, featuring presentations by: Alicia Barcena Ibarra, Executive Secretary, United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC); Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, Executive Secretary, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP); Houlin Zhao, Secretary-General, International Telecommunication Union (ITU); Anita Bhatia, Deputy Executive Director for Resource Management, Sustainability and Partnerships, United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women); and Gerard Quinn, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Elliott Harris, Assistant-Secretary-General, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, was the lead discussant.
Mr. HARRIS said the pandemic exposed the reality that some populations are more susceptible to infection than others, and while some have transitioned to work online, others lacked connectivity. He cautioned that “the challenges will not be resolved the moment we manage to vaccinate everyone”. The nature of jobs is changing rapidly, threatening to leave more people behind. Each region, sector and social group has experienced the crisis differently, and therefore, each has a different capacity to respond — an aspect that must be considered carefully to ensure that the response to COVID-19 addresses not only the disruptions to the economy, but the underlying weaknesses, to ensure they are resolved.
Ms. BARCENA IBARRA said the pandemic has brought forth an unpredictable future that will require “very assertive” policies. In Latin America and the Caribbean, two thirds of the population has Internet access, mainly through broadband. But 40 million households are not connected: 33 per cent of them in cities and 77 per cent in rural areas. She said 75 per cent of the richest households have access to the Internet, but in the lowest quintile, only 35 per cent of the households are connected. Offering statistics, she said that on average 14 per cent of a person’s total income is devoted to traditional broadband; 12 per cent to mobile broadband. Given that 40 per cent of women lack an autonomous income, they are left behind. She also spoke to capacity issues, as 44 countries in the region have not reached the speed that would allow for downloading multiple applications. That leaves 32 million children between 5 and 12 years of age in the region — or 46 per cent — not participating in distance learning as they lack access to tele-education. She proposed a “basic digital basket” that would cost 1 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) and include a laptop and a low-cost connection.
MR. ALISJAHBANA said COVID-19 has exacerbated the digital connectivity and services divide in Asia, noting that 81 million jobs were lost in 2020, while large reductions in working hours pushed many people into poverty. Noting that Asia has become a global technology hub, she said emerging technologies offer opportunities to improve the effectiveness of social protections, addressing the needs of older persons, particularly regarding health care. Importantly, digital technologies have helped to stem the spread of the virus, support business continuity and ensure access to services. Artificial intelligence, if wisely harnessed, can lift 1 billion people in the region out of poverty who currently live below $3.2 per day. Noting that only 40 per cent of Government websites have accessible formats, even though only half of region’s population lives with disabilities, she said “any of these inequalities overlap”, creating a compounding effect. Not closing the digital divide could mean the region will not achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development on time. She called for robust public-private partnerships, political commitment and multi-stakeholder approaches.
Mr. ZHAO said he had witnessed many of the gains made possible by digital technologies around the world, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, which hosts the world’s largest population. While COVID-19 allowed societies to witness the benefits of digital applications, it also revealed the divide between those who enjoy connectivity and those who do not. He described the “Four I’s”, starting with infrastructure to connect those lacking access, followed by investment, without which, infrastructure cannot be built. Today, investment mainly comes from the private sector, as the public sector does not have the resources. “We need to have a good strategy to encourage investment,” he said, also calling for innovation that enables smart methods for carrying out business, followed by inclusiveness. “We need to have everybody included,” he said, raising the possibility that the private sector might not be best suited to handle all responsibilities. Leaving each ecosystem to do its business also might not be good enough. Instead, he called for new ideas to mobilize actors to create comprehensive ICT strategies.
Ms. BHATIA said that for women and girls, the digital revolution represents one of the best ways to enhance women’s power and resilience. The question, she said, is: “Are we in a position to take advantage of the opportunities that the digital revolution presents?” There is a gap between men and women when it comes to digital technology, mainly for cultural reasons, but also because poverty is highly feminized. Digital technologies are an unprecedented lever for taking advantage of market opportunities, finance, assets — and for girls, education. Those who lack digital access are likely to suffer long-term consequences. A girl in a developing country, where access is limited, not only faces difficulties in accessing education, she said, noting that in a household with a boy, a girl and only one computer, it will be the boy who receives the education. “We face the possibility of having an entire generation of girls who do not have digital access to education of being uneducated”, she warned, which could have generational consequences.
Mr. QUINN said COVID-19 has laid bare the accumulated disadvantages faced by many, including persons with disabilities. While great strides have been made, “what we forgot is that the old ways of thinking remain embedded”, he said. This has especially been the case during the pandemic. The underlying trends must be harnessed, lest persons with disabilities are left behind. Aside from the digital divide, he pointed to other trends that deserve attention, stressing that the traditional way of delivering social services has reached a limit. “We have long dreamt of personalized services,” and of giving the consumer the power to individualize budgets, he said. Life is trending in that direction, through platforms that are revolutionizing the service scene, including for persons with disabilities. On the trend of artificial intelligence and machine-learning, people are becoming “the sum total of what they consume digitally”, he said, adding: “Those who consume less electronically, will be treated differently electronically.” He recalled that the United Nations Disability Inclusion Strategy will support efforts across the system to make electronic consumption more inclusive, citing novel provisions on the need to adjust the United Nations public procurement policy. The Organization can leverage its consuming power to “do the right thing”.
In the ensuing dialogue, delegates outlined national initiatives, with the representative of Mexico recalling that the Secretary-General’s road map aims to achieve universal connectivity by 2030. In that context, he pointed to the creation of digital inclusivity centres — which provide access for those in vulnerable situations — that form part of Mexico’s digital inclusion policy. He asked panellists about the best digital inclusivity practices.
China’s representative called for solving the rural-urban digital divide, noting that “rural netizens” in China now number 309 million, more than 85 per cent of adults in China now use online payment, and remote mountainous regions now offer numerous products online. The digital divide between the global South and North also must be addressed, as developing countries need the ability to build affordable ICT infrastructure. He called for improving digital governance, fostering a just, fair and nondiscriminatory business environment, and maintaining the global security of ICT products and services.
The speaker for Argentina asked for examples of good practices to guarantee the full inclusion of women and girls, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons, older persons and persons with disabilities in the digital revolution. Cuba’s representative, meanwhile, asked panelists for their views on how unilateral coercive measures impact developing country access to digital technologies.
Mr. QUINN, responding to Member States’ questions and comments, noted that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is currently drafting a convention on the rights of older persons which should address digital citizenship issues. He welcomed the idea of putting the words “innovation” and “inclusive” in the same sentence and suggested that new tools, such as procurement laws, be considered as ways to leverage market forces.
Ms. BHATIA said that the digital divide is both an enabler and a destroyer. In some countries, such as Togo and India, investment in digital technology has made it possible for women to receive cash transfers. On the other hand, the pandemic has seen a huge drop-off in women’s participation in the labour force. Full data is not yet available, but early indications suggest that women are going back to work in fewer numbers than before COVID-19. That will have an impact on productivity, GDP and development, she added.
Mr. ZHAO agreed that the gender issue is very serious, adding that he is encouraging Member States to “send more ladies” to International Telecommunication Union (ITU) conferences. He went on to say that in many countries that he visits, he finds that few if any women are studying science, technology and mathematics in university. More hard work is required to encourage more women to join the ICT sector, he said, adding that greater efforts are also needed to help disabled persons live normal lives through new technology.
Ms. IBARRA, noting the difference between emergency responses, on the one hand, and medium- and long-term actions, on the other, said that in the Latin American and Caribbean region, digitalization so far has focused more on consumption and less on production. She underscored the need for regulatory frameworks governing the use of data, regional and subregional approaches to digital access, and levying taxes on the multinational “big winners” in the digital economy.