Keynote address by Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator at the 2011 Global Poverty Reduction and Development Forum “Accelerating Poverty Reduction and Sustainable Human Development”

Oct 17, 2011

Beijing, 17 October 2011

It is a pleasure to take part in the opening of the Global Poverty Reduction and Development Forum today. I thank the Government of China for hosting the Forum. The United Nations in China is proud to work with the Government to support China's International Poverty Reduction Centre and this Forum.

Through both, as we see here today, policy makers, development experts, and scholars are brought together to exchange ideas and learn from each other’s experiences of reducing poverty. Of particular interest to many around the world are the lessons and inspiration which can be drawn from China’s success in reducing extreme poverty. Between 1981 and 2005 China lifted more than 550 million people out of extreme poverty, and has made one of the fastest increases in human development in the last 40 years.

It is appropriate therefore that we are here in Beijing for this Forum on the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

The experience of China demonstrates what can be achieved through concerted effort and leadership on poverty. The Government’s plans to eradicate poverty in China reflect the level of ambition and “can-do” spirit we need now around the world - to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and set our sights on a world free of absolute poverty.

Such ambition is not misplaced. Taken as a whole, the world has made enormous progress on poverty reduction. Overall, people today are on average healthier, more educated, and wealthier than ever before. Since 1970, average global life expectancy has risen from 59 to 70 years. We are within reach of achieving universal enrolment in primary schooling. Per capita incomes doubled to more than $10,000 in real terms over the past four decades.

Yet, 1.4 billion people worldwide still live on $1.25 a day or less. Last year's Human Development Report estimated that 1.75 billion people suffer from acute deprivation in health, education and living standards.

Because of China's dramatic progress and its size, its rate of poverty reduction puts the whole world on track to cut extreme poverty in half between 1990 and 2015. The World Bank reports, however, that of the 84 countries with MDG data, only 45 are on track to meet that target.

In this second decade of the 21st century, many countries are struggling to overcome complex and interrelated development challenges which often defy resolution by nations acting alone. The global economic problems, climate change, environmental degradation, high food and fuel prices, and increasing numbers of natural disasters are, in many places, having devastating effects on people, particularly on the poorest.

To tackle these challenges and accelerate progress on the Millennium Development Goals, we need action at the multilateral and the national levels, and we need to prioritize investment in sustainable human development.

We cannot assume that economic growth per se will lift human development. Even in the fastest growing economies, economic gains have not consistently resulted in poverty reduction. In the past two decades the poverty-reducing impact of economic growth has slowed, especially in Asia. Nor do increases in per capita income necessarily coincide with improvements in health and education.

Reducing poverty and inequality and lifting human development require policies which target those objectives, and growth which is inclusive and sustainable.

An estimated two-thirds of the world’s poor live in middle-income countries. Often uneven growth in those countries has left significant groups behind, unable to share in their country’s overall growth and prosperity. Social exclusion denies many the opportunities and capabilities they need to improve their lives. The poor in these countries may be rural or urban slum dwellers, indigenous people, ethnic minorities, or people living with disabilities or HIV. Women also fare worse than men on a number of MDG indicators. And globally there is a high level of concern about the paucity of opportunity open to many young people.

Policy changes, however, can be made to generate growth which is more inclusive. Steps can be taken to increase the numbers of people who can participate productively in the economy, as well as the number who benefit from its growth, for example by:

  • stimulating the economic sectors where the poor work to generate employment there;
  • investing in infrastructure and services in the areas where the poor live; and, in particular,
  • increasing access to safe water, sanitation, and reliable energy in those areas.

In order to eradicate poverty, opportunities, services, and social protection systems need to reach those who are marginalized for whatever reason. Policies need to have a strong equity focus. It also helps where people have the opportunity to participate in shaping development solutions which reflect their needs and aspirations.

China’s leaders have recognized the importance of inclusive growth. President Hu Jintao’s call for a “harmonious society” acknowledges the risks of growing inequalities, and the Twelfth Five-Year Plan itself addresses the means of advancing inclusive growth.

China now has an ambitious development agenda which seeks to balance economic growth with social and environmental protection. Through its commitment to achieve a ‘Xiaokang’ Society (all-round well-off society) by 2020, China has pledged to shift its economy towards a more sustainable and higher quality growth trajectory.

The United Nations is pleased to be working with China in this quest. We believe that it must involve new and innovative approaches to poverty reduction to reach those still living in poverty.

UNDP itself is working closely with China to share good practice on poverty reduction and experiences of expanding opportunities and reducing inequalities. That includes working with China’s government ministries on promoting social inclusion for migrant workers and their families; and working to enhance women’s inclusion in the labour market, in order to overcome what UNDP’s Asia-Pacific Human Development Report suggests are significant losses in GDP from lesser female participation.

Sometimes it has been assumed that social and environmental protection are nice things to do, but are not central to generating and sustaining economic growth and reducing poverty. UNDP believes the opposite to be true.

We see social protection as a critical investment in the resilience of people, enabling them to sustain basic living standards even when shocks occur. Well designed social protection systems support children staying in schools, whole families getting enough nutritious food, and people being able to build their capabilities overall.

China has recognized the potential of such systems to expand opportunities, build domestic demand, and spur balanced human development. It has set targets for providing universal social protection coverage, including for healthcare insurance and social security for rural migrants.

Similarly, environmental protection is the foundation of sustainable human development. Progress and poverty reduction cannot be sustained if the ecosystems on which life on this planet depends are irreparably damaged.

According to the World Health Organization, 24 per cent of the overall burden of disease worldwide, and 23 per cent of all deaths, could be prevented through environmental interventions, especially through improvements in water quality, sanitation, hygiene, and indoor and urban air quality.


Today, environment-related health problems, including diarrhea, malaria, and acute respiratory problems, remain the top killers of children under five in developing countries.

Climate change is exacerbating the environmental challenges our world faces. It has become critical to pursue low-emissions development and safeguard ecosystems in order to sustain economic and social progress. The world needs a renewed and integrated agenda for sustainable development.

The UN Conference on Sustainable Development scheduled for June next year is the opportunity for the world to adopt that agenda. Rio+20 must promote a change in the way we make decisions – so that leaders instinctively think across the normal silos and design policies which consider economic, social, and environmental consequences simultaneously. Sustainable development must become a habit, rather than being an afterthought.

Making that so will require concerted effort and a willingness of leaders to learn from experience and adapt existing practices. Countries will need integrated national and local policy frameworks, targeted incentives, and supportive global structures. With those in place, the potential for advancing inclusive development, poverty reduction, and sustainability is great.

Investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy, for example, can yield significant benefits, through reduced energy consumption and lower carbon emissions. UNEP has estimated that energy consumption in cities could be reduced by twenty to thirty per cent without sacrificing growth.

“Green investment” can also create decent work and thereby stimulate growth and poverty reduction. China is now the second largest producer of wind power in the world and the biggest exporter of photo-voltaic solar panels. China’s renewable energy sector employs 1.5 million people alone – these are largely jobs which were not in this sector even a decade ago.

China’s policies to incentivize green growth are of considerable interest, as they set targets for energy efficiency and energy conservation, and are leading to significant investments in renewable energy.

A strong outcome on energy in particular is needed at the Rio+20 Summit. Access to clean energy is critical for achieving green growth, sustainable human development, and accelerating progress on the MDGs. The UN Secretary General has set an ambitious agenda for sustainable energy for all, with three goals to be reached by 2030: 1) ensuring universal access to modern energy services; 2) doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency; and 3) doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.

Now more than ever before, China's decisions and actions are critically important for global economic growth, MDG progress, and sustainable development. Now more than ever the UN must work with China to advance the goals we share – to reduce poverty and promote inclusive green and sustainable human development in China and worldwide.

As China strives to achieve even more impressive human development outcomes through inclusive and sustainable growth, so the experiences it has can be shared through South-South co-operation. In 2010 the Government of China and UNDP signed an agreement to strengthen our co-operation in sharing China's experience and knowledge.

Later this month the number of people on our planet is expected to reach seven billion. All will need to have access to sustainable sources of food and water, and the means to enjoy a decent living. A prosperous and peaceful future depends on that. As China enables its people to enhance their human development, its experiences will be of great interest to others seeking to chart their own course to peace and prosperity.

UNDP looks forward to working with China at home and abroad to advance progress towards these ends.

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