Fight for our future, advance people’s Development now

By APRN | February 19, 2024

Delivered speech by Ms. Julia Puno, general secretary of APRN for the Asia Pacific People’s Forum on Sustainable Development 2024

Photo: Asia Pacific Regional Civil Society Engagement Mechanism

Good morning everyone! We are happy to see everyone all gathered in one space for this timely event. We thank everyone’s participation and contribution to The Peoples’ Forum. Indeed in its 11th year as shared by our facilitators, the Peoples’ Forum is a valuable space for all of us to discuss timely matters happening in our region and the world. 

The people’s path toward development is relentlessly challenged by gross social inequality, economic depression, and geopolitical turmoil on a global scale. 

The entire world wallows in debt and economic distress while the current system is in a constant spiral descent into crisis. These worsening economic conditions are generating political conflicts and wars as the US continues to assert itself as a global power despite its own economy’s prolonged stagnation and crisis while desperately trying to undermine the economic, political, and military power of its principal rivals, China and Russia.

The current economic system is dominated by world superpowers, monopolies, transnational corporations, and international financial institutions that continue to operate under the neoliberal framework. They are relentless in securing their influence and power to continue the unbridled plunder of the earth’s resources to maximize profit and exploit millions of people across the world.

According to the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2023 report, global unemployment is projected to rise by around 3 million to 208 million in 2023. This comes at a time when global unemployment rates are foreseen to return to their pre-pandemic status with joblessness and a rampant decline in the quality of work. In ILO’s most recent report, they projected that the labor market outlook and global unemployment will worsen this year. An extra two million workers are expected to be looking for jobs, raising global unemployment from 5.1 percent in 2023 to 5.2 percent. 

The world’s working people are also confronted by the widening socioeconomic inequalities, everyday. Prices of basic goods and commodities continue to reach new heights due to inflation, with the global rate reaching 9%, its highest rate in nearly two decades. Wages continue to stagnate—or worse, decline. The ILO’s Global Wage Report 2022 estimated that global monthly wages fell in real terms to -0.9 percent in the first half of 2022, the first negative global wage growth recorded since the first edition of the report in 2008. 

This reality of the labor force also affects the rural people and communities which is a huge chunk of the population of the Asia Pacific region.

Farmers, fisherfolks, and indigenous groups are exploited in their communities as landlords and big corporations continue to strip them of their rights to their lands and their right to till. International financial institutions such as the IMF-WB and WTO collude with governments to set out conditional loans, grants, and projects that promote the liberalization of food systems. 

In recent times, the trend of shifting the focus from food production to non-food production has become more apparent. By 2030, only 30% of produce will be directed toward food consumption, with the remaining majority being used for feeds, biofuels, processing, and industrial purposes. This growing phenomenon reveals where priority lies for the perpetrators of the current global food system. This shows that feeding the world and ending hunger are not its main goals.

Governments across the globe are competing to provide the best conditions for transnational corporations (TNCs) through low wages, subhuman labor standards, and labor repression. Widespread land grabbing and resource grabbing due to the leasing or sale of arable lands and forests to foreign investors while being over-reliant on extractive industries for exporting minerals have become a norm. Environmental degradation due to unsustainable economic, social, and political activity made people and communities more vulnerable to disasters. These and the irreversible impacts of climate change reinforced and created new inequalities.  

By the time the world reaches 2030, an estimated 575 million people will still live in extreme poverty (SDG 1). An increasing percentage of people living with hunger has been a trend for the past few years, since 2015, with all regions of the world affected (SDG 2). The pandemic has exposed the cracks in the state of health services, facilities, and accessibility falling behind across the world (SDG 3) as well as disrupting the educational system for many students (SDG 4). Women remain vulnerable wherever they find themselves in society, from the workplace to households, as they experience various kinds of abuses in their economic, physical, and mental states (SDG 5). In 2030, over 1.6 billion people will need clean drinking water, while 2.8 billion will lack sanitation and hygiene (SDG 6). 

To ensure access to electricity, 100 million people may have to resort to solid fuels, while 679 million remain without electricity (SDG 7). The world’s economy has plunged into a recession worse than the 2008 economic crisis, with inflation and unemployment affecting many working people across the globe (SDG 8). Many industries and infrastructure projects took on the business-as-usual mode under the guise of economic recovery, building back better and amassing more profit during the pandemic. Yet we have seen that these have only served the purpose of amassing more wealth for the elites (SDG 9). 

The gap between the rich and the poor has further widened, with the world’s top ten richest men having six times more wealth than the poorest 3.1 billion people, according to a study by Oxfam International (SDG 10). There is a growing trend of poor planning in urban development as it is corporate-led, which explains the lack of affordable housing, social services, and public transportation, which aggravates urban poverty and inequality for many people who live in cities (SDG 11). The Global North continues to soar in consumption and carbon footprints in recent years, reaching 95.1 billion metric tons and has contributed exponentially to chemical, plastic, and solid wastes (SDG 12). 

The triple planetary crisis the world faces today—from climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution—is felt more today, especially in Asia and the Pacific region, where more than 60% of the population is dependent on climate-sensitive sectors (SDG 13). There is staggering regression in conserving and sustainably managing the ocean and its biodiversity, and it raises the alarm for almost 3 billion people relying on marine and coastal resources (SDG 14). Conversation on land on life still has a long way to go in attributing environmental damages to mega-corporations such as mining and focusing on activities practiced by agricultural sectors mostly composed of indigenous communities (SDG 15). 

The rise of authoritarian regimes that strip the people of their rights has been prominent, especially during the pandemic, with human rights violations and war against the people being rampant with no government held accountable (SDG 16). Partnership for goals and development financing continues to translate to donor countries concentrating more funds on self-serving trade, military, and political agendas. Moreover, the monopoly of international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund World Bank Group (IMF-WBG) and Asian Development Bank (ADB), to name a few, further promotes loans and infrastructure projects that worsen the debt crisis and realities of many communities in developing countries (SDG 17).

A striking interplay of these challenges is evident in our reality in Asia and the Pacific.

Home to 4.5 billion people, the Asia Pacific has been on the receiving end of achieving sustainable development over the years, with none of the 17 SDGs on track to be achieved by the 2030 deadline. According to the latest report released by the Asia Pacific SDG Progress Report released by UNESCAP just two days ago, trends suggest that at the current pace, our region will not achieve all 17 SDGs before 2062, marking a significant 32-year delay.

While this projection is sobering at best, it comes as no surprise for many of us as we have witnessed the volatile manifestations of the deep-seated entrenchment of neoliberalism in the prevailing system. It has imposed prescriptions to the most vulnerable nations in the Asia Pacific under the guise of “development”, has given corporations and enough leeway to collude with powerful nations to expand, strengthen their power, and intensify the process of globalization that threatens people’s rights and contribute to the irreversible impacts of the climate crisis. 

  • In South Asia, we have seen hundreds of thousands of farmers and indigenous peoples subjected to exploitation by their governments and intensified plunder of natural resources. In Sri Lanka, conditionalities, loans, and several neoliberal impositions sunk them into so much debt that the government could no longer feed its people. In Pakistan, 33 million people were devastated by the flash floods that happened in 2022, and monsoons have increased by 300% over the past years. In Manipur, hundreds have been killed, injured, and left homeless for resisting the neoliberal push in their ancestral lands. The Modi regime has also blocked the right of the people of Jammu and Kashmir to statehood and to frame their laws to enable the unrestricted sale of their lands. In all of these, we see the interplay of economic, climate, and political crises.
  • Southeast Asia has been preyed on by many rich countries due to its cheap labor and natural resources. It is also notorious for attacking human rights defenders and vulnerable sectors, with Indonesia’s Omnibus Law and the Philippines’ Anti-Terror Law.
    • In the Philippines, the US has staged 12 wargames with the Armed Forces of the Philippines in 2023. These wargames do not include those conducted by the US without the authority or even knowledge of the Philippines. It did not only mobilize its troops but also troops coming from its allies in Europe, North America, and other parts of the Asia Pacific. All of these are part of the 496 agreed military activities in the Philippines for 2023.
    • In Myanmar, 17,492 people have been arrested, 13,689 are still incarcerated, and 2,894 people have been killed by the military junta supported by Russia and China. 
  • Central Asia has been dependent on aid coming from the Global North. At the same time, it is also the site of China’s main dream, the Belt and Road initiative. Landlocked Central Asia is also flanked on all sides by countries sanctioned by the US and its allies while they are struggling to cope with the new economic onslaught of Russia. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is also trying to strengthen its position as a security alliance in the sub-region through the inclusion of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. 
  • Militarism has been at the forefront of the US imperialist agenda in Northeast Asia. To contain and counter the expansion of China in the region, the US has intensified its alliance with Japan and South Korea and is using Taiwan to provoke China in the same way that it used Ukraine to provoke Russia. 
  • In the Pacific, small islands such as Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands, among others, are experiencing the drastic effects of the climate crisis, with rising sea levels and extreme natural disasters resulting in massive forced migration and displacement. Meanwhile, Australia is now part of the US’ intensifying military position in the region as it has forged the $90-billion Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) military alliance that builds eight nuclear submarines for Australia and runs the risk of nuclear leaks in the Pacific waters.
  • We have also seen the ongoing crises happening across West Asia, with the continuation of Israel’s decades-long genocide campaign against Palestinian people and its violent occupation of its territories, resulting in hundreds, mostly women and children, killed every day. The US has supported Israel by providing a USD 14.5 billion military aid package to serve as a base for US military power in West Asia. The US support for the Palestinian genocide by Israel has killed more than 28,000 Palestinians since October 7. Consequently, US support for Israel also forms part of its agenda to control oil sources against Iran and other countries in West Asia.
    • There are also rising threats of expanded wars in West Asia to control the vast resources of the sub-region, counter the alliance of Arab countries, and quell the dissent and assertion of movements for national sovereignty within the sub-region. 

As billions of people in the Asia Pacific and across the world suffer each passing minute, the pressing need to wage a radical transformation built on people’s resistance grows ever stronger. The past nine years of the SDGs and its rhetoric of development have proven to us that pining all our hopes and aspirations to the achievement of the goals will not address the issues that we face nor bring the kind of development we want. The SDGs can only do so much for as long as it is embedded within surging inequalities of wealth, power, and resources. The reality is, that the SDGs are not enough to fix the multiple crises we are facing.

We need to break away from the confines of the UN processes and the SDGs. 

It is high time for the international community to go beyond the SDGs and Agenda 2030. We need to look closely at how the SDGs embedded in the neoliberal system affect everyone, especially at the grassroots level. We need to sustain our efforts in exposing states and institutions’ failure to deliver the demands of the people in their policies. We need to effectively identify and recognize the interrelatedness of our issues among countries and sectors. We need to gain strength from the power of the people, through organizing and mobilizing people on the ground, to act as one and push forward people’s development. 

It is up to us to change the system and claim power. Our fate lies in our hands.

Let us foster solidarity and action towards a better global order. Let us gather strength and inspiration to join the growing resistance of communities and sectors across the world in making sustainable development, in the people’s definition and mandate, a reality in our lifetime.

Let us dare to struggle and dare to fight for our future!

Long live international solidarity and power for the people!

Thank you.

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