While the recent World Economic Forum on Asean, held in Hanoi last week, focused on the high-tech transformation of the region, inequality was also on the agenda.
Asean is home to some of the fastest-growing economies in the world, with a combined gross domestic product of about $2.5 billion in 2016, according to a recent report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers.
But the region is also plagued by gross inequalities that have left a huge swath of the population in poverty or near poverty, who are vulnerable to economic shocks and natural disasters.
Stephen Groff, vice president of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), told the Forum, which was live streamed online, that the growing inequality in the Asean states would yield negative returns overall and impact social cohesion.
“In most of developing Asia, we’ve seen massive increases in inequality over the last several decades,” he said. “The trajectory of growth of inequality is what is worrying. And, it hasn’t slowed down very much evidence of slowing down in most countries. In fact, it is speeding up.”
In Thailand, the top 1 percent controls about 58 percent of the country’s wealth, according to a report in the Asean Post. In Indonesia, the 1 percent controls about half of the wealth, while the richest four tycoons have more wealth than the poorest 100 million people.
Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, the CEO of Plan International, an aid group, told the Forum that inequality was also shown in the large number of women and girls who can’t get equal opportunities in education, employment, and social services.
“So the image of inequality for me is the disappointed look in so many millions of young girls’ and women’s faces when they are told to stay in that place,” she said.
Groff of the ADB said rising inequality was threatening global growth as well as the well-being of people. “Why we need to worry about it? Not just because it is important that all people should have equal access to opportunity, but because it also will threaten future growth globally.”
Ng Yeen Seen, CEO of the Center of Research, Advisory, and Technology, a Malaysian research institute, said that inequality is rooted in the unresponsive public policies of many governments, which serve the interests of the majority and leave minority behind.
“What I am saying today, in most governments, in most administrations, is that we tend to design policies for implementation for the majority,” she said.
Albrectsen said: “To advance equality, there needs to be a change in structural issues and social norms to integrate more women into economic development.”
“Young leaders, more senior leaders, government leaders, private sector leaders, start talking about the harmful norms that prevent their businesses or women in their businesses or them being able to attract women in their businesses,” she added. “That’s where that policy is going beyond the legislative part and into the part of really changing behaviors.”
Asean governments need to pay critical attention to their social protection policies to bridge the inequality gaps and promote the well-being of the people, said Groff. “I think, at the end of the day, it comes down to really strong social protection policy, making the investment and social policy and human capital. It is going to address the continuing challenge of inequality.”