Navigating Tomorrow: Asia’s Outlook in 2024

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

February 1, 2024

As 2024 has just begun, Asia, a region with both progress and disparities, finds itself at a crucial crossroads. While economic might has propelled many nations forward, the fight against poverty, hunger, and the pursuit of human development goals remain pressing concerns. How are Asian leaders navigating these challenges, and what does 2024 hold in their pursuit of a more equitable and sustainable future?

Poverty and hunger remain a persistent struggle. Despite remarkable strides in poverty reduction, millions across Asia, particularly in South Asia, still wrestle with the daily challenges of basic survival. As of September 2023, the World Bank estimates that around 196 million people in the region grapple with living below the extreme international poverty line of US$2.15 per day. The lingering impact of the pandemic and increasing inflationary pressures threaten to push millions more back into poverty.

Furthermore, inequality is still a challenge, with the benefits of economic growth often concentrated among the wealthiest segments of society, further exacerbating poverty and hindering overall development. This has a spillover effect on quality education for girls and the promotion of female entrepreneurship, particularly in rural areas of the region. 

Numerous obstacles persist, ranging from familial choices to national regulations, restricting women’s entry into higher education. Despite a rising trend in women’s involvement in higher education, several Asian countries have not completely eradicated gender disparity. Additionally, in many countries, the overall enrollment rates in higher education remain insufficient. Even if women were to match men’s university attendance rates, a significant proportion of women would still find themselves excluded due to persistently low overall enrollment figures.

How is This Being Addressed?

China successfully eradicated extreme poverty by adopting an export-led growth model, marking a historic achievement in poverty reduction. The country’s significant progress was fueled by years of aligning its growth strategy with exports, supported by foreign direct investment that facilitated its integration into global value chains. However, the future of this export-oriented growth appears uncertain due to the diminishing momentum of trade globalization and FDI.

In response to this slowdown, China is actively pursuing diversification, transitioning from a reliance on exporting raw materials like rubber and tin to emerging as a key player in manufacturing, especially in the electronics sector and also expanding into services. This strategic shift allows China to leverage its export-led growth to build a more diverse and resilient economy, ensuring that the benefits are distributed more widely across its population.

Many Asian governments have also taken steps to develop National Action Plans (NAPs) on business and human rights. Within the period spanning 2019 to 2023, countries such as Thailand, Japan, Pakistan, Mongolia, and Vietnam have already adopted NAPs. Concurrently, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Nepal are in the process of developing or finalizing their respective NAPs.

In Vietnam, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry has played a proactive role by creating the Foreign Investment Screening Instrument. This tool serves as a practical guide for local governments to assess investments and projects, ensuring their alignment with responsible business practices. The screening process evaluates compliance with human rights and fundamental labor rights, health and safety standards, as well as social and environmental protection. This initiative reflects a broader regional trend towards integrating ethical considerations into business activities.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Nepal initiated a program to provide unconditional temporary basic income to vulnerable women among its population. More than 60% of vulnerable women were economically empowered, of which 20% were able to re-enroll their children at school. Meanwhile, Thailand deployed three public health insurance schemes to ensure universal health coverage for its entire population. By 2020, the country was able to cover 98% of its population with either one of the national public health schemes. This has not only improved access to health for the people, but has also reduced the risk of catastrophic health spending for the government.

Singapore is perhaps a shining example when it comes to developing water security. Very early on, the nation prioritized the establishment of a comprehensive, long-term water supply strategy overseen by a singular authority, the Public Utilities Board (PUB). Beyond traditional methods like rainwater collection and water imports from Malaysia, Singapore has strategically diversified its water sources. This includes innovative approaches such as the recycling of used water and the implementation of desalination processes, collectively forming a resilient water supply system, widely known as the Four National Taps. To proactively manage and control potential increases in future water demand, the PUB has implemented a range of effective demand management policies including water pricing, conservation measures, and public education efforts to ensure water equity for all.

As Asia navigates the complexities of 2024, collaboration and innovation will be key. Sharing best practices, fostering regional cooperation, and leveraging technology to deliver services and empower communities will become game-changers, and governments in the region should act quickly and decisively in partnering with the right stakeholders to produce impactful outcomes.

Photo Caption: Asia needs to do a lot more to ensure the region’s progress.