United Nations ESCAP’s Role and Visibility

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ESCAP HQ in Bangkok (Humus / Shutterstock)
March 5, 2018
Peiling Gan

Despite the United Nations’ high profile, one of its key bodies in Asia remains relatively unknown: the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). Located in Bangkok, ESCAP is the regional development arm of the United Nations for the Asia-Pacific region. Founded in 1947, ESCAP is a commission that coordinates regional development, and is the only multi-sector intergovernmental forum for all the countries in this region. With 53 Member States and 9 Associate Members from Asia and the Pacific, and covering nearly 60% of the world’s population, it is the largest UN body serving the Asia-Pacific region.

So, how does ESCAP serve its members and the Asia-Pacific region?

ESCAP serves as a common voice for Asia and the Pacific on development in many fields, including trade, transport, environment, energy, social development, and in particular achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Last July, ESCAP published the Regional Road Map for Implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in Asia and the Pacific. According to the report, although countries in the region have already begun translating the ambitious 2030 Agenda into action, business-as-usual policies and investments are locking countries into unsustainable pathways that will create a gap between ambition and action. The roadmap tries to address this by helping countries to connect, communicate and cooperate. It will help countries to jointly identify the priority areas and actions towards implementing the 2030 Agenda.

ESCAP provides a space for countries in the region to develop common solutions to development challenges.

One example is the Asian Highway Network, which was initiated by ESCAP in 1959 with the aim of promoting the development of an international road transport system in the region. Under the frame of the International Agreement on the Asian Highway Network, 32 member countries agreed to share common design and technical standards for regional highway development, which was later adopted by many subregional organizations. It has led to the building of 141,000 km of roads passing through 32 member countries from Japan to Turkey and from Russia to Indonesia. It has improved tremendously transportation connectivity in the region.

ESCAP assists countries, as necessary, to build their capacity to develop.

ESCAP established six research and training institutions for agricultural development, sustainable agricultural machinery, statistics, technology transfer, information technology for development, and disaster information management. Each of them is based in different countries. By establishing such institutions, ESCAP strives to strengthen the national capacity of its member countries to nurture and promote National Innovation Systems. This creates an enabling environment for the development and transfer of technology to meet developmental challenges in today’s globalized knowledge economy.

ESCAP provides analysis on economic, social and environmental issues for policy makers in Asia and the Pacific.

ESCAP regularly publishes reports, journals, and articles regarding issues in different fields, including the Asia-Pacific Population Journal. This journal is published at least twice a year by ESCAP to provide a medium for the international exchange of knowledge, experience, technical information, and data on population-related issues as a basis for policymaking and program development. In the latest volume published in last August, it discussed multiple aspects of the rapid population ageing in the Asia-Pacific region, including gender implications, human resource requirements, and health-care services for meeting the needs of ageing societies. It also shared examples of useful practices and made policy recommendations for the governments.

Although ESCAP has huge achievements in improving the economic and social development across the Asia-Pacific region, its visibility still has potential to improve. The possible approaches include:

Strengthening collaboration with the private sector.

Over the years, ESCAP always encourages and helps the governments of its Member States to collaborate with the private sector to improve socioeconomic conditions in the Asia-Pacific region. It provides guidebooks and free online training on Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) targeting government officials, and helps to build PPP networks among its Member States. For instance, in November 2017, ESCAP signed a new agreement with the China PPP Center to strengthen PPP in the region.

However, ESCAP itself also needs to engage more with the private sector in order to learn more about innovation, initiative and technology in the private sector, share ESCAP’s data, information and resources to the private sector, and give the public more opportunities to learn about ESCAP and its work.

Organizing more activities engaging average people.

UN headquarters is open to the public, yet ESCAP is not. Although some groups, mostly educational groups like college students, could visit ESCAP by appointment, individuals or private groups can rarely visit ESCAP.

I’m not suggesting that ESCAP should completely open to the public, but suggest they invite more groups from both the public and private sector to visit ESCAP and learn about ESCAP’s work. Moreover, ESCAP could organize some ESCAP-themed activities to let people know more about ESCAP, including knowledge contests, photo or video competitions, and talks with professionals from ESCAP.

Mobilizing its subregional offices to connect more with local organizations.

Given the vast coverage and diversity of the Asian-Pacific region, ESCAP’s programme on subregional activities for development strengthens the Commission’s presence and interventions at the subregional level. A great advantage of ESCAP’s four subregional offices, representing East and North-East Asia, North and Central Asia, South and South-West Asia and the Pacific, is their accessibility. They could connect more with local organizations to exchange information and address the economic and social challenges together. (The “local” here means the region that a subregional office represents). By doing so, it would improve ESCAP’s connection with not only local organizations, but also the people in the region.

Posting more interesting and down-to-earth content on ESCAP’s social media platform.

By looking at ESCAP’s social media account on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube, it is easy to find that most of the content is about ESCAP’s official events and conferences, and occasionally the Asia-Pacific region’s basic facts of the environment, energy, economy, etc. And the wording is also very official, just like press release. However, people might find it “not interesting”, especially for the major audience of social media — the young people. When it comes to the organization’s social media presence, the content and delivery should be more interesting and down-to-earth, although it is the official account of an UN entity.

A good example can be found in the social media account of the United Nations Development Programme China (UNDP China). In late 2017, UNDP China cooperated with other NGOs and professional production teams to organize the “Sing for 2030” project celebrating the 72nd United Nations Day and to promote the 2030 Agenda. The project included organizing public songwriting contests, inviting stars to sing this song for charity, and posting on social media to ask people to guess the singers. All of these activities were posted on UNDP China’s social media account with “informal” and “young” text and funny emojis. UNDP China received timely feedback about this project by reading and interacting with the comments on social media. When the song was officially published on the United Nations Day in October 2017, over 108,000 people reposted it. This project successfully delivered the message of 2030 Agenda to the public, especially to young people, and also effectively improved the visibility of UNDP China.

Over the past 71 years, United Nations ESCAP has been playing an important role in multinational cooperation and sustainable development in the Asia-Pacific region. If it improved its visibility, more government agencies, companies and organizations, and policy makers would be able to utilize this great platform to share information, to develop common solutions, and to achieve the SDGs together.

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