Date: 03-22-2001

HONOLULU -- With six weeks left until the Asian Development Bank meets in Honolulu, ADB officials are holding public forums to deliver their message: the bank cares about the poor.

"Globalization is not our call, free trade is not our call," Bindu Lohani, secretary of the regional development bank, said yesterday at the East-West Center. "The absolute poor are our commitment. Our major agenda is regional cooperation that will improve the lives of people, provide income with dignity and sound social development."

Bank officials emphasized differences among their organization, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, all of which have drawn protests accusing them of ignoring the environment, the workers and the poor. Honolulu is bracing for demonstrations as well at the May 7-11 ADB meeting here.

While many ADB loans go to infrastructure projects, Lohani said 40 percent of the bank's funding now targets programs that will help the poorest Asians -- those surviving on less than a dollar a day. Of the 1.2 billion people worldwide who live in abject poverty, more than two-thirds are in Asia. The ADB started its poverty program in January 1999 and based it on "pro-poor, sustainable economic growth; social development; and good governance."

"The war on poverty must be fought and won in Asia," Lohani said. While infrastructure stimulates economic growth, "growth alone won't do it."

Allen Clark, a specialist on nation building and governance at the East-West Center, said attention to poverty is a recent phenomenon among multilateral lending agencies and governments. "Poverty is the catalyst for social unrest," Clark said. "The poor are totally disenfranchised from participating in development and decisions."

While the number living in poverty is decreasing, the gap between rich and poor is growing dramatically. "The nature of poverty is what's significant," Clark said. To alleviate the inequalities, he believes the poor must be given a voice and access to decision makers with the assistance of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community action groups.

Robert Dobias has been chosen to head the bank's new NGO "network center" that opened three weeks ago. "The ADB has a long history with NGOs but what we didn't have was a serious commitment to deal with them," Dobias said. "The challenge is moving from discussing to doing."

One way is to give more money directly to NGOs, not just to governments. The ADB is also experimenting with loans that are conditional on environmental and social development, and loans that require projects to share a small percentage of the profit with local communities.

Clark said that while lending organizations like the ADB need to make changes, there are no workable alternatives. "We need to move the existing system to be more responsible."

Allen Clark can be reached at the East-West Center at 808-944-7509 or
This is an East-West Wire, copyright East-West Center