By encouraging participants to share what has worked in different parts of Asia, the conference sought to look at ways to make growth inclusive of the least empowered and the most vulnerable. The stage was set when growth was described as a situation in which, ideally, "there are higher real wages, lower real food prices, and labour market opportunities for the poor".
A session in which I took part examined how the private sector, the public sector and civil society organisations can forge alliances to provide social protection measures to the poor.
Civil society: Most development-oriented NGOs work to give a voice to the voiceless so that the concerns of the marginalised are represented in public forums and are addressed. The poor often do not have access to healthcare, childcare, pension funds, shelter and basic amenities such as toilets and water. But as we have seen again and again in Nepal, when calamity strikes, political representatives are not the fastest providers of relief.
Given the range of services that the poor need, well-intentioned NGOs face two choices: forever approach donors for funding for various activities, or look for ways to organise the poor. The latter, if done well, gives the poor a chance to form cooperatives and alliances that can create partnerships or bargain with the public and the private sectors for the delivery of services and goods. The NGOs' value-addition work consists of organising the poor, giving them know-how and connecting them to opportunities that match their needs.
One example that came up was that of Sewa Bank, an NGO-run institution in India that collects deposits from the poor and provides basic money-related services to those not yet included in the financial sector. Likewise, once the poor are organised, NGOs can help them set up health cooperatives that bring doctors and medicines to the villages.
The public sector: An enlightened government can design frameworks and regulations that ensure the poor have access to growth opportunities. Vouchers and subsidies, for instance, have helped poor children attend good schools. Similarly, microfinance, job market training programs and public works such as road-building have helped the poor access opportunities to participate in the formal economy.
In Indonesia, the poor have not suffered as much due to the present global financial crisis as they did ten years ago. This is because the government learnt lessons and proactively set up coping mechanisms such as employment creation programs and health insurance schemes so workers who lost their jobs were not left to fend for themselves.
The private sector: NGOs and communities have been providing some form of insurance to the poor. In recent times, however, various governments have stipulated that private insurance providers serve the poor. As a result, micro-insurance has come up as a commercially viable product. The aim is to help the poor protect themselves financially from calamities and economic shocks.
Even in the face of limited documentation, commercial providers, working in tandem with NGOs, have ventured to provide insurance. In doing so, they have provided better systems of delivering benefits, the marketing muscle to scale up the number of risk-pooling households, and ideas for product innovation.
In Nepal, there is often a sense that civil society, the private sector and the public sector work at cross purposes. The lesson of the conference was that if they work together with the goal of uplifting the poor, they will do much to reduce the vulnerability experienced daily by millions in Nepal.