Economic recovery from COVID-19 – an opportunity for empowerment?

Green Recovery: How governments can use economic recovery from COVID-19 as an opportunity for empowerment

This op-ed is part of AASYP’s Digital Dialogues 2021, which is a programme that aims to provide a platform and forum for future leaders from across the region to contribute to the policymaking and diplomacy sphere by engaging in issues relating to Gender and Diversity, Green Recovery, and Emerging Economies.

Economic recovery from COVID-19 represents an incredible opportunity for governments around the world to channel investment into sustainable development. However, it is imperative that the groups who have been the most impacted by environmental destruction are able to benefit from the process of ‘Green Recovery’. This is the only way to ensure that all people have equal and fair access to an environmentally resilient future. 

Green Recovery is of particular concern to Australia and ASEAN countries. Both regions are particularly vulnerable to the shifting climate and the resulting increase in natural disasters, such as typhoons and droughts. 

In recognition of this, the Australian Government has spent around US$2 billion on sustainable development programs. Individual countries in the ASEAN region have also followed suit. In 2020, Thailand issued a THB 30 billion Sustainability Bond, the profits of which will be used to finance various social projects and green infrastructure initiatives. Similarly, the Philippines has declared a Moratorium on new greenfield coal-fired power plants.   

The Asian Development Bank is also committed to assisting the region through the ASEAN Catalytic Green Finance Facility Green Recovery Program. This initiative is valued at US$3.7 billion and will provide ‘technological assistance and concessional loans to about 25 green infrastructure projects across Southeast Asia in key sectors’. 

However, it is crucial to recognise that the benefits and costs of this unprecedented investment into sustainable development are unlikely to be evenly distributed across households. At a particular disadvantage are women and Indigenous populations, who are two groups that are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. 

The United Nations explains that this is because women represent the majority of the world’s poor, as well as being proportionally more dependent on threatened natural resources. Likewise, Indigenous populations have a uniquely close relationship to the natural environment, and their livelihoods and ways of life are typically dependent upon it. 

As the people who will be impacted the most by climate change, these vulnerable groups have a significant stake in the potential success of green initiatives. It is crucial that governments recognise this, and seize the opportunity offered by a transition towards a green economy in order to uplift and empower these communities. 

One example of a local initiative that achieves these aims is Action Aid’s female-led coalition ‘rewilding’ the mangrove forests on the coast of Cambodia. Working with women from communities in Kampot, Action Aid has assisted in the planting of over 100,000 saplings along the shore. This has had the impact of protecting and maintaining the biodiversity of the coastal regions, as well as reducing the impact of storm surges. This is essential for the continued operation of the local fishing industry, upon which the majority of the community relies for food supply and income. 

Importantly, this provides a clear template for how an environmental sustainability initiative aimed at bolstering the future resilience of local industry can be used to involve and uplift a traditionally marginalised community. By providing opportunities for women, it ensures a more equal distribution of the benefits of the process of green recovery. 

Doing so will likely also lead to other flow-on benefits, with female empowerment recognised as a crucial step in addressing the climate emergency. Indeed, the women working with Action Aid in Cambodia went on to establish a network of climate-adaptive floating gardens and schools. These will be used to teach future generations about environmental sustainability and resilience. 

A similar example that demonstrates how ‘green investment’ can be used to empower vulnerable communities is provided by the Indigenous Ranger and Protected Area programs in Australia. The Australian Government funds the Working on Country program, which supports around 118 ranger groups across Australia. These rangers draw upon traditional Indigenous knowledge in combination with modern techniques to care for and protect the land and sea. 

This initiative helps to advance the aims of the Australian Government in their pursuit of an environmentally sustainable economic future. In particular, the active management that the rangers provide helps to mitigate the threat of catastrophic wildfires. However, alongside this, the program also empowers local Indigenous communities, with ‘strong positive impacts on nature, families and communities’. 

Both of these examples speak to the ways in which the communities most at risk of climate change can be involved in, and empowered by, environmental sustainability initiatives. It is vital that governments in Australia and Southeast Asia recognise this and seize this opportunity it presents to ensure an equal distribution of the prosperity promised by Green Recovery.  

This article was written by Niamh Hanratty, edited by Siobhan Honey, and reviewed by the AASYP Publications Team.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and in no way represent nor reflect the position of AASYP and members of the AASYP Publications Team. The AASYP Horizons Blog provides a platform for the free expression of opinions and intellectual discourse.

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