Solidarity is declining among people in the 21st century. This is evident in various aspects of society, including extreme individualism and consumerism, and growing polarization and fragmentation of social groups. Many people are bogged down with satisfying their own needs and wants, often with little regard for the needs of others. At the global level, nationalism is on the rise, paving the way for a greater separation of a country's interests from those of humanity as a whole.
We live in a heavily interconnected world where ongoing megatrends and crises affect us all. The ripples of the war in Ukraine are felt in the gas bill of a household in the Republic of Korea. Carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel power plants overseas turns into torrential rains in India, disrupting lives and paralyzing local economies.
Solidarity is a precondition for taking on these challenges. The downward spiral of human and environmental destruction is hard to reverse when decisions are made in pursuit of a sliver of people's interests with no regard for the external costs passed onto others and future generations.
In the UN Secretary-General’s report Our Common Agenda, social cooperation and solidarity within and between societies are suggested as a central solution to these global threats. COP27, which took place last November, is an encouraging example of the success of a multilateral system founded on profound solidarity. Countries reached a momentous agreement to establish a "loss and damage" fund to vulnerable countries heavily affected by climate disasters.
Growing inequalities and inadequate social protection are breaking down solidarity in Asia and the Pacific.
High levels of inequality erode trust, increase violence and hamper social cooperation. They also impede the development of social capital and prevent individuals from meaningfully shaping their lives and reaching their full potential.
Inequalities are growing in Asia and the Pacific, with significant increases in the most populous countries of the region. The aggregate income of the richest 10 per cent is eight times that of the poorest 50 per cent. The disparities in access to basic opportunities between the furthest ahead and furthest behind remain wide (Figure 1).
Source: ESCAP, Leaving No One Behind (LNOB). Available at https://www.lnob.unescap.org.
Many people are left without the basic support they need to survive and opportunities to live fulfilling and dignified lives, with less than half of the region’s population covered by at least one social protection scheme (Figure 2).
Source: ILO (2020), World Social Protection Database. Available at https://www.social-protection.org/gimi/WSPDB.action?id=32.
Combined with regressive taxation and inadequate social protection, inequality is not only a symptom but also a driver of weakened solidarity.
A strong social protection system may sound costly to implement, but it is a cost-effective solution to reducing inequality.
There is a body of evidence that suggests that social protection is a cost-effective way of reducing poverty and inequality. In fact, the cost of implementing a universal social protection system is not as high as many may think, especially if there is an efficient tax system in place. ESCAP’s Social Protection Simulator estimates that investing in universal child, disability and old-age benefit schemes at global average benefit levels could reduce poverty by 42 per cent on average, while reducing income inequality between the richest 10 per cent and the poorest 40 per cent by 14 per cent on average in the Asia-Pacific region. The cost of these packages would only range from 2.3 to 3.9 per cent of GDP of these countries.
Currently, the region's public spending on social protection is below 5 per cent of GDP on average, only a third of the OECD average of 14.6 per cent. Tax revenue falls below the minimum threshold of 15 in the majority of South-East Asian and South Asian countries according to the latest data from World Development Indicators.
A well-designed taxation system, broadening the tax base while moving away from regressive taxation, can generate enough revenue to provide a basic level of protection for all. Down the road, governments can ensure the sustainability of social protection systems by formalizing jobs and gradually expanding contributory schemes at the same time.
More inclusive and comprehensive social protection systems are a fertilizer for deeper solidarity.
Creating societies where everyone works towards common goals with shared interests is within reach in Asia and the Pacific. People’s willingness to give, measured by World Giving Index, in the region is second highest following North America, with about 37 per cent of people in Asia and the Pacific having engaged in giving acts in 2020. Extending social protection to all, which demonstrates people and states’ willingness to share resources and protect one another, can cultivate this solidarity from the individual to the regional level and accelerate global cooperation.
Solidarity will flourish where there is a system that brings people closer together by supporting and protecting them throughout their life cycle and ensuring everyone has equal access to opportunities. This is the first step in strengthening our collective ability to meet the challenges of the 21st century.