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COVID-19 has highlighted the ways that global public goods play an increasingly important role in the world, in both negative (a global pandemic hopping from country to country) and positive (global vaccine collaboration and distribution) ways. It’s increasingly clear that many of the biggest challenges nations face—and the solutions—won’t be restricted to one nation’s borders. The need for regional or global cooperation has never been greater.

Traditionally, regional development banks (RDBs) like the Asian Development Bank (ADB) have supported regional cooperation by building cross-border infrastructure, facilitating trade integration, and strengthening intraregional supply chains and financial links. For over five decades, ADB has played the role of convener and “honest broker” among its developing member countries, helping to build trust through dialogue and knowledge transfer as well as promoting regional cooperation and integration.

The years of collaborative investment in these sectors by governments and development partners have no doubt played a critical role in reducing poverty in Asia and the Pacific. But more can be done to realize the value of RDBs for regional cooperation in the social sector—meaning health, social protection, and education—especially given these are issues that COVID-19 has affected most greatly.

The need for cross-border cooperation in the social sector 

The case of vaccines is a clear example of the need for collaboration in health: even prior to COVID-19, most countries could not single-handedly carry out all the functions required to sustainably produce, distribute, and administer vaccinations. Some countries are able to carry out research and development for vaccines but may not have sufficient raw materials for testing and producing vaccines at scale (the case of Indonesia). Others may have capacity to manufacture but rely on export markets to ensure investment returns (the case of India). Many developing countries need support not just for production of vaccines, but also to strategize on a rollout plan that includes fair access policies, so no one is left behind.

COVID-19 has also highlighted the importance of portability of social protection for migrants who cross borders: without labor policies that do enough to grant affordable healthcare, income support, and access to basic needs, many migrants have been left to fend for themselves in host countries without the capacity to return home (migrants particularly from the Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Myanmar have faced this problem). Governments need to collaborate to ensure safe and orderly migration, including ways to support migrants who fall ill or lose their jobs, or become vulnerable to trafficking and abuse while abroad. This must be paired with culturally sensitive training such that basic services are provided to migrants in an appropriate manner.

COVID-19 has highlighted the long-standing missed opportunities for collaboration in the education sector. For example, mutual recognition of qualifications is still underdeveloped, such that skills gained in one country are not valued elsewhere, leading to fewer job opportunities. During COVID-19, it has become clear that certain sectors, including tourism, care for older people, hospitality and construction, require a constant supply of labor.  Better harmonization of standards and qualifications would open up labor markets to more people, especially within regions that share common or similar languages (Laos and Thailand, for example).

How regional development banks can help

Countries can look towards RDBs like ADB to boost regional investments in the social sector. In its role as secretariat or advisor, ADB has convened five regional platforms and working groups to facilitate engagement in the Asia Pacific region. These blocs are the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area Initiative; the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation program; the Greater Mekong Subregion; the Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand Growth Triangle Initiative; and the South Asia Economic Cooperation Program. Stakeholders from different member countries across a range of industries—trade, tourism, environment and agriculture, and transport—are represented in the blocs. Together, these groups strategize on areas of investment in their respective sectors and help to drive economic development, particularly in so-called economic corridors where the value-added of regional investments are significant. This aligns closely to ADB’s strategy for the next 10 years, which identifies regional cooperation and integration as one of seven key pillars to reduce poverty.

A breakdown of the five ADB subregional programs from the ADB website.

The Greater Mekong Subregion, a particularly interconnected part of the world, has led the way in showing what a model of regional collaboration in the social sector might look like. An active health cooperation working group convenes regularly to discuss programs of investment and priority areas of mutual interest. The working group has created and started to implement a Greater Mekong Subregion Health Cooperation Strategy, which lays out the commitment to work on health security as a regional public good; on health impacts of connectivity and mobility; and on health workforce resource development. The working group provided a fast-acting mechanism when the pandemic first hit, convening in the “safe space” the ADB provides to discuss solutions to the crisis together. (The Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation program has provided a similar platform to exchange lessons, identify urgent investment needs, and mobilize resources during the crisis.)

How do we enhance these efforts?

First, building on these regional single-sector blocs, RDBs should focus on nurturing learning and sharing knowledge across regional boundaries and sectoral silos. For example, migrant-sending countries like the Philippines or Bangladesh could work more closely with receiving countries, which are part of the Central and West Asian blocs. Further, RDBs should endeavor to mainstream social programs across sectors, including traditional infrastructure sectors, for example through health impact assessments that evaluate the cost and benefits to health of infrastructure projects in border zones. Or, working cross-sectorally with health, agriculture, environment and trade, on “one health,” to address the effect of COVID-19 on access to food and zoonosis. Initiatives like this would address the constraints that many countries have faced in balancing economic outcomes and access to health and basic needs. It is clear such multi-sectoral approaches provide richer and more coordinated solutions.

Second, as RDBs ramp up regional investment, they must accompany it with an increased willingness to take risks and experiment with innovative ideas to address new challenges in the social sector. These include the increasing need for long-term care (which requires labor mobility to plug acute shortages in the care sector) and climate change (issues such as air and water pollution or emerging and zoonotic diseases), which will no doubt dominate the landscape in Asia and the Pacific going forward.

In the Greater Mekong Subregion, the working group on health cooperation is examining the idea of “roaming health finance” to reduce barriers to healthcare access for migrant workers. Under such a scheme, basic services would be provided for free or at affordable cost for all migrant workers moving within geographic boundaries, backed by finance from governments, ADB, and ADB-leveraged grant funds. Such a scheme would ensure universal health coverage across borders, not just within national jurisdictions.

Third, RDBs can help countries navigate and take advantage of new possibilities for regional governance that have been opened up by innovations in technology. Traditionally, physical and geographic boundaries have been the focus of most policymakers, but technological innovations have altered the speed, mode, and dimensions of regional cooperation. The increased availability and prevalence of information has necessitated data sharing and big data analysis, which, if used properly, can significantly influence policymaking.

One example is the sharing of disease information across countries, and particularly within regions, to combat COVID-19. Similar ideas for using technology regionally to support smoother social protection mechanisms, such as cashless digital transfers across borders, can be ramped up. The need to boost online learning during the pandemic could eventually lead to mutual recognition of qualifications and certifications, enhancing opportunities in cross-border labor markets. Yet, working across multiple “invisible” jurisdictions will require policymakers to revisit the concept of “governance” and identify how best to harmonize national policy with global policy. And if regulating labor migrants crossing physical borders seems challenging, transitioning into the future of work, ensuring sufficient social protection, and reflecting changes in labor mobility patterns due to increased mechanization and new technologies pose a new—and far more challenging—set of obstacles.

Fourth, with the rapidly changing regional cooperation landscape, RDBs must ensure targeted social interventions for vulnerable groups such as women, people with disabilities, older persons, and children. Social sector projects perform quite well to ensure vulnerable groups have increased access to basic services, formulate affirmative actions for minority groups, and check safeguards are in place.  However, there is always a risk that with increased integration, some groups will get left behind. As labor markets become more regionally integrated, it is important to ensure women have access to high-skilled jobs, that their active economic and social participation is guaranteed, and that various social protections are available at hand, especially to manage care for children, older persons, and people with disabilities—groups that normally rely disproportionately on caregiving by women.

Without doubt, COVID-19 has tested the limits of global and regional cooperation and the social sector has found itself center stage. Regional development banks like ADB have a golden opportunity to harness their comparative advantage, building on past experience to scale up regional cooperation in the social sector. Now is the time to revitalize dialogue between governments and stakeholders, support swift implementation of regional strategies, and identify collaborative opportunities for the future. As part of CGD and ADB’s ongoing collaboration, future blogs will explore other areas of regional cooperation, including portability of social protection and one health.

Azusa Sato is a Social Sector Specialist with ADB and a visiting Policy Fellow at the Center for Global Development. All views presented here are hers.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.