The Asia-Pacific is a land of promise.
Even as the region does continue to face real economic and social challenges – for example, its mushrooming megacities, which are seeing the world’s highest rates of rural-to-urban migration, are not yet designed to withstand the increasing frequency and intensity of climate change events that impact this region – more people are enjoying lives of health and prosperity than ever before.
The share of population living in extreme poverty has fallen dramatically in recent decades: in 1990, more than 60 percent of people in the region were living on less than $2 a day, and now it’s only about 3 percent. Over the same time period, mortality rates for women and children in the region have each fallen by more than 60 percent as well.
During my first visit to Southeast Asia last month as president of The Rockefeller Foundation, I was struck by the optimism and innovation in this region, driven by a new generation of young leaders who are building a movement in meaningful social impact from the top down as well as bottom up. As we look for ways to confront and address the overwhelming wave of challenges facing the Asia-Pacific, we must channel this dynamism into fresh solutions and innovative partnerships. Critically, we must commit to these innovations and collaborations for impact that is widespread and enduring.
The Rockefeller Foundation has always seen this potential in the Asia-Pacific, and in fact has partnered with local entities for more than 100 years. Going back to its earliest days, the Foundation made two historic investments in the region: funding the creation of China’s Peking Union Medical College in Beijing, and helping establish the Siriraj Hospital and associated medical college at Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand. These medical institutions are some of The Rockefeller Foundation’s oldest partners in the world, training countless doctors over the decades.
In Thailand alone, our partnership with Siriraj Hospital enabled the introduction of modern science-based medicine and public health that helped combat hookworm throughout Southeast Asia and supported the education of thousands of postdoctoral fellows that have gone on to lead in health and medicine across the region, and even the world – a legacy that is still upheld through our support for the Prince Mahidol Award Conference, where many doctors will gather in Bangkok in the coming weeks.
During my visit to Bangkok in December, I was fortunate to spend time with the doctors and nurses of Siriraj Hospital and Medical Center. Today, Siriraj is a leader in community health, serving more than 3,000 outpatients a day. It continues to be at the forefront of science and medicine in Thailand and the region. What excites me even more is the continuing hunger to innovate and make an impact together.
Bangkok typifies the challenges many Southeast Asian cities face in combating the stresses of rapid urbanization and the shocks of climate events. It is also a shining example of what collaboration and commitment can achieve at the community level, despite crumbling trust in institutions worldwide. For example, in the wake of Thailand’s 2011 heavy floods – which damaged nearly 100,000 homes, left thousands of households completely destroyed, and took the lives of approximately 650 people – The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities has been working with the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority to prevent such a catastrophe from happening again.
While in Bangkok I had the chance to tour the Bangkok Water Management Center and Flood Control Center, where data and analytics are being used to understand where people are most vulnerable, so that our teams can focus on those communities, and develop strategies to help them move out of poverty and protect themselves from climate-related threats in the future. I was grateful to meet and visit with some of those community members – just a few of the 50,000 people that have been able to move from their previous, dilapidated homes, which were at great risk of flooding, into stable, flood-protected and affordable homes along Lat Phrao Canal. This means that parents can now raise their families in healthier, safer environments and provide their children with better opportunities for the future. And, with expanded collaboration, driven by science and technology, we can make wider and deeper impacts on the communities that we seek to serve.
My visit to Southeast Asia drove home the Foundation’s long-standing conviction that we, as a single institution, cannot solve the world’s most challenging issues by ourselves and we certainly cannot solve them through short-term, one-off partnerships. Making a sustainable impact requires an enduring and lasting commitment. We must commit to collaboration. And we must engage the next generation of philanthropists and social entrepreneurs like Mohamed Abbas who are seeking to make an impact on the world, empower them with capital and resources, learn from them and then grow with them.
I look to the future of the Asia-Pacific aware of the challenges that lie ahead, but hopeful about the opportunities to improve the lives of the region’s most vulnerable people. My visit to the region served as an important reminder that we can achieve more, help more people and face the world’s gravest challenges when we’re truly committed to one other and a shared vision for the future.