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ASEAN Can Lead Sustainable And Inclusive Economic Development, Here’s How

Mother and child walking along train tracks in Khlong Toey, Bangkok
The slums of Khlong Toey in Bangkok, July 19, 2009. Patrick de Noirmont/AsiaWorks for the Rockefeller Foundation

Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are gathering for their 35th summit in Bangkok this week to chart a course for the region’s economic future. As we’ve argued before, Southeast Asia is re-emerging as a theater for major powers to exert geopolitical might through economic means. Amid rising headwinds in the global economy, geopolitical tensions, and the arrival of mega-initiatives like China’s Belt and Road (BRI), the ten-member bloc’s role in shepherding diplomacy across the wider Asia-Pacific region is more important now than ever.

While official development assistance (ODA) has decreased significantly in the last decade, it still stood at $5.7 billion in 2017 from OECD countries alone. The Asia Foundation found that of regional programs funded by ODA from OECD countries (not including bilateral funding which typically go toward large infrastructure projects), ASEAN directly manages or controls only 19% while about 36% have no link with the bloc at all. These figures don’t include south-south investments such as through BRI. To maintain control of its development future, ASEAN states must be rule-makers, not rule-takers.

Thailand, the bloc’s outgoing chair, may have an answer. Last year, it announced the formation of the ASEAN Centre for Sustainable Development Studies and Dialogue (AC2SD) that will officially launch in this week’s meetings. The new center has the potential to coalesce competing priorities not only among ASEAN states, but corral the diverse efforts of businesses, NGOs, funders, and multilaterals toward goals set for— and by— the people of Southeast Asia.

To maintain control of its development future, ASEAN states must be rule-makers, not rule-takers.

The Rockefeller Foundation and The Asia Foundation, in cooperation with the Thai Foreign Ministry, have teamed up with a group of eminent advisors from the private sector, civil society and policy space to propose a framework that would underpin the success of such ambition. The following are a few reflections that our foundations took away from the initial meeting (the official recommendations from the advisory group will be released early next year):

First, ASEAN should set the terms for development cooperation in the region. The bloc should be a price-maker, not a price-taker, shaping the priorities, norms, and standards for development cooperation, rather than simply accept the norms of external donor nations.

Second, innovations in evidence-based reporting must be prioritized. ASEAN member states collectively lack the ability to produce the data and evidence necessary to robustly monitor progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), only two of which, according to the UN, the region is on track to reach by 2030. To get back on track, it will be important to focus more attention on the collection and analysis of data needs, focusing on outcomes rather than outputs, and designed in ways that enable shared accountability with donors and other partners.

Third, a modular approach to development can accelerate results. It is often difficult for all 10 member states to find a shared priority given the varied levels of development and interests. In certain situations, a “modular approach” would allow sub-groups of less than the full 10 to advance an agenda in alignment with high-level principles agreed to by the full set. Such an approach enables nimbler responses to emerging issues, and can encourage innovation through the entrepreneurial piloting of solutions before they’re scaled region-wide.

Fourth, competition in development cooperation needs to be actively discouraged. Development should be in the common service of the region’s most vulnerable, not a vehicle for competing external powers. ASEAN’s principles of neutrality, inclusiveness, and complementarities lend themselves well to the creation of a dialogue platform that can shield collaboration on sustainable and inclusive development from geopolitical tensions and address thorny issues such as uncoordinated support that may render some programs overfunded and others underfunded, or ballooning sovereign debt.

Fifth, development partnerships should span the range of actors willing and able to make an impact. The region already possesses the resources, energy, and innovation necessary to accelerate progress towards SDGs. ASEAN is missing an important opportunity to tap the contributions of private entities–investors, philanthropists, businesses and the like–whose efforts largely go unnoticed by governments. The Asia Venture Philanthropy Network tells us their members have invested nearly $1 billion in Southeast Asia’s social sector through debt, equity, and grants in the last year alone. And that’s just what’s been publicly disclosed. As stakeholders in the region’s economic future, non-state actors have a strong appetite to shape their work to align with ASEAN, especially if there is a clear link to the SDGs. Collectively, this group has the potential to make an enormous contribution; but without pathways for alignment, their projects evolve independently of government and ASEAN priorities.

With concerted collaboration, ASEAN could achieve a much greater impact. Perhaps more importantly, the opportunity to contribute—and be recognized for the contribution—could unlock untapped and underutilized resources to take goals farther and faster. One way of doing so is by creating open platforms to unleash aligned contributions from a full spectrum of partners. For inspiration, look to Singapore’s GovTech agency or the “India Stack” open data project. There are many ways to solve a problem, and governments benefit from opening up the process to a diversity of ideas. The essence of a cross-cutting platform would be to define ASEAN priorities on key development challenges and create an open pathway that allows many other actors to align with, contribute to, and invest in progress towards these priorities. This would transform competing organizations and efforts into collaboration that delivers a greater collective impact.

Thailand’s focus on partnership (SDG 17) as a pillar of their ASEAN Chair theme has set the right tone to harness the energy, resources and optimism of the region that are currently deployed across diverse agendas. The task at hand is for ASEAN to lead in their convergence.

Regional development cooperation will be a crucial arena for ASEAN to flex its muscles not only to attract more resources, but to command those resources to rally behind priorities the region sets–not agendas of foreign interests.

This piece originally appeared on Forbes on October 30, 2019, and reposted with permission.

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