Asia’s economic success often obscures the very real challenges affecting the region, including widespread corruption, persistent poverty, gender discrimination, environmental threats, and deadly religious and ethnic conflicts. Left unaddressed, these problems threaten to reverse Asia’s gains and undermine its future growth and development. Drawing on the expertise of local Asian partners and our own expertise in the 18 countries in which we work, in 2014 we will focus international attention on six critical issues facing Asia.
Corruption is deeply entrenched in many Asian countries and continues to erode public trust in democratic processes and in public institutions. Accountable governance institutions are critical to sustainable growth in Asia, particularly in countries experiencing rapid social and economic change. As more Asian countries achieve "middle income" status, citizen demands for good government are growing, as evidenced by rising anti-corruption movements in India, Indonesia, Philippines, and Vietnam. Failure to address these demands may relegate many Asian countries to economic stagnation, social unrest, and political instability.
Despite the region's dramatic growth, income inequality in Asia is rising. Moreover, some 700 million people across the region live on less than US$1 a day. Policy reforms are urgently needed to create jobs and foster "inclusive growth." In Myanmar, for example, a lack of transparency, combined with bureaucratic and legal impediments, prevent citizens from opening small and medium-sized businesses. The country is rich in oil, gas, timber, gems, and hydropower but its future will hinge on its ability to build a private economy and create jobs.
While Asian women are increasingly visible in leadership positions, political participation rates of men and women continue to be vastly unequal. In many countries, women are routinely discouraged from entering public office. At the same time, women entrepreneurs, who make up a significant portion of Asia's small and medium-sized businesses, face systemic barriers to success like access to credit. The low status of women in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan has led activists to strengthen the link between women's political participation and their ability to preserve hard-fought legal, educational, and economic gains.
Subnational conflicts are the most deadly, widespread, and enduring violent conflicts in Asia. Recent studies by The Asia Foundation indicate that more people have died in the region's 26 subnational conflicts than in international conflicts during the past 20 years. In South and Southeast Asia, active conflicts affect regions that are roughly the size of Indonesia and inhabited by more than 130 million people. In Thailand, for example, the resurgence of an indigenous ethno-nationalist conflict in nation's three southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat has left nearly 6,000 dead and over 9,500 injured.
Weak legal institutions and systems of justice mean that citizens throughout Asia face challenges in resolving disputes, enforcing their rights, and accessing benefits to which they are legally entitled. Still recovering from decades of war and genocide, Cambodia remains plagued by poverty, nepotism, corruption, and land grabs. Yet, after six years of judicial proceedings and a cost of $200 million, the Khmer Rouge tribunal is likely to secure no more than three convictions.
As one of the countries most vulnerable to natural disasters, China's 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province claimed the lives of nearly 70,000 people and left at least 1.5 million without shelter. After the devastation, a coalition of Chinese NGOs active in the disaster response and relief field recognized the urgency of establishing standardized preparedness systems and rallied to address the needs of affected populations. This kind of preparedness must become systematic throughout the region.