The Asia Foundation is now convening Asian and American working groups to guide the successful America’s Role in Asia (ARA) program for 2008. Held on a quadrennial cycle since 2000, ARA examines critical issues in U.S.- Asian relations through a series of high-level discussions across Asia and the United States. These activities culminate in published reports that provide American and Asian policymakers and business leaders with views and recommendations designed to address challenges and opportunities in the region. The recommendations generated out of the 2008 program will coincide with the upcoming presidential and congressional elections in the United States and will provide a unique perspective for forthcoming U.S. policy toward Asia.
The American working group is co-chaired by Ambassador Michael Armacost, Shorenstein Distinguished Fellow at Stanford University’s Asia-Pacific Research Center, and Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy, Vice Chairman of Kissinger Associates. Ambassadors Armacost and Roy are members of the Foundation’s board. Ambassador Armacost served as U.S. ambassador to Japan and the Philippines and as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs at the State Department, while Ambassador Roy served as ambassador to China, Indonesia, and Singapore, and Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research.
The Asian regional chairs are Ambassador Han Sung-joo, President of Korea University in Seoul (Northeast Asia), Ambassador Tommy Koh, Chairman of the Institute of Policy Studies and Ambassador-at-Large in Singapore (Southeast Asia), and Dr. C. Raja Mohan, Professor at Nanyang Technological University (South Asia). The Asian and American Groups’ findings will be presented to the Platform Committees of the Democrat and Republican parties just prior to their respective national conventions. Afterwards, the reports will be distributed widely in the U.S. and Asia.
Initial funding was generously provided by American International Group, Inc. (AIG) and Chevron.
Each year, thousands of young women are trafficked within and outside of Nepal and forced into exploitative labor situations, including prostitution. Extreme poverty, illiteracy, and internal conflict contribute to the tragic cycle of this illegal practice. The Asia Foundation has provided more than 2,300 trafficking survivors and those at risk of being trafficked with vocational training and education, enabling them to become economically self-reliant. Some are now mechanics and drivers. With support from Give2Asia, The Asia Foundation’s philanthropic partner, the Foundation helps program graduates establish “one-stop shops” where customers come for motorcycle and electronic repairs. The program challenges gender stereotypes and provides the young women with good jobs and useful businesses that directly reduces their risk of being trafficked.
Vietnam has made significant economic and developmental progress in the last few decades, but as it operates in an increasingly global landscape, families living in rural areas are plunging deeper into poverty. About 90 percent of Vietnam’s poor live in remote rural areas. Families struggle to make ends meet as rapid urbanization pushes them further from economic and educational opportunities.
Studies show higher education is key to reducing poverty. Although primary school is officially free in Vietnam, families are responsible for books, uniforms, transportation, and maintenance costs of the school building. University level education, which costs US$960 per year in Vietnam, is virtually impossible for poor families who typically earn less than US$240 per year and depend on their children to contribute to total household income.
To increase educational opportunities for poor students in Vietnam, The Asia Foundation, with generous donor support, has partnered with the Vietnamese Association for Promoting and Supporting Educational Development to implement a four-year scholarship program. Roughly $250 covers one student per year; already, more than 140 disadvantaged girls have been able to attend primary and/or lower secondary school.
With our staff on the ground in Vietnam, the Foundation is able to ensure that scholarship recipients have the network of support needed for success. Additional funds provide vocational education programs so recipients can become economically independent and support their families. For example, one current donor couple has funded an embroidery training program where beneficiaries can learn the skills to earn a sustainable livelihood.
“Because my family is very poor, my parents had planned to let me stay at home to support them. My parents wanted me to drop out of school to save costs for my brothers to be able to continue studying. Fortunately, I received a scholarship from The Asia Foundation. I was so happy and moved to be able to go to school with my friends again.”
- Nguyen Thi Be Hong, grade 8, An Phu district, An Giang province
Years ago, Bat-erdene, a sheep herder’s son, left his rugged, remote village in Eastern Mongolia to study literature. During college, he discovered English-language textbooks donated by Books for Asia β and vowed to help young people in his village learn English, as well. Now an official in the provincial government, he personally oversees the long distance Books for Asia deliveries for the children of Chuluunkhoroot.
Since 1954, Books for Asia, The Asia Foundation’s longest running program, has been committed to the belief that knowledge and education are critical for Asian nations to advance their citizens and societies. Books for Asia puts nearly one million up-to-date books and resources of the highest quality into the hands of students, teachers, and librarians in 17 Asian countries each year.
For more information, visit www.booksforasia.org.
The Antenna Foundation Nepal is far from a typical news organization. These Kathmandu-based reporters and producers strap mobile transmitters on their backs, “doko-style,” and trek into remote areas in the Himalayas to reach extremely isolated communities. Once there, they find a bamboo tree to fashion a tall, make-shift antenna and hook up receivers, so residents can hear what’s going on in their country. Then, they turn the microphones over to villagers and let them tell their stories. Back in Kathmandu, Antenna broadcasts their grassroots story-gathering in an effort to keep government officials in touch with their rural constituents.
This spring, in partnership with The Asia Foundation, The Antenna Foundation Nepal will pack up their equipment and trek across the United States to uncover stories of their own Nepalese diaspora. Their interviews and reports will explore questions about why people leave Nepal, what they find in the U.S., social and cultural experiences in both countries, and reflections on life in America, against a backdrop of one country struggling to hold Constituent Assembly elections, and another’s drawn out presidential primary season. Antenna’s findings will become a 12-part radio magazine, Postcards from America, which will be broadcast to approximately 8.5 million listeners across Nepal.
GROUNDBREAKING INDEX GAUGES DOING BUSINESS IN ASIA
The Asia Foundation has pioneered a tool called the local “Economic Governance Index” (EGI) as a way to measure business-friendliness of local governments in Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. The Index highlights provinces most open to private enterprise and the least encumbered by red-tape when it comes to business set up: entry and licensing costs, access to land and information, time expended in compliance with regulations, taxes, dispute resolution, crime prevention, corruption and informal charges, inspections and registration waiting periods, transparency, as well as access to improved labor training and legal institutions.
The governments of these provinces have embraced the EGI as a tool to help them measure local reforms and government performance, as well, and there has been a lot of public attention when the index standings are announced, resulting in healthy competition among provinces. As a result, businesses and entrepreneurs have begun to see it as a useful means of deciding where to put businesses. Bruce Tolentino, Director of Economic Reform and Development Programs at The Asia Foundation; Edmund Malesky, Foundation partner and Assistant Professor at the University of California, San Diego; Veronique Salze-Lozach, The Asia Foundation’s Regional Director of Economic Reform and Development Programs in Cambodia; and Neil McCulloch, The Asia Foundation’s Director of Economic Programs in Indonesia, are hosting a series of programs this spring in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., to present information on this compelling index. See event details.
ROUNDTABLE ON VIOLENT CONFLICT IN REMOTE BORDER REGIONS
Many of Asia’s worst cases of instability and political violence are a direct result of sub-national conflicts in remote or border regions. These are places where the state’s authority is challenged by armed, disaffected minorities or marginalized people that hold significant grievances with the political establishment. Places like southern Thailand; Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago in the Philippines; Tamil regions of northeastern Sri Lanka; Baluchistan, Northwest Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Area regions of Pakistan; and the Maoist insurgency and recent ethnic minority revolts in Nepal. These center-periphery conflicts raise questions that are often forgotten in the normal discourse on fragile states. For example, in Afghanistan and Timor-Leste, the focus is mostly on stabilizing the environment, restoring central institutions, reconstituting local security forces, and returning power to a democratically elected government. But center-periphery conflicts cannot be managed in this traditional way, or through force alone. The grievances or policy-irritants driving conflict have to be directly addressed.
Earlier this winter, The Asia Foundation organized a roundtable for experts in conflict, security, and governance in Asia to spark dialogue on the unique dynamics of these kinds of violent conflicts. Experts attended from Afghanistan, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, The World Bank, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey Institute of International Studies, and USAID, among others.
A follow-on workshop, “Joint Seminar on Conflict and State Fragility,” was also held in Asia. The workshop was co-organized with the Foundation for Advanced Studies on International Development.
Senior Program Officer, Indonesia. Growing up in a small village in West Java, Lies Marcoes-Natsir went without shoes until junior high school, but when she became an adult, she ended up on the cover of Time Magazine. Her father and mother educated her in that small village and instilled the importance of religion and civil society in Indonesia. Lies’ earliest work on women’s issues was raising awareness of Indonesia’s high maternal mortality rate. She worked with a pesantren-based NGO on promoting women’s rights for Muslim communities. More than just a boarding school, pesantren is a sub-culture of Islam in Indonesia. “I came from a pesantren background, so even though I was a feminist, I was still acceptable to the pesantren,” she says. “Bear in mind that in those days, it was not considered such a ‘good’ thing to be a feminist.”
Working to improve gender awareness in an Islamic culture would influence her work for years to come. She had a unique and very effective perspective: “We feminists seemed to have forgotten a critical part of promoting improved gender relations β the need to consider the views of religion. Religion is actually a powerful resource to work toward greater justice.”
At the time, there was no precedent linking gender and Islam. So Lies encouraged feminist academics and ulama (Islamic scholars) to revisit classical Islamic texts from a gender perspective. This strategy helped boost the women’s movement in Indonesia, and inspired Lies’ current work: in tsunami-ravaged Aceh, she trains madrasah (Islamic day school) teachers about gender equality, and manages a program raising gender awareness among Shari’ah Court judges, who hold great influence in Acehnese communities. Thanks in part to her efforts, over 80 percent of Shari’ah judges in Aceh have received training on gender and family law.
One judge who took the training told her that he now often prays for forgiveness for treating women unfairly in the past. This persuasiveness was what landed her on the cover of Time in September 2004 when she led a demonstration in protest of the bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. “We women activists were voicing our sorrow and anger, in various ways. I read poems about how sad we were as women, how we could not believe that these terrorists could have been born from the wombs of women.”
Lies was recognized with a 2007 Presidential Award for outstanding achievement from The Asia Foundation.