By Syed Zahid Abbas and Alma Freeman
The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program has donated more than 3 million books in Pakistan to date, and continues its long history of donating books to the now-turbulent country today, in spite of challenges of violence, illiteracy, and displacement.
Attacks, rising violence, and threats to schools that have challenged the ban on girls’ education have all presented growing security risks. Delivering books to each individual institution in areas in which daily brutal attacks have become the norm, is virtually impossible. In response to this dire need for books in outlying areas, Books for Asia began hosting “Book Fairs” that provide a centralized, secure location in far-flung provinces such as Peshawar or Quetta, allowing local institutions to travel a short distance to pick out books themselves. The fairs are wildly successful and have allowed the program to distribute nearly 40,000 books so far through this model, including to institutions in the North-West Frontier and Baluchistan Provinces.
Pakistan’s literacy rate, at around 50 percent, remains an acute development challenge. The battle against illiteracy is partly due to a lack of educational institutions; other factors include poverty, a lack of teachers, reluctance to send girls to school, security concerns, and insufficient commitment from the government.
These challenges are more severe for children internally displaced by conflict. Approximately 2 million people have been displaced from northwest Pakistan in the past year, and thousands of children now live in camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP). Tent schools are being built in the camps, and Books for Asia has begun donating books. However, host institutions normally pay freight fees, and the IDP schools are in no position to take on such a cost.
Reviving Books for Asia’s “Box Libraries Initiative” could be part of the solution. Running from 1986 to 1990, the initiative provided local- and English-language books packaged in large metal boxes for distribution to community schools and resource centers that lacked the sufficient infrastructure to support full shipments. Providing box libraries could help complement the curriculum and better prepare students when they return home.
Syed Zahid Abbas is the Manager of the Foundation’s Books for Asia Program in Pakistan, and Alma Freeman is The Asia Foundation’s Communications Specialist.
In Kabul, on October 27, The Asia Foundation released the results of its fifth survey of Afghan public opinion: Afghanistan in 2009: A Survey of the Afghan People. The survey was conducted nationwide throughout all 34 provinces of Afghanistan, and is a comprehensive, firsthand assessment of public perception on security, the economy, governance, democratic values, and the status of women. In-person interviews with 6,406 respondents took place between June 17 and July 6, prior to the national elections, and were administered by local Afghan survey teams totaling 648 men and women.
The survey provides a striking snapshot of public opinion in Afghanistan and insights about the problems Afghans face and the direction in which they believe their country is moving. The survey respondents pointed to insecurity-attacks, violence, and terrorism-as the biggest problem facing the country, followed closely by unemployment, a poor economy, and corruption. Findings also indicate that 42 percent of Afghans think the country is headed in the right direction (compared to 38% in 2008, 42% in 2007, 44% in 2006, and 64% in 2004*); while 29 percent feel it is moving in the wrong direction (32% in 2008, 24% in 2007, 21% in 2006, 11% in 2004*). The remaining 21 percent have mixed feelings (23% in 2008, 25% in 2007, 29% in 2006, and 8% in 2004*).
Thailand continues to struggle for political stability three years after the September 2006 coup. To ensure that opinions from Thai citizens are represented during this time of political turmoil, The Asia Foundation conducted a nationwide opinion poll in 26 provinces to gauge the national mood toward election reform, participation in politics, amending the constitution, and more.
The survey, Constitutional Reform and Democracy in Thailand: A National Survey of the Thai People, reveals that the Thai electorate is pessimistic about the overall direction of the country, with less than a third saying the country is moving in the right direction. At the center of the national debate is the current Constitution, which voters approved in an August 2007 referendum, replacing the 1997 Constitution.
“The survey results shed light on emerging trends and changing attitudes of Thai voters, including compelling insights into controversial issues surrounding the calls for revisions to the 2007 Constitution, as well as hot button topics like political amnesty and impunity,” said Dr. James Klein, the Foundation’s Country Representative in Thailand. An overwhelming majority (84 percent) believes that a new or revised constitution should be ratified through a referendum.
The survey also asked respondents their views on decentralization, vote-buying, influences in the voting process, their allegiance to political parties, and their level of trust in institutions. The complete findings are available in on our website in English and Thai.
In September, the Foundation brought together 18 Southeast Asian and eight American former Freeman Fellows in Singapore to consider how the dynamics of U.S.-Southeast Asian relations may have changed in recent years, and to examine important political, economic, and social issues in the region. These fellows were participants in a series of Asia Foundation exchanges from 2002-2006 for 80 promising young professionals from Southeast Asia and the United States to help them develop a better understanding of one another’s region. The program was initiated by the Foundation out of concern that fewer Americans had been involved with Southeast Asia since the end of the Vietnam War and subsequently were less familiar with the region’s nuances and complexities. Consequently, a younger generation of Southeast Asians had limited exposure to the United States.
Funded by a grant from the Freeman Foundation, The Asia Foundation arranged for these groups to take part in a series of observation programs to broaden and exchange dialogue. The Americans met with Southeast Asian Members of Parliament, academics and business people, Muslim school teachers, and catfish farmers. In the United States, the Southeast Asians visited members of Congress, business associations, community organizations, religious and social service organizations, homeless shelters, family farms, and more. Participants represented diverse fields such as foreign affairs, journalism, business, public administration, social services, and academia.
Two of the participants in the Singapore meeting, Ms. Haseenah Koyakutty, a native of Singapore who is a freelance writer and Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, and Dr. Thomas Lum, an Asian analyst for the Congressional Research Service in Washington, DC, wrote analyses based on the discussions on changing dynamics of U.S.-Southeast Asian relations. The papers are available at www.asiafoundation.org.
John J. Brandon is The Asia Foundation’s Director of International Relations Programs in Washington.
Seoul Office Hosts Seminar on U.S.-Korea Alliance
The Foundation’s office in Seoul opened a seminar in November there to assess prospects for expanding the U.S.-ROK alliance into new areas of cooperation. Three presentations focused on international peacekeeping, overseas development assistance, and maritime security. Co-hosted by the Foundation’s Center for U.S.-Korea Policy (CUSKP), this is the second discussion in a three-part series examining opportunities for U.S.-ROK cooperation.Pictured Left: Scott Snyder, Director of The Asia Foundation’s Center for U.S.-Korea Policy.
Matching Grant Goals
The Asia Foundation raised more than $50,000 to meet matching grant goals for the Books for Asia Fund and Vietnam Fund. Thanks to recent donations from supporters, more books will reach the hands of students in some of the most far flung and conflict-affected areas in the Asia-Pacific region, and more disadvantaged girls will continue their middle school and high school education in Vietnam. With the matching funds, more than $75,000 will go to Books for Asia and more than $50,000 to Vietnam.
Dr. Zhao Ggang, Visiting Fellow in Clean Energy
The Asia Foundation’s Chang-Lin Tien Visiting Fellowship honors the late Chair of our Board-a well-renowned University of California Berkeley Chancellor, Chang-Lin Tien. The fellowship, which aims to foster greater dialogue and understanding between Asians and Americans accomplished in their professional fields, was awarded in 2009 to Dr. Zhao Gang, Professor and Director, Chinese Academy of Science and Technology for Development, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology.
A key figure in China’s clean energy program, Dr. Zhao worked with former Defense Secretary William Perry at Stanford University on a framework for energy collaboration. In meetings arranged by the Foundation in San Francisco, Sacramento, Davis, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, DC, Dr. Zhao explored possible cooperation on clean energy and climate change programs with members of the public and private sectors, research and policy institutions, and environmental advocacy organizations.
Conference Tackles Development Challenges
To address mounting development challenges around the globe, The Asia Foundation, in cooperation with KDI School of Public Policy and Management and the Korean Association of International Development and Cooperation, held a conference November 24-25 in Seoul to focus on development issues and strategies in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The gathering provided the opportunity for information-sharing and dialogue between Korea and the three participating countries regarding effective international cooperation for addressing development needs. H.E. Kul Chandra Gautam, former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations and former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, delivered the keynote address and H.E. Shin Kak-soo, Vice Foreign Minister of the Republic of Korea delivered opening remarks.
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Let’s Talk Rights, a new weekly TV talk show in Thailand featuring debates between policymakers, government officials, academics, and citizens on issues such as land disputes, human rights, community rights, and gender equality, recently made its debut. The one-hour program, which is supported by The Asia Foundation, will air every Thursday on Thai PBS at 10 a.m. in the Thai language.
“We will tackle subjects that are controversial in nature,” says former National Human Rights Commissioner Sunee Chaiyarose, who will moderate the program. “To address challenging issues, differences need to be openly discussed in a respectful way, and not ignored.” Ms. Sunee was a member of the Constitution Drafting Assembly and played a significant role in bolstering the human rights agenda in the 1997 Constitution drafting process. She is also a respected authority on community rights and labor law issues.
The show’s first episode featured discussions on contentious industrial projects in Rayong province and on the role of special security laws in curbing the ongoing insurgency in the south. Content from Let’s Talk Rights is available on YouTube.