How Will Online Platforms Shape Asia’s Growth Story?

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017

Sahib Anandsongvit had a problem: his family, who ran a boutique hotel business in Bangkok, constantly needed to find skilled workers to repair rooms, clean facilities, or perform other services on short notice. Traditionally, Thai small business owners looking for service providers have relied on word of mouth, or flyers pinned to trees and telephone poles around the city. But how can one be sure that the provider is trustworthy, and how can they be found quickly for emergency repairs? To address this problem, Sahib co-founded a new company called Seekster. Unlike a traditional business in this space, which might hire a fleet of service providers and pay them an hourly rate, Seekster took a “platform” approach. Without hiring a single provider directly, Sahib built an online marketplace where micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs)—like his own family—can find, hire, and rate the services of independent cleaners, plumbers, pest exterminators, and air conditioner technicians who sign up on the platform. Businesses on Seekster get fast and high-quality services, while individual providers get immediate access to a customer base and can parlay good ratings into much higher and more reliable incomes. In fact, Seekster providers earn more than triple the minimum daily wage of 310 Baht (about $9). Across Asia, online platforms like Seekster—which leverage rapidly expanding mobile broadband and cloud computing services to facilitate transactions—have emerged as valuable tools for navigating the connected world. By 2020, over a billion people in the Asia-Pacific alone will be served by online platforms, and platform businesses are already active in sectors as diverse as finance, logistics, cross-border trade, talent acquisition, household services, and the traditional buying and selling of goods. Farmers in Indonesia are using platforms to access crop information from top universities, weather data from the Indonesian meteorological agency, and daily commodity prices from nearby markets. An unbanked bookseller in Gaya can conduct customer transactions, make purchases, and protect savings from financial shocks—all by using a local online payment platform. Through a local education platform, a gifted student living in a remote or rural area can access accredited university courses. And Asia’s… Read more

What Factors Drive Child Marriage in Afghanistan?

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017

Afghanistan is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a woman. Contributing factors include different forms of gender-based violence, poor education, limited access to healthcare, and not being allowed outside the home. Sadly, many Afghan women also face forced child marriage—despite it being illegal. A significant amount of research confirms that child marriages undermine girls’ participation in decision-making, educational attainment, and labor force participation, and leave them vulnerable to violence and health risks throughout their life. Furthermore, these risks can be transferred to their children, leading to an intergenerational effect—impacting their children’s education, nutrition, and health. One of the key challenges to addressing this problem is a lack of data that policymakers can use to design better interventions and target relevant populations. The data that is available suggests that one in eight Afghan girls is married before the age of 16—the minimum legal age according to the Afghan law—and that one in three Afghan girls is married by the time she turns 18. A 2015 research report from the Norwegian Refugee Council suggests that the situation is even more grave for internally displaced women and girls living in informal settlements in urban areas, who, compared with other Afghans, are more likely to be non-literate, to have lower rates of school enrollment, to live in larger households (but with lower household incomes), and to be unemployed. Since 2006, The Asia Foundation has been conducting an annual Survey of the Afghan People, the most comprehensive public opinion survey in the country, which includes perception data on a wide range of topics, including women’s issues. In 2014, we added a question to the survey regarding Afghans’ perception of the ideal marriage age for women and men. On average over the last three years, respondents said that the best age for women to marry is 19.2 and for men is 22.5, a difference of more than three years. Furthermore, 4.6 percent of respondents said that the best age for women to get married is before the age of 16 years, which is currently prohibited under Afghan law. Here are… Read more

New Study Examines Labor Migration Impact on Social, Political Dynamics in Nepal

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017

Over the past decade, Nepal has seen a ten-fold increase in the number of migrant laborers leaving the country to work abroad, and the majority are youth. This phenomenon has led to the exodus of a significant proportion of the country’s working-age population, with the remittances that they send back home making up nearly a third of the country’s GDP and credited for the significant reduction in poverty rates. Despite the continual rise in the number of people migrating for foreign employment and the growing body of research on Nepal’s remittance economy, there is a dearth of knowledge of the impact foreign labor migration has on the social and political dynamics at the local level. To fill this gap, The Asia Foundation just released a new study, “Labour Migration and the Remittance Economy,” that examines the implications of migration and remittance on social structures, including local institutions and democratic governance, and on political participation and political contestation. Fieldwork for the study was carried out in 10 locations in five districts—Panchthar, Dhanusha, Nawalparasi, Kaski, and Kailali—between April and June 2016, and surveyed 401 migrant and non-migrant households (HHs) during the first stage of the study, followed by 179 qualitative interviews and 19 focus group discussions in the second stage. The report is divided into six sections, with the introductory section describing the methodological approach and the research framework adopted for the study. Section two presents findings on the socioeconomic effects of migration and remittances, primarily at the household level. Section three focuses on how the changes observed at the household level may affect established societal relations, and lead to shifts in the political autonomy of migrants and their households. Section four examines the impact of migration on the political aspirations of young people and the emerging patterns of political participation among various migrant and non-migrant populations. Section five analyses the implications of migration on gender roles and women’s political participation. Section six concludes with the possible implications of the ongoing trajectories of migration on the broader socio-political transformations underway in Nepal. Looking ahead, the study points to areas that could be… Read more

How is Domestic Violence Impacting the Workplace in China?

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

Four years ago, Ms. Huang, a clerk at a local township government in China, was at work when her newly wedded husband showed up in rage. “He stormed into my workplace, kicked open one door and another searching for me. He even followed my co-worker’s car.” Her supervisor sent the office car to escort her from work, and arranged for her to stay at a co-worker’s home. While Ms. Huang had been suffering from abuse since their honeymoon, this harassment at work had become more frequent after she told him she wanted a divorce. Thankfully, she said, her supervisor and co-workers were supportive, and allowed her to have flexible working hours so that she could go to the court to attend divorce proceedings. An engineer and victim of domestic violence for over 30 years, Ms. Gao was less fortunate. Despite her husband’s constant physical assaults and public humiliation against her, her supervisors and co-workers still believed that she should keep her marriage together. China’s first Anti-Domestic Violence Law that passed last year includes provisions that require employers to act against domestic violence through measures such as disciplining abusers among their employees and providing assistance to victims. Around 68 percent of China’s working-age population are employed, 44 percent of whom are women, according to the latest International Labour Organization figures. However, as the mobility rate of working people increases, their connection to community, where they would traditionally access anti-domestic violence information and services, is weakening. In contrast, the workplace is becoming the place where a working individual spends most of the day, and co-workers comprise a critical part of one’s social circle. Therefore, these new requirements have enormous potential to benefit the large working population in China. The Asia Foundation and SynTao Co., Ltd. (a leading consulting firm on corporate social responsibility) conducted a research project last year to understand how domestic violence spreads beyond the household and into the workforce in China. The findings, which come from online and in-person questionnaire surveys with 709 working individuals—nearly 80 percent of whom were women—and 93 human resource managers from across sectors and… Read more

Gender Equality in Bangladesh’s Growing Economy

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

Last month, iDE Bangladesh brought together international and Bangladeshi experts, practitioners, and policymakers for a workshop to discuss new ideas and approaches to market development in Bangladesh. After decades of strong growth, Bangladesh’s ambition to become a middle-income country by 2021 seems to be within reach, and many experts claim that strengthening the country’s market-based economy is needed to achieve this goal. A significant challenge remains, however, in ensuring that this growth benefits all levels of society. Though women comprise just under half of the total population in Bangladesh, their participation in the formal labor market lags far behind that of men, and the rates of business ownership by women are even lower. It’s no surprise, therefore, that a main area of focus at the workshop was on gender. I joined two panel discussions on the final day of the workshop to talk about changing gender dynamics and their impact on markets, and increasing the inclusiveness of financial products and services. Over the course of the day, some of the most compelling dialogue focused less on what has been or is currently being done, and more on how we in the development community can think differently in order to make real progress toward women’s economic empowerment in Bangladesh. For example, what can a woman’s role look like in a market system and how do we understand and navigate the perceptions of both women and men about that potential role? Are development interventions reinforcing the idea that women can only work in certain types of jobs or sectors and, if so, is that helping or hurting progress toward women’s economic empowerment? Are we comprehensively considering the needs and interests of end-users—both women and men—as well as service providers when we support the design of loan and other financial products? My own experience and observations tell me that, to address these questions, we need to identify and understand the unique potential, opportunities, and constraints in each local context, and design approaches that work within existing societal frameworks but do not reinforce the very social and cultural norms and structures that hold women… Read more

Photo Blog: Investing in Women’s Entrepreneurship in Mongolia

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

In Mongolia, informal businesses make up a significant portion of the business sector, and play an important role in driving the vast country’s local economies. While the female-to-male labor force participation rate in the formal sector is relatively high compared to other countries in the region, steep challenges for women in business remain in the areas of developing solid networks, gaining technical information on how to develop and grow a business, and accessing financial support for entrepreneurial activities. The Asia Foundation recently opened the first-ever Women’s Business Center Incubation project, funded by the Korea International Cooperation Agency, to support a rising number of women-owned businesses, and to provide an enabling environment for women entrepreneurs to receive high-quality business support services. As we mark International Women’s Day, we followed one of the clients of the new business center, 60-year-old Gerelee (who two years ago started a micro-business in the capital, Ulaanbaatar) to learn about the challenges in starting a business, and the impact that the center has had on her ability to expand her business and grow her profit. Photos by Davaanyam Delgerjargal Like many Mongolians, Gerelee migrated from the countryside to Ulaanbaatar in 2002 in search of economic opportunity. Once she had moved, Gerelee applied for a loan to open a small business but was rejected three times—the first time because she had no collateral, the second time because she had a low credit rating, and a third time because she was retired. This is a typical cycle of events for women entrepreneurs in Mongolia, even though women-owned micro, small, and medium enterprises make significant contributions to the economy. Women entrepreneurs face a range of financial and nonfinancial challenges in realizing their growth potential and, according to an Asia Foundation survey, are more likely than their male counterparts to cite access to finance as a major or severe constraint on their business operations. Despite being rejected for the loan, Gerelee persisted and tapped into her savings to start a small cooperative, using second-hand materials to make and sell household products such as gloves from old clothes, stoves out of old… Read more

Video: Women at Work in India

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

Women’s participation in the Indian workforce has been dropping for the past decade, and stands now at 27 percent, one of the lowest rates among big economies. This documentary analyses the implications of traditional gender roles on women’s empowerment, and the ways women are fighting to change those norms. The film is produced by Laura Seoane and Kevin Jones, and features an in-depth interview with The Asia Foundation’s Mandakini D. Surie, senior program officer in India. Visit the filmmaker’s website for more information, and watch the documentary below. Women at Work from Laura Seoane on Vimeo.

Be Bold for Change: Sparking Transformations for Women in Bangladesh

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

In reflecting on International Women’s Day and the women’s rights movements across Asia in the past year, I am reminded of a trip to Bangladesh I took in November. My trip coincided with discussions that were happening in the government on draft legislation that would allow child marriage in “special circumstances,” such as accidental or unlawful pregnancy, without setting a minimum age for such marriages. Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, and the highest rate in Asia. Fifty-two percent of girls marry before the age of 18, and 18 percent are married before they turn 15. This results in girls being denied an education and usually getting pregnant soon after being married with some dying in childbirth and others, together with their babies, facing severe health issues. In 2014, Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, pledged to end child marriage, committing to enact a tougher law that included severe punishment for child marriage, development of a national action plan to end child marriage under age 15 by 2021, and an end to all marriage before age 18 by 2041. Since then, no national action plan has emerged, and the Bangladesh Parliament passed the law, despite protests by rights groups, on February 27. Against this backdrop is the work The Asia Foundation is leading in Bangladesh, which includes addressing challenges that prevent women from becoming politically and economically empowered. Women currently occupy 20 percent of seats in the Bangladesh Parliament (in what are mostly unelected, reserved seats). In March 2016, The Asia Foundation released a survey on “Bangladesh’s Democracy: According to its People.” A large majority of Bangladeshis who responded to this survey (62%) said Parliament should have only or mostly male representatives, an opinion shared by both men (69%) and women (55%). The most commonly given reasons relate to perceptions that men are intellectually superior to women (men know more, more intelligent, understand politics, better educated). Although the majority say the National Parliament should have only or mostly male representatives, a strong majority (71%) support reserved seats for women. Countering these attitudes and beliefs… Read more

Nine Highlights from the 2017 Australasian Aid Conference

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, kicked off this year’s Australasian Aid Conference on February 15 and 16 with a reminder of the pressures facing international development today, and that “like other strands of globalization, our international aid sector must step up and explain—and re-explain, in clear and effective terms, why it is in our national interest, to support the development of developing countries.” Development is a global concern, she concluded, and the best, most sustainable solutions will come about through global cooperation. This call to action rippled through lively discussions at the conference’s 30 panels and numerous side events. The event, held at The Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy in Canberra in partnership with The Asia Foundation, has become the go-to regional forum on the latest trends and research in international development and aid policy, and this year attracted more than 500 participants from a dozen countries. Here are nine key highlights from this year: Foreign Minister Julie Bishop opens the conference and announces renewed funding for reproductive health Minister Bishop opened the conference with bold statements on Australia’s foreign aid. Describing the Australian aid program as having too often been seen through “the outdated lens of some sort of benevolent charity,” she advanced her vision of a program grounded in Australia’s national interests, engaging private sector partnerships, and countering violent extremism. She also reaffirmed the Australian aid program’s support of gender and women’s empowerment initiatives, including the announcement of an AUD $9.5 million (USD $7.3 million) replenishment to support sexual and reproductive health programs in humanitarian crises—managed by the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF)—a clear public statement which was interpreted by many as Australia’s response to the recent reinstatement of the Global Gag Rule. Launch of the 2017 World Development Report: Governance and the Law The World Bank launched its signature development report during the conference. The World Bank, which has long assumed an apolitical stance toward development, boldly asserts that “exclusion, capture, and clientelism are manifestations of power asymmetries that lead to failures to achieve security, growth, and equity.” The report provides the “ingredients but not… Read more

The Role of ASEAN in Addressing Global Ocean Issues

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

On January 28, I arrived in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, one of the 16 cities that make up “Metro Manila,” the most densely populated urban area in the world—reaching an estimated daytime population of 17 million people, or about 1/6 of the country’s population. It was my first visit to Manila and I was excited about meeting with government officials and others to talk about the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its role in ocean issues. ASEAN is a regional trade and economic organization with 10 member nations who work together to promote common governance structures to improve the economic and social strength of the region overall. Each member country is chair for a year—in alphabetical order. In 2017, the Philippines follows Laos to become ASEAN chair. The Philippine government wants to make the most of its opportunity. Thus, to address the ocean piece, its Foreign Service Institute in the Department of Foreign Affairs and its Biodiversity Management Bureau in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources invited me to participate in a planning exercise with support from The Asia Foundation, under a grant from the U.S. Department of State. Our team of experts included Cheryl Rita Kaur, the acting head of the Centre For Coastal & Marine Environment, Maritime Institute of Malaysia, and Liana Talaue-McManus, project manager of the Transboundary Waters Assessment Programme, UNEP. For three days, we participated in a “Seminar-Workshop on Coastal and Marine Environment Protection and the Role for ASEAN in 2017,” with leaders from multiple agencies discussing opportunities for Philippine leadership on ASEAN coastal and marine protection. The Region’s Marine Biodiversity The 625 million people of the 10 ASEAN nations depend upon a healthy global ocean, in some ways more than most other regions of the world. ASEAN territorial waters comprise an area three times the land area. Collectively, they derive a huge portion of their GDP from fishing (local and high seas) and tourism, and a bit less so from aquaculture for domestic consumption and export. Tourism, the fastest growing industry in many ASEAN countries, is dependent on clean air,… Read more