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 Describing the Australian aid program as having too often been seen through “the outdated lens of some sort of benevolent charity,” she advanced her vision of a program grounded in Australia’s national interests, engaging private sector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

Tackling Poverty: Could Universal Basic Income Solve India’s Problem?

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

The recently released Economic Survey of India—a status report on economic development in the country prepared annually by the Ministry of Finance—proposes a radical idea that has caused a stir in public policy circles. The idea is a simple one—a Universal Basic Income—to provide every individual in the country with a basic and guaranteed minimum wage from the government. The survey proposes that the UBI could replace the myriad of social welfare schemes implemented by the government and address issues of poverty and underdevelopment. While the proposal has its share of believers and naysayers, the reality of poverty in India and the need for creative solutions is hard to ignore. When India gained independence in 1947, it was one of the poorest countries in the world with a per capita GDP of an estimated $617. Since then, the country has made remarkable strides, achieving annual growth rates of 6-7 percent and a per capita GDP of $6,530, bringing the country on par with many developed economies in Europe and Asia. While millions have been lifted out of poverty, traveling through India’s villages, towns, and cities, it is an inescapable truth that poverty remains a core socio-economic and development challenge, and one that successive governments have struggled to tackle effectively. According to the World Bank, India is home to nearly one-third of the world’s poor, or 400 million people. Inequality in incomes, access to services, and basic entitlements is equally a challenge. An estimated top 1 percent of India’s population owns roughly 60 percent of the country’s wealth—making India the second most unequal country in the world after Russia. On key human development indicators, such as health, nutrition, education, sanitation, and access to drinking water, India punches far below its economic weight. Neighboring countries Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, which have lower per capita GDPs, have fared much better in terms of addressing issues of maternal mortality, hunger, and malnutrition. Traditionally, the Indian government has tackled poverty and underdevelopment through a series of targeted social welfare programs financed by the central government and implemented through the federal/state machinery. The Economic Survey… Read more

To Advance Afghanistan’s Regional Role, Diplomats Need Language of International Relations

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

In December, delegates from nearly 40 countries attended the sixth annual Heart of Asia Ministerial Conference in Amritsar, India, to discuss peace, cooperation, and economic development in Afghanistan. Five such events have taken place since the first conference was held in Istanbul in 2011, and serve as a platform for regional cooperation by placing Afghanistan at its center. Addressing the key challenges facing Afghanistan, particularly the need for economic growth, job creation, and improving security, will require more effective and nuanced engagement beyond Afghanistan’s borders. To do this successfully, a diplomatic service that can effectively engage in regional negotiations and discussions is essential. However, Afghanistan’s diplomatic service suffered major setbacks under Soviet rule, and after decades of brain drain the government was left with few well-trained and experienced staff to run its ministries and to represent the country at regional conferences and forums such as the Heart of Asia conference. While enormous improvements have been made in recent years, both in terms of staff capacity and access to training and resources, Afghanistan’s diplomats still face obstacles, and chief among them is fluency in English, now widely considered the language of international relations. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, English was increasingly seen as the key to reopening the country’s doors to engage once again with the global community—even though the nearest English-speaking nation is thousands of miles away. Hundreds of private English-language schools popped up seemingly overnight in Afghanistan. Today, English penetrates nearly all parts of Afghan society, while the once critical language—Russian—has fallen largely into disuse. English words have crept into daily speech for most Afghans in the cities, and even official government websites are now available in Dari, Pashto, and English. The eagerness Afghans have to learn English so they can participate more fully in international communication, relationships, education, and commerce on behalf of their country, and themselves, has not diminished. In 2012, former President Hamid Karzai stated that courses at engineering and medicine faculties at Afghan universities should be taught in English to facilitate economic development and give Afghanistan a competitive edge. Current President Ashraf Ghani reaffirmed this… Read more

Q&A: Understanding India’s Cash Crisis

Wednesday, February 1st, 2017

Nearly three months after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a ban on its highest-denomination currency to curb corruption and tax evasion, the country is still reeling from the move, with millions struggling from a cash shortage in an overwhelmingly cash-dependent economy. In Asia editor Alma Freeman spoke with The Asia Foundation’s country representative in India, Sagar Prasai, to get his reactions to the ban and the impact on corruption, consumer confidence, and how the move will factor into state elections starting on February 4. Proponents of the cash ban say that it will bring more people into the banking system, increase the number of taxpayers, and reduce corruption. Opponents argue that only a small fraction of India’s untaxed income is held in cash, and that the ban unfairly burdens the poor and women. What are your thoughts on this? Demonetization was a one-time measure taken under the assumption that people who held their illegal wealth in cash would not be able to launder the money given the government’s surprise announcement and that at least 20 percent of the banned notes would not return to the banking system. When notes are demonetized and remain outside of the banking system beyond a convertibility deadline, central banks can reduce that amount from their total liability. This then surfaces as profit in the central bank’s profit-and-loss account. This income could then be reinvested in worthier public causes such as infrastructure projects and cash transfers to the poor. That, of course, did not happen; almost all of the banned notes are now back in the banking system. In that sense the opponents are correct. But we won’t know more until we get to see next year’s tax data, roughly 15 months from now. Demonetization is neither an anti-corruption tool nor does it have the policy teeth to affect systemic, long-term reform in the economy. If reducing corruption in the system was the intent, demonetization would have to be accompanied by other anti-corruption measures including reforms in public procurement, tax assessment, and transparency laws that reduce rent-seeking behaviors in government procedures. This may be in… Read more

Why Japan’s ‘Womenomics’ Needs a Booster Shot

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

Last month, Japan hosted the World Assembly for Women (WAW), an international conference initiated by Prime Minister Abe three years ago as part of “womenomics,” his signature program aimed at boosting the country’s economy by creating an enabling environment for women to join the workforce. I was invited to speak at one of the conference’s five roundtable discussions, each of which was open to the public and included a mix of international participants and Japanese business, government, and civil society representatives. The roundtable I joined, on promoting women’s leadership included, among others, a Korean journalist, a Nepali civil society representative, senior American business leaders, the mayor of Yokohama, the governor of Mie prefecture, the chairman of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and the chair of Japan Women’s Innovation Network (JWIN), a non-profit organization that promotes diversity in the workplace. Having such a diverse group of participants (including both men and women) goes to the heart of the transformation that will be required for Abe’s womenomics agenda to succeed. Despite Abe’s remarkable leadership in promoting women in the workplace, government alone will not be enough: the business community and local and international civil society groups must also be fully engaged. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that if the trend line of Japan’s aging society and shrinking labor pool continues unchecked, the country’s working population will be 21 percent below that needed for 1.2 percent GDP per capita growth by 2030. Abe has argued that “Japan could increase its GDP by as much as 15 percent simply by further tapping its most underutilized resource—Japanese women.” Womenomics includes a range of initiatives to close the gap, including setting targets for women’s workforce participation and professional advancement, increasing the availability of daycare and after-school care, expanding childcare leave benefits, and encouraging paternity leave and a more family-friendly workplace culture. In some areas, womenomics is showing results. The number of places available at daycare facilities is increasing, and the percentage of women leaving the workforce after the birth of a child is dropping. The participation rate of women in the workforce rose from 60 percent in… Read more

Q&A with Indonesia’s Leading Economist and Former Minister Mari Pangestu

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

Indonesia’s former Minister of Tourism and Creative Economy, Mari Pangestu, recently visited The Asia Foundation’s headquarters in San Francisco as a 2016 Chang-Lin Tien Distinguished Visiting Fellow. In Asia editor Alma Freeman sat down with her to discuss trade, Indonesia’s infrastructure challenges, the “Beyond Bali” strategy, lessons from Silicon Valley, and thoughts on minority issues as the first woman Chinese Indonesian to hold a cabinet position in Indonesia. As one of the top economic experts on trade issues in Indonesia, what do you see as the biggest challenges facing Indonesia’s economic development today? I think the biggest challenge Indonesia faces now is finding new sources of growth, as we have enjoyed the commodity boom up until the most recent global financial crisis. Since then, our exports have plummeted quite a bit, and it has affected growth. We can still grow, obviously, because we have a large domestic market, but I think in the medium-term the country must address the issue of how to diversify the sources of growth away from a primary commodity and manufacturing base, because manufacturing will only provide so many jobs and so many sources of growth. We should think about how to increase productivity and efficiency across sectors. If you take agriculture, for instance, there’s still a lot of growth potential if you could focus on improved yield. But the most important thing for agriculture is having efficient logistics – getting the goods to market. This depends on an efficient infrastructure, which is a huge constraint to Indonesia’s growth. What role do you see tourism playing? Limited human resource capacity is also a challenge, and together, these two things constrain the ability to develop destinations that can receive a large number of visitors. But, there’s a lot of opportunity in tourism, and the current government is prioritizing it. Now, Indonesia gets about 10 million visitors a year, bringing in about $11 or $12 billion in revenue a year. That’s about one-third of Thailand, a country I see as a model in tourism. What lessons are there from a place like Thailand, particularly as it has struggled with… Read more

Q&A: Minister Han Sung-Joo on Korea’s Constitutional Crisis & President Trump

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

South Korea’s former Foreign Minister Han Sung-Joo, who was recently decorated by Japanese Emperor Akihito with the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun, the top civilian medal of honor in Japan, for his distinguished achievements in promoting Seoul-Tokyo relations and friendship, spoke with The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Korea, Dylan Davis, on U.S.-Japan relations, Korea’s constitutional crisis, domestic challenges, and prospects for Korea-U.S. relations under a new Trump administration. On January 19, Minister Han will deliver opening remarks at the Seoul rollout of The Asia Foundation’s signature foreign policy report, Asian Views on America’s Role in Asia: The Future of the Rebalance. As a seasoned diplomat dedicated to promoting Korea-Japan relations for over two decades, where do you see relations moving forward, particularly in light of recent confrontations over issues surrounding wartime sexual slavery and Japan’s announcement that it would recall its ambassador from Korea? Over the past 50 years since normalization, Korea-Japan relations have gone through a pendulum-like movement, good and bad, and up and down. Both sides have complaints about the other’s attitude and behavior. The governments, even as they might prefer to restore and maintain good relations, are hamstrung by domestic politics. Very often provocative actions invite excessive reactions, starting a chain of events that amount to a vicious circle. The current situation is no exception. I think the Japanese government, instead of pushing the Korean government too hard, should take into account the extraordinary political difficulties South Korea is currently experiencing. South Korea’s Constitutional Court is expected to decide soon on whether to remove President Park Geun-hye over charges brought against her by the National Assembly. Her removal would trigger a presidential election. What is your reaction to this? The best and only way to deal with the situation is to let the legal process take its course. Whether the Constitutional Court validates the impeachment vote of the parliament or not, it is most likely that the presidential election will be held sometime during the next few months. If the court decides to approve the impeachment, the presidency will become vacant, making… Read more

Reflecting on 17 Years as Country Representative in the Philippines

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

After more than 17 years as The Asia Foundation’s Philippines country representative, I’m moving on to spend a year as a Distinguished Visitor at the Australian National University as part of the partnership between the two institutions. I leave the Philippines with decidedly mixed emotions. On the one hand, I’ll have time to read and write, give a few lectures, and begin to try to make sense of what I’ve learned about the many aspects of the Philippines after almost 36 years of residence there. On the other hand, I will be absent from the country at an incredibly exciting and pivotal time. This will be my longest absence from the country in 35 years, and I will miss being close to the action—but I am confident that the resilience of the Filipino people will continue to be demonstrated in the face of trying times, and I’ll look forward to returning after a year to spend the rest of my life in the Philippines. My time as representative is by far the highlight of my professional career—I sometimes joke that I finally figured out what I wanted to be when I was 50 years old, when I got this job. Much of my previous life in the Philippines seems, in retrospect, to have been preparing me for the role. But the key to this capstone of my career has been the nature of the Foundation, the opportunities it has afforded, and the lessons I take away: the importance of partnership, deep empirical knowledge, flexibility and opportunism, and an understanding of the political influences on policy reform and development outcomes. Partnership is essential to how we have been able to operate. When I joined in late 1999, concerns were growing about the levels of corruption in the Philippines, and many local and international organizations were enlisted to try to fight it. Social Weather Stations conducted diagnostic studies on the issue which have since evolved into an ongoing periodic survey of corruption as experienced by Philippine businessmen to track corruption levels over time. City-level work against corruption enlisted willing mayors and the… Read more

Are Cambodians Better Informed in the Internet and Facebook Era?

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

For the first time, the internet has surpassed traditional media as the main source of news for Cambodians, according to The Asia Foundation’s 2016 annual survey on mobile phones and internet usage. This has significant implications in terms of connectivity and information access in Cambodia: just three years ago, only 15 percent of people said they received their news from Facebook or other online sources, compared to 30 percent today. The survey, based on 2,061 interviews across Cambodia, found that 96 percent of Cambodians now own a phone and that 48 percent own a smartphone, a 21 percent increase from 2015. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they use or have used the internet, and 33 percent said they accessed the internet using their own phone. Forty-eight percent said they have used Facebook while 37 percent of Cambodians indicated that they used Facebook on their own phone. With greater access to the internet, Cambodians now have more choices in terms of where information comes, from instead of relying only on the state-controlled media. However, having access to more information does not necessarily mean that people are better informed. In one of many examples (and certainly not unique to Cambodia), last week, a story about canned fruit produced in Thailand being contaminated with HIV/Aids went viral on Facebook in Cambodia. The incident prompted the Thai embassy in Cambodia to issue a statement to clarify that the message was a hoax. Cambodians face a new challenge in navigating this online space and deciphering what content is trustworthy, particularly as the campaign season heats up ahead of local elections scheduled for June 2017 and national elections in 2018. In addition, online censorship appears to be on the rise as Cambodians exercise their online freedom. Recently, the president of the main opposition party, Sam Rainsy, and two of his Facebook page assistants were sentenced in absentia to five years in prison for being accomplices to another opposition lawmaker who posted a video on Facebook that cited inaccurate border treaty information and criticized the government. The survey also found a strong correlation between education and mobile… Read more