Asia Foundation Anniversary Highlights Critical Issues Facing Asia


According to The Asia Foundation, Asia’s economic success obscures the critical issues and challenges affecting the region. These include persistent poverty, growing income inequality, widespread corruption, gender discrimination, environmental threats, and deadly religious and ethnic conflicts. David D. Arnold, Asia Foundation president, said: “Left unaddressed, these problems threaten to reverse Asia’s economic gains and undermine its future growth and development.”

Colombo, Sri Lanka, January 22, 2014 — To mark its 60th anniversary, The Asia Foundation today announced a year-long global campaign focused on critical issues affecting Asia in the 21st century. The announcement was made by President David D. Arnold in Colombo, where The Asia Foundation has been working with Sri Lankans to help regain lost economic ground and heal social divides after thirty years of war. Mr. Arnold and the Foundation’s Board of Trustees and Officers are holding meetings this week in India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka to discuss the major economic and political challenges facing each country, as well as opportunities to expand regional cooperation in South Asia.

In announcing its 60th anniversary outreach effort, The Asia Foundation noted the dramatic gains that Asia has achieved in recent decades. However, Mr. Arnold asserted that Asia’s economic success sometimes obscures the critical issues and challenges still affecting the region. These include persistent poverty, growing income inequality, widespread corruption, gender discrimination, environmental threats, and deadly religious and ethnic conflicts. “Left unaddressed, these problems threaten to reverse Asia’s economic gains and undermine its future growth and development,” Arnold said. “More than half the planet’s people live in Asia, millions of whom are affected by extreme poverty, dysfunctional governance, environmental degradation, and ongoing violence.”

The Asia Foundation was founded as a private, nongovernmental organization devoted to promoting democracy, rule of law, and market-based development in post-war Asia. “In 1954, a group of civic-minded individuals who shared a strong interest in Asia and records of distinguished public service formed The Asia Foundation,” said former U.S. Ambassador Michael H. Armacost, Chairman of the Foundation’s Board of Trustees. “Sixty years later, as inheritors of this remarkable organization, we remain committed to addressing the critical issues affecting the future of the region and, in turn, the world.”

Drawing on the expertise of local partners and its own development experts in the 18 countries in which it works, The Asia Foundation plans to focus international attention on six critical issues facing Asia today. These include:

  • Lack of transparency and accountability in governmentCorruption 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.
  • Persistent poverty and rising income inequalityDespite 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.
  • Exclusion of women from political and economic lifeWhile 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.
  • Ethnic and religious conflictsSubnational 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.
  • Access to justice and human rightsWeak 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.
  • Disaster management, climate change, and water resource managementAs 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.

The 60th anniversary program announced by the Foundation will include special issue-focused events in New York, San Francisco, and Seoul, Korea, as well as a series of Washington, DC briefings by the Foundation’s Theme Directors and Country Representatives. Expert analysis of critical issues identified by the Foundation will also feature prominently on In Asia, the Foundation’s highly-regarded blog; on an interactive timeline slated for release in the Spring; and across its digital and social media channels.

“In the last 60 years, the Foundation has played a crucial role in helping to strengthen democratic institutions and foster economic development in virtually every Asian country where we have worked,” Mr. Arnold observed. “Today, Asia faces a new set of challenges, as evidenced by the recent deadly clashes in Thailand, Cambodia, and Bangladesh. The time for significant policy reforms and transformative development in Asia is now.”

Read the first special anniversary Critical Issues in Asia edition of In Asia. Engage with us on Twitter at @Asia_Foundation and follow #Asia60 for more details.

The Asia Foundation

The Asia Foundation is a nonprofit international development organization committed to improving lives across a dynamic and developing Asia. Informed by six decades of experience and deep local expertise, our programs address critical issues affecting Asia in the 21st century—governance and law, economic development, women’s empowerment, environment, and regional cooperation. In addition, our Books for Asia and professional exchange programs are among the ways we encourage Asia’s continued development as a peaceful, just, and thriving region of the world.

Headquartered in San Francisco, The Asia Foundation works through a network of offices in 18 Asian countries and in Washington, DC. Working with public and private partners, the Foundation receives funding from a diverse group of bilateral and multilateral development agencies, foundations, corporations, and individuals. In 2013, we provided nearly $114 million in direct program support and distributed textbooks and other educational materials valued at over $10 million.

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