Insights and Analysis

Six Pressing Issues in Asia and How We’re Adapting Our Approach to Address Them

September 6, 2016

By David D. Arnold

Today, 60 percent of the world’s population lives in Asia – with 40 percent concentrated in China and India alone – and the region will continue to host the majority of the world’s population through 2050. Over the past two decades, economic growth has helped lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and 56 percent of developing Asia’s population is now classified as middle class.

Youth Civic Engagement in Bangladesh

The Asia Foundation supports Youth Civic Engagement in Bangladesh. Photo by Sariful Islam

At the same time, Asia’s dramatic economic growth and technological progress mask daunting development challenges. Left unaddressed, these challenges jeopardize Asia’s gains and undermine its future prospects. Asia is at a critical juncture in determining its future, and where the dramatic economic, political, and social changes taking place will lead the region. A changing Asia presents new and different opportunities for the mission and work of The Asia Foundation, an institution adept at navigating the region’s political context for reform and development. Throughout our 60-year history, we have been successful in nurturing innovative leaders, building effective institutions, and advancing path-breaking reforms across Asia.

To ensure that our future priorities continue to create positive and transformative impact for individuals, communities, and the region, we conducted a comprehensive strategic planning process over the past year. Together, we designed a “TAF2020” Strategic Plan to identify and address the critical issues facing Asia over the coming five years. Our strategy draws from our analysis of key trends in the Asia-Pacific region, the changing donor landscape, and consultations with a diverse range of stakeholders, including program sponsors, Foundation staff members and trustees, and local partners across Asia. The TAF2020 exercise highlighted six important ways in which Asia is changing, and where we need to apply all of our resources, analytical skills, partnership building, and mobilization efforts in the immediate future.

1) Rapid Urbanization
Today, 50 percent of the Asian population lives in cities. Urbanization has critical implications for development, since cities are the locus of most social change, most of the demand for more transparent and accountable government, and the bulk of economic output. The burdens on urban governance are immense; overstretched infrastructure and services constrain economic growth, increase communal conflict, and significantly reduce the overall quality of life, especially for the poor. On top of these challenges, Asia’s bulging cities are increasingly vulnerable to environmental disasters: 51 of the 100 cities with the greatest exposure to natural hazards are in Asia.

For example, in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, the population has nearly doubled in the last decade, and new construction has driven thousands from the city center to peri-urban areas where services are few or non-existent, and poor waste management threatens the city’s health and economic viability. As part of our work on urban governance we brought together local governments and communities in these areas to raise awareness of issues like waste management, and prepared a memorandum of solutions for waste collection and disposal for the governor of Phnom Penh from the Municipal Waste Authority. Now we are collaborating with solid-waste collectors and City Hall to develop a plan to improve and reform city services and put ideas into action.

2) Evolution of Democratic Governance
Beginning in the mid-1980s, electoral democracy and a general acceptance of universally recognized human rights has spread to many nations of the region. But in much of the region, semi-democratic regimes have taken strong root; despite a great deal of democratic activity, established elites remain fully entrenched, governance is corrupt and over-politicized, and development outcomes are suboptimal at best. In other places, citizens are taking dramatic steps toward the transition to a more democratic state. But it’s not easy.

In Myanmar, for example, the vast majority of the 32 million voters in the country’s recent elections possessed little or no access to information about the more than 6,000 candidates and 91 political parties. A landmark survey we conducted in 2014 revealed that only 12 percent of respondents understood how the president was elected, and most had little knowledge of government institutions and processes. Through a Foundation-sponsored voter education initiative called MaePaySoh (Let’s Vote), over 200 of Myanmar’s top developers participated in a competition to build the best apps, websites, and other digital election products to engage a new generation of voters on the issues impacting their country.

3) Gender Revolution
Considering the status of women across most of the region just a few decades ago, remarkable progress toward gender equity has been made. For example, gender parity in elementary education has now been reached in most Asian countries, and in most countries women are now much more integrated into the formal economy than in the past. Despite these gains, substantial informal barriers remain, largely reflecting the strong influence of traditional culture and religion which can be impervious to national policy and legalistic solutions. Violence against women continues to be a major challenge everywhere in Asia, but especially in South Asia, where rates are so high that the problem has become a significant constraint on development.

In India, where 26 cases of violence against women are reported every hour, and recent high-profile rape cases have ignited mass protests, we are partnering with leading civil society organizations to completely rethink how this issue is addressed by engaging men and boys in the fight against violence. In Bangladesh, we’re providing budding women entrepreneurs with first-time networking opportunities, mentoring, access to information and credit, and business management training to foster environments where women can participate in the business sector and advocate for improved policies.

4) Violent Conflict
Violent conflict has been an enduring challenge in Asia. At the state-to-state level, despite sharp tensions over a diversity of issues, in recent decades, open military confrontations have been rare and limited. In contrast, subnational and communal violence, often driven by inequalities, is widespread and persistent. Sectarian conflicts in particular are on the rise, and conflicts over water are becoming more intense, particularly where shortages are acute. Meanwhile, growing influence of radical Islamist groups and the potential expansion of the Islamic State in Asia could lead to a significant expansion of unrest and violence.

The new set of post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals includes for the first time a target that specifically sets out to promote peaceful and inclusive societies, marking an increase in awareness that peace and security is critical for sustainable development. However, solid data on where violence is occurring, the impacts it is having, and what factors are driving it, is severely lacking. The Asia Foundation is working in areas facing violent conflict in subnational areas of Mindanao, southern Thailand, and Indonesia, for instance, and we’re now partnering with leading researchers and think-tanks to vastly improve the quality of data around violence across Asia to better understand how conflicts can be addressed.

5) Environmental Challenges
Climate change, combined with rapid population growth and urbanization, are placing intense pressure on Asia’s most precious resources. At the same time, extreme weather has led to unprecedented monsoon rains and deadly floods that have in some cases interrupted the entire global supply chain for certain industries located in flood-prone regions. How governments, civil society, and citizens work together to address these issues will shape Asia’s development trajectory.

Most natural disaster risk programs focus on government capacity or reducing risk to vulnerable populations in rural areas; private sector responses are rarely part of the equation. Aware of this blind spot, our office in Vietnam, which has long focused on climate change mitigation and green growth, took a first-mover approach going straight to the private sector. Harnessing our people and networks, we trained more than 3,000 CEOs and business managers representing more than 2,000 small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in 19 provinces to reduce climate change-related risks to their businesses and communities. With facilitated trainings focused on shared learning, businesses are better able to plan to protect their own assets, including their employees, but also able to reach out beyond the perimeter of their sites. As a result, The Asia Foundation helped open a new corporate social responsibility dialogue that includes risk assessment and business continuity planning, as well as community outreach. We are currently scaling this very successful project in other South and Southeast Asian settings.

6) The Intensifying Politics of Inequality
One of the most striking characteristics of development in Asia has been the fall over the past three decades in the numbers of citizens living in extreme poverty, paralleled by the rapid expansion of the Asian middle class. However, both developments have occurred unevenly across the region, largely reflecting differential economic performance. As in the West, there is growing concern and increasing political mobilization around issues of inequality. Pressure for government action will likely rise and could have substantial effects, not just for redistribution of wealth, but also on prospects for future growth and unrest.

For example, while Mongolia’s economic growth has helped to reduce poverty in recent years, that growth has slowed to a worrying .7 percent in 2016. Inequality in income distribution is on the rise, particularly for the 1.3 million residents out of which 60% is living in the ger districts on the outskirts of the booming capital, Ulaanbaatar. To improve the situation of the ger area residents, we are partnering with Ulaanbaatar city municipality working with citizens to implement a community mapping process to gather and map service delivery data on the availability of fresh water, garbage collection sites, schools, health care, and other services to prioritize investments. We also digitized more than 150 detailed land demarcation maps for a website where citizens and city officials can now find information, download maps, and avoid disputes.

Today, I’m proud to say with the TAF2020 Strategic Plan, The Asia Foundation is applying its expertise and resources to address these critical issues in a focused and sustained way. We are also taking a number of important steps to position ourselves for continued maximum impact and increased effectiveness, including strategies for sharpening our program priorities, measuring results, and streamlining our operations.

On the program side, the Foundation will embrace a more agile and creative approach to the development of our programs, and to better address emerging and multidimensional issues. This will include strengthening monitoring, evaluating, and learning from our programs, and greater use of innovative technologies and tools. On the operations side, we will strengthen our ability to support and engage our network of 18 country offices, building increased synergies, operational efficiency, and regional program capabilities.

Engaging our longstanding and ever-expanding networks, leveraging strong partnerships and emerging technology, and drawing upon our deep regional knowledge and staff expertise, we will continue to play a catalytic role in advancing Asia’s economic development and social progress. Clearly, the stakes are higher than ever across Asia; our work in the region, therefore, remains as urgent and relevant today as it was when we were established in 1954.

David D. Arnold is president of The Asia Foundation. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

1 Comment

  1. Ambitious given the scope and nature of the issues, but congratulations to the Asia Foundation for being brave enough to get things sorted out and to start addressing them!

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