The Asia Foundation Hosts Southeast Asian Inclusive Cities Dialogues – First Session Focused on Infrastructure and Services

April 8, 2022 — On Thursday, March 24, The Asia Foundation, in partnership with Ramboll, Kore Global, and the Asian Development Bank, brought together more than 120 stakeholders from 14 cities in six Southeast Asian countries for the first in a series of online dialogues under the DFAT-funded ASEAN Australia Smart Cities Trust Fund. The Trust Fund supports city governments across Southeast Asia to develop and implement innovative solutions to their most pressing planning challenges. The three-month Inclusive Cities Dialogues series is a forum for sharing effective practices in making ASEAN cities more inclusive for persons with disabilities, women, the urban poor, and other marginalized groups.

The content of the dialogues focuses on locally developed initiatives that can be replicated elsewhere. Participants and presenters included city and national government officials, civil society representatives, public-sector companies, and representatives of UN agencies and the ASEAN Secretariat. The first topic of discussion was infrastructure and access to services. The series will continue in May, with three sessions focusing on smart solutions to safety and security issues in urban areas.

The March dialogue opened with the Australian Ambassador for Women and Girls, Christine Clarke, emphasizing the importance of well-managed urbanization in Southeast Asia as cities grow larger and more economically important. She particularly noted that cities must become more inclusive. “Smart cities are inclusive cities,” she observed:

“Cities continue to be designed and built in ways that fail to address constraints for women to benefit and participate equally with men as leaders, entrepreneurs, workers, and users of infrastructure. Failure to consider the needs of women, girls, and vulnerable groups…fosters an environment in which problems of discrimination, violence, economic exclusion, and social instability arise or continue.”

In this first round of discussions, participants were encouraged to unpack the reasons for persistent and sometimes rising inequalities in cities across the region. Civil society representatives highlighted the inequalities and lack of opportunities to participate in decision-making within the region’s diverse cities. Jun Bernardino, who convenes the Philippines chapter of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), highlighted the “lack of accountability of local officials” and the lack of mechanisms for feedback or redress. “People in the community really cannot complain” about the challenges they face, he said.

He also noted flaws in the CRDP reporting process itself, which does not sufficiently incentivize governments to ratify the optional protocols. “I think it’s the same thing with the other international human rights instruments. There is no incentive for the government to respond to these, as it would be like penalizing themselves,” he said.

Bernardino also pointed out that there are significant weaknesses in social assessments for infrastructure projects, in particular where consultation processes are extremely short, and the task of making these meaningful is shouldered by civil society organizations.

Shiela May Aggarao of the Philippines also focused on the CRDP, arguing that more awareness of the budgeting process is needed. She called for a twin-track approach that mainstreams disability considerations throughout the budget to ensure accessibility in all programs while also pursuing disability-specific initiatives.

The presentations emphasized the potential to move this conversation forward by sharing examples of where, despite the enormous social, political, and economic challenges, some progress is being made. Chhorn Akhra, director of the Disability Service Development Unit of Cambodia’s Disability Action Council, explained his government’s efforts to implement the Technical Standards on Physical Accessibility in Infrastructure for Persons with Disabilities law passed by the government in 2019. Two years into implementation, Akhra noted, the accompanying training and dissemination activities within the government had gone well, and “there is good collaboration and support from relevant ministries,” but while that provides a good foundation, law enforcement is weak, and “dissemination of the standards to remote areas is limited due to lack of budget and support.”

Ong Be Leng, CEO of the Penang Women’s Development Corporation, discussed their successes in mainstreaming gender across budgets in key public-sector policies and creating platforms for women’s participation in urban governance. They have achieved this through a very targeted approach to government engagement, facilitating separate dialogues for women and men, according to age and ability, “so that all the voices are heard. Otherwise, if you put them all together, only certain voices are heard.” Be Leng highlighted one concrete outcome of this process: community ownership of street-cleaning contracts that has distinctly improved the local urban environment in Penang.

Other speakers shared their challenges and some of the solutions they have devised. Slamet Budi Umoto, who heads the Division of Social, Culture, and Government Affairs at the Regional Planning and Development Agency (Bappeda) in Semarang, Indonesia, discussed a range of initiatives, from making documentation more accessible to increasing the participation of people living with disabilities in education policies and programming and making infrastructure in the city more environmentally friendly and accessible. Liza Marzaman, Diego Ramirez-Lovering, and Kerrie Burge from the RISE program shared insights from their work in 12 informal settlements in Makassar, Indonesia, where they applied a holistic approach to urban water management by codesigning nature-based solutions with residents.

Related programs: Good Governance
Related topics: ASEAN, Inclusive Development

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