Nepalese Labor Migration—A Status Report

Like so many citizens in countries facing shrinking economic opportunities at home, many Nepalis have sought employment abroad, and international labor migration has become an accepted avenue for economic growth, both for the individual and for the nation. Nepal’s political and socioeconomic systems are in a period of transition, and the country is recovering from a series of national disasters, adding to the lure of potential foreign jobs. From 2008 to 2017, Nepal issued some 3.5 million labor permits to migrant workers, predominantly for travel to Malaysia and nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). In the last fiscal year alone, Nepal received remittances worth NPR 699 billion (USD 6.56 billion) from its citizens employed overseas, more than one-quarter of national GDP, the fourth-highest proportion in the world.

A system in which low-skilled workers must travel abroad to support their families, often with uncertain prospects at their destination, has inherent potential for abuse—from recruitment fraud, to wage theft, to human trafficking. Beginning with the 2013/14 fiscal year, Nepal’s Ministry of Labor, Employment, and Social Security (MoLESS), in collaboration with the International Labor Organization, the International Organization for Migration, and The Asia Foundation, has worked to support evidence-based policymaking and the creation of institutional structures to ensure the safety and security of migrants and their families by documenting national trends in foreign employment. In late April, MoLESS released their third periodic report, Labor Migration for Employment—A Status Report for Nepal: 2015/2016–2016/2017.

Migrant laborers prepare to depart Nepal at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport. A large proportion of migrant laborers head to countries in the Arab Gulf including Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

The new report confirms that foreign employment is still the most significant motivation for international migration from Nepal. The Department of Foreign Employment (DoFE) issued 786,564 new permits, for more than 100 destination countries, in the two years studied in the report.

As in other South Asian countries, most labor migrants are male, but men seeking migration permits fell by 5.83 percentage points in 2016/17, continuing an existing trend, while women’s participation grew by 8.8 percentage points. Part of this statistical uptick is explained by the growing number of women joining the formal economic sector in Nepal, as argued in the previous MoLESS report. Female participation may be still higher than these official figures, however, as many women seeking domestic work in the GCC still rely on informal channels to evade Nepal’s ban on such work for women below the age of 24. This exposes them to higher risks of exploitation and undermines their mobility and access to support services, and it prevents women from visiting their families at home, for fear they will be barred from returning to work. Between 2015 and 2017, some 4,832 undocumented female migrant workers applied for formal permits. A call by the government, with assurances of no legal consequences, would encourage undocumented women migrants trapped in Gulf countries to formalize their status.

The new report also brings to light the number and nature of complaints filed by migrants against recruitment agencies and individuals. The most complaints were filed by migrant workers in Malaysia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, the four top destination countries, but the United States, China, Canada, Russia, and Australia, which receive a small number of Nepali migrants every year, were also among the top ten for complaints. Of the 5,484 complaints registered by the DoFE from 2014 to 2017, the majority sought prosecution of recruitment agencies and agents, reimbursement, and compensation. There are currently 932 recruitment agencies and 733 independent registered agents operating in Nepal. Greater oversight of these agencies and agents is clearly needed. Periodic audits and open publication of findings by an independent third party would help aspiring workers avoid agencies and agents involved in illicit practices.

Destination countries also need to do a better job protecting the rights of migrant workers and preventing employers from flouting the norms of recruitment and employment or procuring migrant workers illegally. Some 227 rescue and repatriation requests were submitted online by migrants and their families in 2016/17. Better coordination between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and MoLESS would strengthen Nepal’s foreign missions in destination countries to better protect migrants’ rights and access to justice.

In a country like Nepal, crucially reliant on foreign earnings, a small decline in remittances can severely affect the nation’s economic health. This new status report, based on government data, should help policymakers and government agencies to better identify the challenges and seize the opportunities of labor migration. Better data is needed on the skills and occupations of Nepalese departing for foreign employment in order to match the supply of skills to the demand in destination countries. Better training of migrant workers at home could mean better-paying jobs and safer working conditions abroad, and a more promising future when they return. Domestic investments in productive sectors such as hydropower, health care, and manufacturing; issuing remittance-based bonds to improve liquidity in the market; and using remittances to establish social safety nets such as microinsurance for crops and livestock could improve economic conditions at home. Ultimately, Nepal must look beyond labor migration and craft a robust architecture for sustainable economic development that maximizes the utility of remittances in the present to ultimately become less reliant on them in the future.

Nandita Baruah is The Asia Foundation’s country representative, and Nischala Arjal is a program assistant, in Nepal. They can be reached at and, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Indonesia: Normalizing Intolerance

The stunning, 2017 electoral defeat of Jakarta’s popular, non-Muslim governor, and his subsequent imprisonment for blasphemy, caught most Indonesians off guard. Indonesia was built on the premise of pluralism, writes Asia Foundation country director Sandra Hamid, and appeals to Islam had been largely ineffective in past elections. But as politicians prepare to contest more than 170 local elections later this month, and a presidential race in 2019, appeals to Islamic identity are now increasingly common.

In a recent paper for CILIS, the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam, and Society, Dr. Hamid argues that political contestation in contemporary Indonesia must be understood within a larger context of intolerance, fueled by the commoditization of religion and marked by a deepening movement towards public expressions of piety, that has been quietly rising in the world’s most populous Muslim country for two decades. She points to a vicious cycle of identity politics, mass-media representations, and political opportunism that has brought religious intolerance in Indonesia suddenly to center stage.

Many observers were shocked by the strong religious tone of the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election, which reverberated across the country. Religious hard-liners had long protested against Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, the capital’s ethnic-Chinese, non-Muslim governor. He had made careless comments on the campaign trail about the opposition’s use of a Qur’anic verse to argue that Muslims could not vote for him. This resulted in the largest mass demonstrations in decades, with hundreds of thousands of Muslim protesters turning out to “defend Islam,” demanding that Ahok be prosecuted for allegedly offending their religion. While not totally unprecedented, the use of religion in the 2017 Jakarta campaign occurred on a scale never seen before in the world’s third-largest democracy. Despite a 70 percent approval rating close to the elections, Ahok lost in a landslide. Within a few weeks he was tried, convicted, and imprisoned for two years for blasphemy.
These events should be understood in the broader context of the decades-long trend in Indonesia towards exclusivism in the practice of religion in the private and public spheres, the so-called “conservative turn” of the Indonesian Muslim community…The intolerant narratives that dominated the Jakarta election were an amplification of what many ordinary Indonesians were already experiencing in their lives.

Read the whole paper here.

Sandra Hamid is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Indonesia. She can be reached at The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Seven Questions to Consider When Promoting Gender Justice in Sri Lanka

In October 2016, The Asia Foundation’s Sri Lanka office began a project to make that country’s formal justice system more responsive to victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Seventeen months later, and after five decades of working with security and justice institutions and promoting women’s rights in Sri Lanka, here are our insights on working with the formal justice sector in a South Asian context.

SGBV against women and girls is a hidden issue in Sri Lanka—only a fraction of incidents are officially reported—but anecdotal evidence and media reports suggest rising rates of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and rape, including statutory and gang rape, around the country. Anecdotal information from the community level shows that most cases remain unreported. Among the barriers to reporting are an insensitive justice system, impunity and suspended sentences for perpetrators, long delays for survivors who seek justice, and a lack of sensitivity and tact among service providers. When SGBV is reported, there are other obstacles to justice for survivors: judges, lawyers, prosecutors, and court staff who don’t grasp the concepts of “gender equality” and “gender justice” or understand the impact of violence against women; a lengthy approval process for formal legal proceedings; and inadequate support services for SGBV survivors.

We have found it invaluable, when planning and implementing gender and justice work to address problems such as these, to reflect on the following seven questions.

  1. What are the current laws and policies that promote gender justice?
    Sri Lanka has produced various national policy documents to address the disadvantages and discrimination that women encounter in the formal justice system. A thorough review of existing laws, policies, action plans, and empirical studies that identify the need to ensure gender justice for women is useful, not only to monitor and document their implementation, but also to justify a push for state accountability and provide grounds for project interventions.
  2. How does your work connect to wider global development goals?
    It is useful to look at how your work links to global development goals that the state has already endorsed. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has raised gender justice as an issue in Sri Lanka, which presents an opportunity to expand efforts promoting justice for women who experience violence. Linking to the global development agenda can also bolster the legitimacy of small-scale development initiatives.
  3. What trusted local organizations are working on these issues?
    Sri Lanka has several local women’s organizations that have been working on the ground for several decades. Partnering on gender-justice projects with local organizations and their networks can be mutually beneficial. International organizations have much to learn from the hands-on experience of trusted, local providers of SGBV services, while local groups can use the resources of an international partner to make their voices heard at a national policy level, connect with other stakeholders, and increase the impact of their advocacy.
  4. Who else should you be working with?
    When working on gender-justice projects, it is important to work with champions from the sector and to have advisors from the gender and justice sectors on the project team. One useful strategy is a “stakeholder mapping” to identify stakeholders with related interests at various levels of the public and private sectors. These may include individuals from government ministries, bar associations, training institutes for judges and lawyers, legal-aid providers, and even private companies that include women’s issues in their social-responsibility portfolios.
  5. Have you found the good amidst the bad and the ugly?
    When investigating the formal justice sector, it is important to catalogue positive practices and experiences. Gathering evidence of failings and bad practices no doubt helps to identify needed improvements, but it can give the appearance of a fault-finding mission. A conscious search for current best practices in the formal justice sector will bring to light problems that the sector itself has identified, highlight strategies that work, and put stakeholders at ease that the investigation is searching for solutions rather than assigning blame.
  6. How should you look at content development and messaging?
    Some of the core messages of gender-justice and women’s empowerment projects are similar to what feminists, women’s rights activists, and development practitioners have been saying for several decades. It is important to acknowledge and embrace this legacy, but it is also important to devise new and creative formulations of these messages that speak to current perceptions and resonate with target audiences. And while the lived experience of SGBV victims must be part of the message to policymakers and those in authority, it is also important to share news of positive change and developments with the community and civil society organizations to sustain their faith in the formal justice process.
  7. Are exploratory programming and funding available?
    In gender and development work, quirks of context and unanticipated consequences often rear their heads after plans have been set in motion and project work is underway. It is vital to provide for flexibility in research methodology, project management, and budgeting so that the project can adapt to the unexpected and be improved by the encounter.

Once you have reflected on these questions, ask yourself if your expectations are realistic and if you are patient enough to wait for the change you so desire! In Sri Lanka, with its male-dominated, hierarchical justice system, change can be frustratingly slow. Desired outcomes may emerge only gradually and remain invisible during the life of the project. You may have to remind yourself that doing gender and development work with the formal justice sector, or any other sector for that matter, takes time. We understand that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, but we hope our experience can benefit other development organizations undertaking gender and justice work. We look forward to being in Washington, DC, and New York next week, at the Gender 360 Summit (cosponsored by The Asia Foundation) and the Interaction Forum, to share these lessons.

Ramani Jayasundere, who will be presenting next week at the Gender 360 Summit in Washington, DC, and the Interaction Forum in New York, is The Asia Foundation’s director of justice and gender in Sri Lanka, and Evangeline de Silva is senior program officer. They can be reached at and, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

No Progress without Justice for the Urban Poor in Postwar Sri Lanka

On a hot, sunny afternoon, a group of young development professionals follows Iromi Perera around the city of Colombo on an educational tour. Their focus is urban governance rather than tourism, and the sightseeing highlights modernity and change. Cranes and high-rise scaffolding encroach on informal settlements and small housing areas for the urban poor, who, she explains, are being rapidly displaced.

Sri Lanka is the location of the 2018 Asia Foundation Development Fellows Workshop on Asian Development, which offers participants an in-depth look at development issues and country contexts from the perspective of practitioners such as Iromi, herself a former fellow, who was appointed to guide this year’s cohort.

Pausing at a construction site that was once a massive housing complex, she addresses the new fellows. “As we develop rapidly toward this ‘world-class city,’ I want this to be a reminder of the price we paid for it.”

Iromi Perera leads the current cohort of development fellows on an urban governance tour of Colombo during the 2018 Workshop on Asian Development in Sri Lanka.

Iromi Perera leads the current cohort of development fellows on an urban governance tour of Colombo during the 2018 Workshop on Asian Development in Sri Lanka.

Young leaders can influence the trajectory of inclusive growth

Iromi is representative of the many dynamic and reform-minded young people who are rising to meet the policy challenges left by Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war—in this case, fighting for inclusiveness in the midst of rapid growth and persistent social division. Her work, and her unique skill set, led to her selection as one of twelve Asia Foundation Development Fellows in 2017. The Development Fellows Program identifies and equips emerging leaders across Asia as agents of reform on critical development issues such as rapid urbanization.

Intrigued and disturbed by the persistent social disparities she observed, Iromi became a researcher for the Colombo-based think tank Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), one of Sri Lanka’s premier resources on public policy and democratic governance. She soon found her calling working with Colombo’s often overlooked and misunderstood communities of urban poor, fighting large-scale evictions through research and advocacy. Urban evictions, she argues, are more than just a community issue; they are a key element of Sri Lanka’s transitional justice agenda, inextricably linked to postwar governance.

After nine years at CPA, Iromi decided to independently pursue her research and activism in Colombo full time.

“The work involves documenting communities, supporting them on specific issues and writing about those issues, getting media attention…and then working with authorities and ministers to change things at a policy level. Documenting is particularly important to ensure that their history and realities are not erased by the state mechanisms that broadly categorize all affected communities as ‘unauthorized’ and ‘slum and shanty dwellers,’ when in reality that is not the case.”

A construction site in Colombo promises “World-Class Spaces Coming Soon,” but what will become of those who are displaced?

The work entails hours navigating the many facets of the Sri Lankan government, cultivating relationships with agency staff through repeated phone calls and visits. When she’s lucky, her hard work may yield a short meeting with a top-level government minister or decision-maker to make her case for the displaced.

Developing as a social-impact leader requires difficult introspection

Her journey has not been without adversity. During her fellowship year, Iromi had to grapple with the sudden death of her close friend and mentor, Vijay Nagaraj, an activist and researcher with whom she first began documenting the evictions in Colombo. She has struggled to divide her time between responding to the countless community emergencies and the longer-term project of scaling up her research and advocacy for greater policy impact. And while recognition of her work has led to several lucrative job offers from reputable organizations, she remains wary that accepting them might interfere with her advocacy.

These are typical of the real-world questions faced by social-impact leaders today. In part, the Development Fellows Program helps fellows understand and manage the complexities that come with effective leadership.

“I actually was skeptical about leadership trainings. But this program has helped me a lot,” says Iromi. “When we are working, there is very little time to think about our own capacity building, about building teams and successors, or even about how we narrate our stories effectively. Some of the program sessions we’ve had have been real eye-openers for me.”

At this juncture, she has resisted the big job offers and continues to devote herself to advocacy. She says activists and researchers like herself have a duty to the community to see the issues through as far as possible.

“It is actually easy for me to go in, document and write about the affected communities, see my name in bylines, and speak at conferences abroad, but as long as the people still continue to face injustice, I have a responsibility to honor the trust they placed in me to share their experiences and stories, and that is why I’m so passionate about the advocacy part of the work.”

Davey Min Sun Kim is The Asia Foundation’s senior program officer for leadership and exchange programs. He can be reached at The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Further reference:
Behind the scenes: The making of luxury spaces in Colombo
Living it down: Life after relocation in Colombo’s high rises
Forced Evictions in Colombo: High-rise Living
The Making of a World Class City: Displacement & Land Acquisition in Colombo
Forced evictions in Colombo: The ugly price of beautification

Managing Change in Myanmar: Policymaking after Dictatorship

As Myanmar’s fitful democratic transition moves forward, many observers are torn between early, high hopes for the end of military rule and a growing pessimism about wider democratic, economic, and social reforms. In the international community, much of this pessimism is a result of the dire and well-publicized situation in Rakhine State and the relatively slow pace of change. But it reveals a limited understanding of Myanmar’s modern history and its enduring impact on the structure of the state. In a newly released study, The Asia Foundation details how a half century of military dictatorship deprived Myanmar of the organs of policymaking necessary for a democratic government, with its need for pluralism, transparency, and reconciliation, to effectively govern.

In 1962, a military coup led by General Ne Win swept away Myanmar’s fractured and dysfunctional parliamentary government, which had evolved from British colonial rule, and replaced it with a military-led socialist regime. This regime lasted until 1988, when another coup installed a military junta led by Senior General Than Shwe. While perceptions of weak and ineffective democratic governance provided much of the rationale for military rule, the Ne Win and Than Shwe regimes were, themselves, often unable to achieve consensus in the executive branch, despite junta-imposed “unity.” Disagreements among top generals were settled by purges or imprisonment, up to the highest levels, based on the prerogatives of the paramount leaders.

Such coerced unity allowed little room for constructive policy debate. Moreover, the institutional interests of the military regime, most significantly regime survival, were the top policy priorities of the ruling elites. Policy decisions prioritized security issues and revenue-generating extractive industries rather than matters of social welfare, such as health and education, that would have required a policymaking apparatus sensitive to public needs. Larger issues defining the country’s political settlement were never conclusively resolved, including chronically anemic economic growth, widespread social and ethnic strife, suppression of the media, and prolonged confrontations with civil society and prodemocracy groups.

Statue of a dragon in front of government buildings, Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar

The capitol in Nay Pyi Taw. Myanmar’s civilian government inherited a deficit of crucial administrative capacities, especially in the realm of policymaking, from five decades of military rule. Photo: Renaud Egreteau

As a result, the transitional governments of U Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi inherited a debilitating deficit of crucial administrative capacities, especially in the realm of policymaking. Policymaking had been concentrated at the top, with a military dictator making nearly all major decisions. Among the enduring legacies of this are a weak bureaucracy that does not participate effectively in policy reforms and has little capacity to work through complex policy problems, a young parliament with a limited and inconsistent understanding of its role, and a hierarchical political culture that fosters compliance rather than innovation.

With no ingrained institutional culture of pluralism in policymaking, MPs, the civil service, policy institutes, and other key stakeholders have limited experience being meaningfully engaged in government policymaking. The current Myanmar government has few defined policymaking processes or tools, such as the routine use of white papers to articulate policy or dedicated policy units to provide government leaders with policy options, and there are few agencies capable of helping the elected governments develop technical reform agendas. Historically, military policymaking was also an inherently secretive endeavor. For the wider government apparatus, and for the news media, civil society, and the public, this created great ambiguity about government decision-making and policy goals, and government information is still viewed by the public with mistrust.

Massive changes to government structures precipitated by the 2008 constitution have inevitably led to challenges for policymaking as Myanmar has attempted to institute reforms across a vast range of issues—democratization, economic liberalization, and a national peace process, among others. Complicating the task ahead are simmering tensions between the military and the National League for Democracy (NLD) government over the institutional roles carved out for the military by the military-authored 2008 constitution, tensions that have thwarted the effective functioning of some crucial organs of state.

While the significant questions of constitutional reform, democratization, and civil-military relations that lie ahead can easily overshadow the more mundane aspects of policymaking—such as technical capacity, bureaucratic structures, and information sharing—practical policymaking and the institutions that support it cannot be allowed to languish if Myanmar’s transition is to continue to move forward. Though challenging, improvements to Myanmar’s policymaking processes are not impossible. While some changes will have to wait for significant constitutional reform, much can be achieved through improvements to existing structures and processes, with an emphasis on stronger institutionalization.

The new Asia Foundation report makes several practical recommendations towards this goal:

  1. More clearly articulate and communicate government reform goals.
  2. Use better data to support policymaking.
  3. Make existing bodies such as the cabinet and cabinet committees more efficient.
  4. Diversify the actors involved in policymaking—for example, by encouraging contributions from policy institutes, development partners, and civil society.
  5. Strengthen the bureaucracy to make it more supportive of policymaking—for example, by empowering permanent secretaries and key ministerial bodies such as research units to play stronger roles.

Considering the legacy of military dictatorship, Myanmar’s contemporary elected governments face a stiff challenge to effective policymaking, with serious ramifications for the pace and substance of the transition to democracy and economic growth. Given the gravity of events in Rakhine State and growing doubts over the pace of reform, the international community is right to challenge the NLD government to respond more effectively. However, there is also an onus on the international community to understand the enduring effects of Myanmar’s history of military authoritarianism, and the still-pervasive influence of the military enshrined in the 2008 constitution. Overcoming this unfortunate history requires supporting the elected government to reform and strengthen key policymaking processes and structures to successfully manage change.

Matthew Arnold is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Myanmar and coauthor, with Su Mon Thazin Aung, of Managing Change: Executive Policymaking in Myanmar. He can be reached at The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

National Elections and Community Policing in Timor-Leste

This month, just a year short of its 20th anniversary, Timor-Leste held its fifth round of national elections—its second in less than a year—and despite some isolated incidents of violence in the hotly contested campaign, the country can be proud of a vote that was free, fair, and peaceful. This is all the more significant given the circumstances under which Timor-Leste first emerged as an independent nation: a 1999 referendum that gave rise to a scorched earth campaign orchestrated by departing Indonesian forces, resulting in the death of at least 1,400 people and the destruction of over 80 percent of the nation’s infrastructure.

Some credit for the peace and security of the latest elections is due to the nation’s long investment in community policing and its central pillar, the Community Policing Councils (Konselho Polisiamentu Komunitaria, or KPKs). The Timorese Police Service, the PNTL, has found that community policing can be highly effective in preventing and responding to conflicts while fostering stronger relationships with the communities it serves. Uniformed community members with “Membru KPK” emblazoned on their T-shirts were a common sight across the country throughout the campaign and the vote.

Komandante Euclides Belo of the Timorese Police Service

“KPK members really had an important role in helping the police maintain security during these recent elections,” reflected Komandante Euclides Belo, PNTL’s deputy commander for Dili District, on a hot and dusty Dili afternoon shortly after the vote. “They have such a good understanding of the communities they live in, and that [helps] us to keep the peace and prevent small problems from becoming big ones.”

Community policing was identified early as a centerpiece of the Timorese police service, and the new government was inundated with foreign blueprints and advice. (The fact that the UN mission’s police service included over 40 different countries in 2006 suggests the potential for confusion.) Building an entirely new police service in these circumstances was inevitably laborious, and success came slowly, but the PNTL has spent the last decade developing and refining its own model of community policing, supported by the New Zealand Police and The Asia Foundation. Many of the gains in this area have come since the withdrawal of the UN mission, with the PNTL taking over full executive policing functions. That effort has helped the PNTL evolve from a reactive force, influenced by the militarism of its Indonesian predecessor, to a more proactive, community-oriented service. In 2017, the general commander of the PNTL reinforced its commitment to community policing with a directive to expand KPKs from the current 231 to all of Timor-Leste’s 452 suku (villages).

Community policing can mean many things to many people. The Timorese model of community policing integrates national laws and institutions with the complex, syncretic blend of traditions, Catholic values, and local power relations that govern the lives, and particularly the disputes, of the vast majority of Timorese. One of the most tangible manifestations of this hybrid of formal law and local practice is the Suku Council, an officially recognized agency of subnational governance adapted from traditional units of communal authority at the suku level. In 2016, the Community Leaders Law, revised and renamed the Suku Law, established KPK subcommittees within all Suku Councils.

Government agencies administer community policing in Timor-Leste at various levels, starting at the national level with the PNTL, the Ministry of Defence and Security, and the Ministry of State Administration. Community influence is increasingly pronounced at more local levels of administration, with the munisipiu (district) level hosting District Security Councils. Beneath these, at the suku level, are the KPKs, a principal mechanism of community policing. This administrative hierarchy enlists a variety of government officials, community leaders, and civic-minded citizens—district administrators, district commanders, village police officers, suku chiefs, lian na’in (traditional leaders), women’s groups, veteran’s groups, and youth groups—who work together to identify emerging problems and nip them in the bud, to resolve disputes that do arise, and to refer them for prosecution where required by law. The lines between lore and law can be blurry, however, and KPKs inevitably reflect the communities they serve. Consequently, KPKs do not always preside over fair outcomes, and they require careful, ongoing scrutiny to prevent discrimination, especially against women and children.

That said, the 2018 election was the most visible, public manifestation of effective community policing in Timor-Leste to date. The suku of Bebonuk, in Dili’s western suburbs, provided a particularly striking example. Before and during the vote, the PNTL and the suku chief organized KPK members to be active observers throughout the suku—where violence among youths is not uncommon—by helping to cool simmering tensions in their neighborhoods or reporting them to the suku chief and the PNTL when necessary. On election day, 60 KPK members dispensed information and helped ensure orderly queues for the voters at Bebonuk’s two polling stations. As a result, polling day in Bebonuk was smooth and peaceful.

Stepping back to see the forest for the trees, Timor-Leste has come a long way in a short time. Ending the persistent cycles of violence that often plague postconflict countries requires effective, legitimate institutions. Community policing, if implemented well, has repeatedly shown elsewhere that it can reinforce the institutional machinery of peace, but the process can be messy and complex, requiring as much as a generation to take hold. In that light, Timor-Leste’s progress in bridging the sometimes-yawning gap between the national rule of law and the traditions of rural, communal life is remarkable. Challenges to development and prosperity remain, particularly in the form of excessive economic dependence on limited oil and gas reserves, pervasive underemployment, and an acute youth bulge. But community policing can help prevent, mitigate, and resolve the kinds of disputes that can lead to new cycles of conflict. Its role in the recent elections is a small but important illustration of that.

Robin Perry is The Asia Foundation’s team leader for the Community Policing Support Program (CPSP), a PNTL-led partnership with the New Zealand Police and The Asia Foundation. Foundation support began in 2008, scaled up in 2009 with funds from USAID, then expanded in 2011 to a five-year program targeting 11 districts, with additional support from the New Zealand Aid Programme. This was consolidated in 2016 as the CPSP, funded exclusively by New Zealand and running through 2021. Robin Perry can be reached at The views expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

Televised Debates: Another Democratic Step

Southeast Asia’s newest country and youngest democracy, Timor-Leste, has once again conducted a successful national election.

On Saturday, May 12, the Timorese people went to the ballot box to decide which among four political parties and four party coalitions should lead their country for the next four years. It was an early election, called by President Francisco “Lú-Olo” Guterres when the largest political party, Fretilin (Frente Revolucionário de Timor-Leste Independente), was unable to assemble a governing coalition with a voting majority in parliament. Fretilin had won the most votes in the previous election, in July 2017, and it was invited by the president to form a government, but its attempts to pass a development program and budget with its coalition partner, the Democratic Party, were ultimately unsuccessful, resulting in the latest elections.

The first early elections since the founding of the new state were also noteworthy for the prominence of televised political debates during the campaign. Observers of Timorese national politics had long worried that political campaigns focusing on charismatic figures from the struggle for independence instead of debating the issues of real concern to the electorate would eventually undermine the public’s faith that democracy can address their needs. But this time, public debate of party programs and policies was a common sight on the increasing number of TV stations that have emerged over the past two years.

National Radio and Television of Timor-Leste worked with the National Election Commission to organize two consecutive nights of live debates in early May. TV Guardamor worked with the Business Association in Timor-Leste to present a live debate on the role of the private sector in the national development process. Grupo Media National and the United Nations Development Program televised interviews with party and coalition leaders, and a debate, for female politicians only, on challenges and opportunities for women in politics in Timor-Leste.

The Policy Leaders Group (PLG), convened by The Asia Foundation, representing a range of political affiliations, policy expertise, career trajectories, geographic and demographic profiles, and genders, also conducted a series of nine televised political debates in coordination with Televizaun Edukasaun Timor (TVE). The televised debates exposed the public to the visions, programs, and policies of each of the competing parties, allowing citizens to participate, through their votes, in the decisions that will affect their lives.

All political parties and alliances were represented in the televised debates organized by TVE and the PLG. Government officials, academics, and members of independent civil society organizations served as panelists. Juvinal Dias, a national economic analyst for development NGO La’o Hamutuk, and Natalino Silva, an LGBT advocate and leader of the community organization Hatutan, served as moderators. The topics of debate were divided into separate but connected themes: sustainable development and democracy, budget transparency and government accountability, the South Coast Development Project, the health-care system, public administration, justice and human rights, anticorruption, the exclusive socioeconomic and market zone, and gender equality. The lively debates were aired from 8:00 to 11:00 in the evening.

The mix of traditional and modern campaign strategies distinguished this election from the four previous parliamentary elections, in 2002, 2007, 2012, and 2017. The canvassing, pamphleteering, and identity politics of previous campaigns now competed in the political marketplace with solid party platforms and programs, an increasing use of social media, particularly Facebook, and these new, substantive televised debates. These new strategies have also created opportunities for a generation of political newcomers to gain exposure and make themselves known to the public.

The Change for Progress Alliance (AMP), with its “Ten Commandments” platform and a host of new, young faces in the political debates, won 49.58 percent of the vote, followed by Fretilin with 34.16 percent, the Democratic Party with 8.07 percent, and the Democratic Development Front with 5.49 percent.

Carmeneza Dos Santos Monteiro is The Asia Foundation’s director for policy and institutional strengthening and the team leader for the Government Accountability Through Social Audit Program, an initiative of the prime minister implemented in partnership between the civil society umbrella organization FONGTIL and the Asia Foundation, with financial support from the European Union. She can be reached at The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation, its partners, or its funders.

Building an Entrepreneurship Ecosystem for Women in Mongolia

For many Mongolians, the booming capital, Ulaanbaatar, is synonymous with economic opportunity and a new life. Half the population now lives in the capital, most of them in the so-called ger areas, unplanned districts often lacking essential infrastructure like water and electricity and isolated from commercial activity. Starting a business here and keeping it running is hard, and even harder for women. Yet, with women comprising nearly 40 percent of the country’s entrepreneurs, Mongolia’s economic future is tied to their ability to participate in the marketplace.

While the female-to-male ratio of labor-force participation in the formal sector is relatively high in Mongolia compared to other countries in the region, women in business still face steep challenges in acquiring business skills, developing networks, and securing financing.

Take 27-year-old Undrakh, who started her handicraft business several years ago in her home but struggled to sell her products. Although full of passion, she lacked the skills at the outset to keep accounts, market her products, establish sales channels, and understand customer feedback—it was all uncharted water. Living in a ger area, she faced the constant challenge of traveling with large and unwieldy baskets to deliver to customers, a few at a time, in the city center.

Undrakh at work in her studio

Fast-forward to today, and Undrakh has a registered LLC with a well-appointed studio office in the center of Ulaanbaatar, two assistants, and a steady stream of regular orders from bigger businesses.

Undrakh is one of 28 graduates of Mongolia’s first-ever Women’s Business Center and Incubator Project, funded by the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) and The Asia Foundation’s Lotus Circle. The WBC supports a growing number of women business owners like Undrakh by providing high-quality business support services and an enabling environment for women entrepreneurs.

Since opening in 2016, the WBC has trained over 5,000 women and developed a regular client base of 2,000 entrepreneurs. For clients like Undrakh, the center is valuable not only for its high-quality business support and development services, but also for its open environment, where women from all walks of life gather to share information and exchange ideas.

While business-support centers do exist in Mongolia, the WBC stands alone in addressing the unique needs of women entrepreneurs, particularly single mothers and those with disabilities or from low-income groups. Close partnerships with grassroots service organizations allow the project to attract participants from marginalized communities, who are typically excluded from capacity-building efforts. Services include basic and intermediate business training and one-on-one advising, finance training and consulting, a coworking space, a business library, and a children’s playroom.

The WBC’s flagship initiative is an accelerated business incubator providing an intense four-month, tailored, business-development program to selected women entrepreneurs. The incubator offers participants a wide range of opportunities with practical, positive outcomes. Five to nine women are chosen for each class—28 women have graduated from the incubator to date—and the selection process has become increasingly competitive.

The program provides four stages of intensive business support: product development, identifying target clients and developing marketing strategy, achieving successful market penetration, and establishing binding contracts with investors and larger vendors. Incubator participants also have access to regularly organized pop-up-shop events and other sales or investment opportunities. Those without their own office may use the incubator at no cost while in the program. This four months of intensive development becomes a platform for networking and companionship, and alumni often return to the center to help other women.

President Khaltmaagiin Battulga visits the Women’s Business Center

The WBC has been recognized domestically and internationally, most recently by a visit from President Khaltmaagiin Battulga on May 14. The president met with incubator graduates to discuss their challenges and achievements, viewing their various products and expressing support for women’s economic empowerment.

The WBC’s social impact can be measured in the lives of its clients: women who are creating employment opportunities for other women, shifting from informal cottage enterprises to formal businesses, and experiencing higher self-esteem and improved status in their communities. As the most active network of women entrepreneurs in Ulaanbaatar, the WBC is helping to create a vigorous ecosystem of Mongolian women entrepreneurs.

Amarzaya Naran is The Asia Foundation’s project manager for the Women’s Business Center and Incubator Project in Mongolia. She can be reached at Soomin Jun is the Women’s Business Center and Incubator Project consultant in Mongolia. She can be reached at The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

10 Years after Wenchuan Earthquake, A Silver Lining in Disaster Management

On May 12, China will mark the 10th anniversary of the devastating Wenchuan earthquake that struck Sichuan province, leaving more than 69,000 people dead and over 40 million affected. While the impact of the earthquake lasts today, the one silver lining is that the catastrophe has catalyzed improvements to China’s disaster management architecture. Chinese civil society organizations (CSOs) are now an integral part of disaster preparedness and response, and the disaster management system in China is evolving into a more systemic structure.

Sichuan earthquake relief

A rescue team evacuates an injured woman during the Sichuan earthquake. Since then, China’s CSOs have mobilized to dramatically improve their relief efforts. Photo/Give2Asia

The Wenchuan earthquake marked the first time that Chinese CSOs mobilized on a large scale, organizing nearly 180,000 volunteers to assist communities affected by the disaster. Nevertheless, lacking experience in responding to big disasters, their efforts were limited. Since then, Chinese CSOs have made a concerted effort to review where things went wrong,and have taken concrete steps to improve their disaster response capacity.

This was put to the test in April 2013, five years after the Wenchuan earthquake, when the Lushan earthquake rocked Ya’an prefecture, again in Sichuan province. This time, Chinese CSOs were far more equipped to respond, and most of them came from the neighboring city of Chengdu, instead of having to travel from across the country as was the case with the Wenchuan earthquake. A CSO alliance quickly formed to jointly respond to the disaster, allowing their actions to be more efficient and needs-based. In this case, CSOs did not only focus on immediate disaster relief, but also worked to help the affected area’s long-term recovery. For example, the One Foundation established a recovery office in Ya’an after the earthquake, and, over five years, has received over $63 million to respond and recover from the earthquake, the majority of which has been used for the five-year recovery plan. In order to increase the disaster-resilience capacity of the local community, the One Foundation has also implemented a series of projects aimed at disaster risk reduction in schools and communities.

As CSOs prove their sophistication in disaster management, the government is increasingly recognizing their important role. In its 2017 “National Comprehensive Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Plan,” the government emphasized that given their extensive access to local communities, Chinese CSOs are well-suited to play an even bigger role in domestic disaster management in the future. This encouragement at the national policy level has also been reflected in local government procurement of CSO services to train local communities in disaster management. Before the official release of the national plan, the Shaanxi provincial government issued its “Implementation Opinions on Encouraging Social Forces Participation in Disaster Reduction and Response” in mid 2016. This policy encourages CSOs to actively take part in the province’s integrated disaster reduction community construction, such as community disaster preparedness education and community disaster response capacity-building. This is a remarkable development in China’s disaster management system.

In March 2018, China issued a massive government reorganization plan during the 13th annual session of National Peoples’ Congress (NPC) and the annual session of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing. This plan sets up a new Ministry of Emergency Management specializing in preventing and mitigating various hazards, including disasters and incidents. The new ministry will also oversee organizing rescue and relief for disasters, workplace safety, and the prevention and control of fire, flood, drought, and geographical disasters. The China Earthquake Administration (CEA) and State Administration of Coal Mine Safety will be supervised by the new ministry, while the State Administration of Work Safety will be dismantled. By integrating the disaster management functions previously scattered across different agencies and streamlining the work process, the new ministry is expected to improve the efficiency of the system in response to crisis situations.

Over the past decade, The Asia Foundation has had a front row seat to these historic developments of China’s disaster management system and has made contributions through a series of initiatives, ranging from promoting public-private partnerships and enhancing inter-agency coordination in emergency response, to a recent seminal project to improve the capacity of the community to respond to disasters.

Responders learn how to splint a fracture during an Asia Foundation CERT Training in Nanning.

This project, which started in 2015, adapted the U.S.-devised Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program for China and trained a total of 162 Chinese “master trainers” from Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Guangxi. These master trainers then train community members on basic response skills. This project also adapted a set of CERT curriculum from the U.S. to the Chinese context, which can be used in future capacity-building activities to prepare Chinese communities in responding to disasters. In addition, the Foundation is also supporting the establishment of China’s incident command system (ICS) through adaption of the U.S. ICS system and pilot implementation in Shaanxi province.

Looking back, the achievements made in China’s disaster management system serve in a way as a memorial to the affected individuals in the Wenchuan earthquake. We will continue to partner with the new ministry and the network of Chinese and international experts and professional organizations so that when disaster strikes again, we are together stronger than ever to respond.

Huang Zhen is a program officer for The Asia Foundation in China. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

Why ASEAN Needs to Invest More in Cybersecurity

Last month, heads of state gathered in Singapore for the 32nd annual ASEAN Summit to discuss a wide variety of issues—from the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea and the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, to advancing regional economic integration and navigating geopolitical power shifts. At a time when domestic political transformations, international security flashpoints, and growing protectionism are challenging ASEAN’s unity and centrality, the leaders added a new urgent agenda issue: how the region can better collaborate on cybersecurity.


ASEAN is the world’s fastest growing internet region, with the user base forecasted to reach 480 million people by 2020. However, Southeast Asia’s strategic relevance and rapidly expanding digitalization make it a prime target for cyber-attacks. Photo/Flickr user ADB

ASEAN is the world’s fastest growing internet region, with the user base forecasted to reach 480 million people by 2020. In 2016, this figure was 260 million, which translates into four million new users coming on line each month. Social media is being used by half of ASEAN’s population of 630 million, making it one the world’s largest social media markets. Of the 10 countries that are the largest users of Facebook in the world, four are in ASEAN: Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand.

Digitalization in Southeast Asia has important economic implications. By 2025, online spending could rise more than six-fold to $200 billion. Most of this consumption will be in the areas of electronics, clothing, household goods, and increased travel across the region and elsewhere. This all bodes well in terms of building a middle class and fostering job growth in the region. At the same time, there are negative sides to the transformation to a digital economy, with cyberterrorism, cyber fraud, and identity theft increasingly threatening its potential. Bad actors are working fast and creatively to wreak havoc on countries, businesses, and people. Today, the quality of a nation’s technology backbone is likely to influence its economic success.If cybersecurity is threatened, investor confidence in the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) will begin to decay. This begs the question: Are ASEAN nations investing enough in their own cybersecurity?

A recent report from AT Kearney indicates that ASEAN states collectively spend 0.06 percent of their GDP, or just $1.9 billion, on cybersecurity. The global average is double at 0.13 percent of GDP. The report recommended that ASEAN states increase spending on cybersecurity by 0.35 to 0.61 percent of its collective GDP ($171 billion) between 2017 and 2025. It also warned that failure to make such a significant investment could end up costing the top 1,000 companies in Southeast Asia as much as $750 billion from cyber-attacks. Singapore, this year’s ASEAN chair, invested 0.22 percent of its GDP on cybersecurity in 2017, leading ASEAN and ranking third globally. By comparison, Malaysia invested 0.08 of its GDP, with the rest of ASEAN investing less than 0.04 percent.

Southeast Asia’s strategic relevance and rapidly expanding digitalization make it a prime target for cyber-attacks. ASEAN countries have already been used as launchpads for attacks, either as vulnerable hotbeds of unsecured infrastructure or as well-connected hubs from which to initiate attacks. There is also a deficiency in skilled talent to deal with cyber threats. For example, Malaysia has 6,000 cybersecurity professionals, but experts project it will need as many as 10,000 in 2020.

Given how cybersecurity threats can easily transcend national boundaries, no one country or company can counter such threats on their own. Under Singapore’s chairmanship, ASEAN is beginning to elevate cybersecurity on its regional policy agenda. But this will require addressing the right problems, investing in the right technology, and forming the right partnerships among different stakeholders.

On April 19-20, The Asia Foundation, in partnership with the United States Embassy in Singapore, convened a “Practitioners Workshop on Cybersecurity in ASEAN.” The workshop brought together representatives from civil society, the private sector, academia, and government to discuss potential solutions to the most pressing problems of regional cybersecurity cooperation in ASEAN. Participants identified discrete gaps in ASEAN’s cybersecurity landscape and opportunities for a combination of stakeholders to address them in both domestic and regional arenas. Below are four key findings and recommendations that emerged from the workshop:

  • Practitioners collectively identified the ongoing problems related to measuring tangible progress on cybersecurity and the need to formulate commonly accepted global benchmarks to evaluate progress as important next steps. Since the successful prevention of potential cybersecurity attacks involves the absence, rather than the presence, of the attack, it becomes difficult to delineate a country’s progress in prevention. Similarly, there is a need for consensus on specific benchmarks and evaluative techniques to assess the methods by which a country’s cybersecurity agencies and Computer Emergency Response Teams (CERTS) are responding to cybersecurity threats. Moreover, without a common understanding of the appropriate legal punishments for criminal offences in cyberspace, the same criminal offenses are being handled in strikingly different ways by different ASEAN member states.
  • Despite the inability of the fifth round of the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts on Information Security (UN GGE) to clarify norms of state behavior in cyberspace in 2017, practitioners generally agreed that formulating and adhering to agreed norms can foster greater regional cooperation and lead to a more transparent global consensus on cybersecurity threats and responses. In the absence of a UN GGE consensus document, regional actors and nation-states must continue to advance the need for and foster discourse around norms of state behavior in cyberspace. Practitioners were also cognizant of persistent cultural and intellectual misperceptions between Western countries and countries in the Asia-Pacific regarding the importance of cybersecurity and the specific methods needed to achieve progress. To this end, fostering discourse not only among Asia-Pacific governments but to bridge this East-West divide was posited as a potential way to alleviate misperceptions and facilitate common understandings regarding cybersecurity threats and responses. There may also be opportunities for governments and the private sector to craft norms governing discrete and specific cybersecurity areas such as banking or finance as the broader norms discourse evolves.
  • Participants emphasized the need for greater cyber awareness and digital literacy, highlighting the milestone cyber awareness methods employed by Singapore and Malaysia, and urged leaders to consider more regional campaigns across ASEAN. For example, targeted methods such as cyber awareness comic books for children and road shows for the elderly which have been employed by Singapore’s Cybersecurity Agency, could be replicated across the region.
  • Addressing the important human resource dimension of the issues, Malaysia is working to foster a new generation of cybersecurity professionals through the creation of university degrees and curricula on cybersecurity. Educational innovations of this kind—coupled with greater collaboration among universities in ASEAN member states on cybersecurity—would enhance the security of ASEAN’s digital economy and its ability to address cybersecurity risks. As the threat landscape evolves at an alarmingly rapid pace and the discourse around state norms stalls, enhanced cyber awareness and the need for cybersecurity experts in the region becomes increasingly urgent. Adopting best practices around cyber hygiene and cybersecurity education should become an immediate priority for ASEAN member states. In addition to raising the awareness and commitment of internet users, these measures will raise public confidence in the measures taken by ASEAN members states and ASEAN as a whole.

Cybersecurity attacks are very expensive for companies and countries alike. The cost of protecting data is expensive, but failure to invest sufficiently and to develop regulatory policies to counter data breaches is far more expensive in the long run and can result in a significant loss of trust in society. Despite disparities in Southeast Asian nations’ political and economic development, ASEAN must prepare itself for the challenges and economic costs associated with potential cybersecurity breaches.

John J. Brandon is senior director for The Asia Foundation’s International Relations programs in Washington, D.C. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.