From Stand-offs to Solutions: When the Stakes Are High for Everyone

Almost 40 years ago, the indigenous population of a rural district in the far-western province of Nepal were displaced from their homes to make way for a national wildlife reserve. Today, they still live in temporary camps, and most of them have not received compensation for their land or homes. In a municipality in an adjoining province in the midwest, recently elected officials launched a bitter court fight over the local administration’s “authoritarian” management style and its failure to consult ward representatives and the public when making important decisions. And in another city, this one in the east, citizens protesting what they called an arbitrary and “unscientific” tax hike padlocked the municipal offices.

Outside of Pokhara, Nepal. Photo/Kristin Kelly Colombano

Such are the growing pains as Nepal feels its way towards federalism, a transition that, despite a sea change in Nepal’s social fabric and governance, is difficult, and in which the stakes are high for everyone.

For two decades, including 10 years of active civil war, Nepal’s local communities were governed by bureaucrats appointed by the central government, a system that perpetuated many of the causes of national unrest. A new constitution in 2015 and local elections in 2017 marked the beginning of the nation’s transition to a multitiered, federal system. Expectations were high, and voter turnout was an impressive 70 percent, but the learning curve for the new municipal bodies has been steep. A lingering culture of centralized decision-making, old animosities from the years of Maoist insurgency, limited resources, and inadequate laws and mechanisms to implement them have contributed to a pervasive culture of mistrust and lack of transparency.

Amid this slow and incremental progress, an Asia Foundation program of facilitated dialogues has been helping stakeholders in stubborn disputes to get from stand-offs to solutions, and to head off emerging issues and grievances before they become conflicts. 

Structure and Process

Dialogue has been something of a buzzword in democratic Kathmandu. Political leaders tell the media that they will “come to the table” to address contentious issues. Development agencies promote one-off “dialogue” sessions for brainstorming. In the peacebuilding setting, important to Nepal in this period of transition, dialogue can be envisioned as genuine and voluntary interaction, in safe, informal spaces, where stakeholders can deliberate to improve their relationship and build a common understanding of contentious issues.

A community dialogue in Nepal.

The Foundation’s dialogue program, funded by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, operates in 20 districts, in five of Nepal’s seven provinces. Led by trained facilitators, dialogue forums typically bring together a cross-section of civil society, politicians and political parties, business interests, the media, and others, across ideological divisions. Forum members are more than one-time participants in these meetings, and they are trusted by local communities and state agencies for their demonstrated ability to facilitate and coordinate.

Stakeholders meet in confidential settings where they can work on sensitive and politically charged issues that could lead to deadlock in a formal political negotiation. Facilitators manage the dialogue process to bring together people who are quite far apart on identified issues and conflicts. The solutions to many local grievances require concrete plans and policies, and trusted forum members often convey local issues to relevant state and nonstate agencies.

The Foundation first launched its regional dialogue program in three conflict hotspots in 2012, even as the civil war was raging. At a national level, the Foundation had supported the Nepal Transition to Peace (NTTP) forum, which was working to advance the peace process and support the Comprehensive Peace Accord by convening political parties and civil society leaders in confidential, informal settings. Drawing on the model of the NTTP forum, the regional dialogue forums brought together the political parties that were the main protagonists in the political unrest, to find ways to stop the ongoing violence at the regional level and bring their issues into the mainstream conversation. Encouraged by the unlikely success of these early initiatives, the Foundation began organizing facilitated dialogues on subnational governance to support the move to federalism and locally elected governments, as envisioned in the new constitution.

Strengths and Challenges

The Nepal experience shows that a successful dialogue requires a long-term commitment by all the stakeholders, including facilitators. Constructive discussions among multiple parties, each with their own needs, interests, and political constituencies, can take months or even years of time and resources, especially when conflicts have become deeply politicized or are historically rooted. Even when stakeholders have reached a consensus, external factors such as lack of effective policies or federal buy-in can thwart success. Agreements forged with great effort can easily fall apart. To achieve durable results, a dialogue must also create vertical and horizontal interactions and linkages among different state and nonstate actors for timely implementation of policies or policy changes.

In a successful dialogue, the stakeholders “own” the process. Resolutions achieved through such a process can be transformative and sustainable. On the other hand, there is always the risk that powerful interests or elites will dominate the dialogue process, especially if one of the parties is the government. A culture of silence prevails in the presence of authority in Nepal. Deep-rooted cultural norms of caste, class, gender, and religion further complicate the situation. In this complex environment, dialogue facilitators must be cognizant of existing power relations, so that stakeholders, though playing on an unlevel field, can genuinely participate in the process.

In the cases mentioned at the start of this story, a series of facilitated dialogues helped stakeholders go from stand-offs to solutions. In the far west, a new working relationship between the displaced community and the local government has led to a series of breakthroughs. Stakeholders have acknowledged that past efforts were too dismissive of the victims. The District Coordination Committee has petitioned the federal and provincial parliaments to speed amendments to the Land Act that may bring relief. The midwestern municipality started holding public consultations to establish greater transparency in public business and development works. And in the city in the east, government offices reopened after a series of dialogues with critics, and stakeholders worked together to reevaluate the taxation process and the new tax structure.

Sumina Karki is a program manager in The Asia Foundation’s Dialogue and Mediation Program in Nepal. She can be reached at sumina.karki@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Pakistan Tax Reform

This year, 2019, is expected to be the year Pakistan takes significant steps towards improving its tax system.

The national economy inherited by Prime Minister Imran Khan and his new Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government is a troubled one, with a growing fiscal deficit, rising intercorporate debt in the power sector, inflationary pressures, declining exports, and a widening current accounts gap. To stabilize the external sector in the short term, the government arranged much-needed loans from the Gulf states and China, and it is now pursuing policies that it believes will help realize the country’s industrial potential. Most importantly, the government has introduced a package of tax and administrative reforms for industry and agriculture. It is part of the of the government’s strategy to deploy supply-side, business-friendly, and pro-growth policies to improve market sentiment and get the economy back on track to recovery and sustainable growth.

Pakistan’s economy is recuperating from a stifling investment climate and what can best be described as a “consumption-led” growth period financed by short-term debt. Consumption as a percentage of GDP rose to 94.5 percent in 2018. Total gross investment, which includes government investment, was reported at just 16.4 percent of GDP in FY18—compared to 30 percent in India and 31 percent in Bangladesh. Constrained by low revenues, the government’s expenditures on health are estimated at just 0.7 percent of GDP, while education comprises less than 2 percent; again, both lower than regional averages. It is not surprising, therefore, that Pakistan continues to struggle to meet its human development and poverty reduction goals.

Research indicates that, apart from restrictive economic policies that hinder savings and investment in Pakistan, there are two additional factors in the country’s economic malaise: insecurity and taxes. While security has improved significantly over the last few years, little attention has been paid to Pakistan’s unfriendly tax policies. Pakistan ranks 136th worldwide in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, and 172nd in ease of paying taxes. These rankings suggest that tax laws are currently the single largest hindrance to investment in the economy.

Pakistan’s narrow tax base, its limited capacity to collect taxes, and the low national rate of tax compliance point to the crying need for better tax administration. Further aggravating the problem is the large number of tax exemptions available to certain segments of society. Taxes on agriculture, capital gains, and real property, for example, are essentially negligible, shifting the taxpaying burden to low-income groups through withholding taxes and the sales tax, which consume large parts of their income.

Photo/Conor Ashleigh

Exemptions and preferential treatment, which are granted by the executive through Statutory Regulatory Orders without prior approval of the Parliament, and which are not reported, reduce tax collections by approximately 2 to 3 percent of GDP each year. A comparison of the agriculture, manufacturing, and service sectors can help illustrate the extent of these distortions. The agriculture sector, which accounts for 21 percent of GDP, pays less than 1 percent of all taxes. The manufacturing sector, on the other hand, contributes 13 percent of GDP but 52 percent of all taxes, while the service sector contributes 58 percent of GDP but just 37 percent of tax revenues.

Total tax revenues in Pakistan stand at just 13.7 percent of GDP according to the Pakistan Economic Survey 2017–18, among the lowest of all emerging economies. Compliance costs are the highest in South Asia, and the tax administration system itself is weak overall, because the Federal Board of Revenue has neglected its primary responsibility of establishing a functional organizational structure. Deductions at source—withholding—account for the majority of tax revenues, which means that wage earners carry a disproportionate burden under the current system.

At a roundtable on the future of tax reform convened by The Asia Foundation and the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, participating experts recommended that tax policy and tax administration be systematically reformed, based on principles of equity and fairness, with further deregulation of parts of the economy. Exemptions and tax credits should be reduced to remove distortions in the tax system, and tax-withholding regimes should be rationalized to lessen the burden on low-income citizens. Participants also identified a clear need for taxpayer education to improve compliance and increase tax revenues.The government has recently proposed a business-friendly tax- and administrative-reform package. Reducing the corporate tax rate to less than 30 percent over the next two to three years would also promote economic growth. Since Imran Khan has taken the reins of the country, the government appears to have given high priority to tax reform and increasing the tax base.

Haris Qayyum is strategy and program development lead for The Asia Foundation in Pakistan. He can be reached at haris.qayyum@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

 

A Momentous Moment for Mindanao

On January 21 and February 6, residents of areas affected by decades of conflict in the southern Philippines will cast their votes on a plan for regional autonomy that could bring an end to decades of armed conflict and civil unrest. If the referendum passes, the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) will create a new autonomous region for central and western parts of Mindanao: the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

Proposed Bangsamoro core territory. Credit: Philippines Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process

The foundations for the BOL were laid in the 1970s, when Imelda Marcos and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) signed the ambitious but flawed Tripoli Agreement, whose failure ushered in two decades of armed violence. In 1996, President Fidel Ramos and the MNLF’s founder, Nur Misuari, tried again, with the so-called Final Peace Agreement (FPA). But the FPA lacked implementing legislation, and the legislative compromise that emerged five years later produced what President Benigno Aquino called a “failed experiment.”

All that is past.

Next week, voters in the currently constituted Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and some adjoining “expansion” areas will pass judgment on two decades of negotiations between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the successive administrations of Presidents Ramos, Estrada, Macapagal-Arroyo, Aquino, and Duterte. The negotiations resulted in a path to peace, built on the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) signed in 2012, the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) signed in 2014, and the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) adopted July 21 and now subject to referendum. The plebiscite will decide which areas are included in the newly constituted BARMM.

Meanwhile, tensions are running high. A bomb on New Year’s Eve in a shopping mall in the center of Cotabato City, the current seat of regional power, killed two and wounded 34, pushing public anxiety to the panic point. Officials have been warning of further attacks as the referendum approaches, and the region’s history lends credence to their warnings.

Yet, this time, the dynamics are different. In previous attempts, in 1989 and 2001, to marry an executive-level peace agreement with implementing legislation, dissatisfaction with the proposed laws was so acute that the MNLF and the MILF abstained from voting, and overall turnout was low. This time, the president, cabinet officials, senior leaders in Congress and the Senate, the current governor of the ARMM, and both the leadership of the MILF and a majority of MNLF leaders have publicly embraced the BOL as the best answer to these historical problems.

President Duterte’s approval ratings are high, and he has publicly endorsed the new law. Achieving peace in Mindanao was a key plank in his 2016 presidential campaign, and he remains the most influential voice for many in Mindanao, including minority Christian populations in the key cities of Cotabato and Isabela.

BOL signing ceremony at the Presidential Palace, August 6, 2018. Photo/Philippines Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process

A two-decade negotiation must inevitably impose compromises on all sides. During the final stages of the legislative process, amidst a raft of changes such as diminished police powers and reduced federal funds for the new region, the Senate edited the BOL preamble to enshrine the phrase “within the framework of the Constitution and the national sovereignty as well as territorial integrity of the Republic of the Philippines.” But although the final legislation is not the ideal of any of the parties, it has been embraced by all the key stakeholders, including the MILF and MNLF (excluding Misuari).

Key to that approval have been core elements of the CAB retained in the BOL, particularly recognition of the Bangsamoro people’s “distinct historical identity and birthright to their ancestral homeland.” Other key elements include the introduction of a regional parliament and greater fiscal autonomy for the new region.

Late polling suggests that ARMM voters will endorse the BOL, with a strong chance that some expansion areas will also do so. Success at the ballot will trigger a three-year transition period, with President Duterte appointing an 80-person Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), led by the MILF, leading to elections in 2022.

The BTA will face a dizzying array of challenges, the foremost of which will be assuming the management of regional services for almost 4 million people, more than 50,000 government employees (many of whom are nervous about their jobs), and a budget of PHP 32 billion (USD 615 million).

A second, equally pressing priority will be decommissioning tens of thousands of armed combatants and helping them through the process of “normalization,” whereby “communities can achieve their desired quality of life, which includes the pursuit of sustainable livelihood and political participation within a peaceful deliberative society.” This process will have to be uniquely Filipino: the MILF forces are a mix of full-time combatants, “farmer fighters,” and many thousands of others with uncertain connections to the civilian mainstream. Global templates for post-conflict decommissioning will not apply. Many voices have warned of the risks if this process is poorly handled. There are still dozens of small armed groups that would welcome former fighters, particularly those flying the black flag.

Thirdly, in leading the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, the MILF will be expected to create an inclusive polity—what Chair Murad has described many times as a “Bangsamoro for all.” Genuine foundations have been laid between Muslims and Christians, with indigenous peoples, and among previously estranged Moro groups. But overcoming deep historical prejudices as groups jockey for precedence and a seat at the table will require statesmanship of the highest order.

Public expectations will be high. Many people are expecting an immediate “peace dividend.” But ratification of the BOL will be just the first step—though a historic step, to be sure—in ending violent conflict in Mindanao. Several armed groups have pledged allegiance to ISIS, while others continue campaigns of kidnapping and extortion. Local political disputes frequently trigger violence that can quickly entangle regional adversaries. Disputes over land are still the most common cause of local conflicts. Citizens in the potential BARMM live these realities every day.

If the BOL is ratified, however, there will be sound reasons for optimism. The people of Mindanao will have the opportunity to craft their own answers to these challenges, and this, in essence, has been the heart of their demands.

The votes on January 21 and February 6 will be historic. Hopefully, they will also be peaceful, free, and fair, reflecting the best sentiments of those seeking peace.

Sam Chittick is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines and a long-term advisor on the Bangsamoro peace process. He can be reached at sam.chittick@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

A New Year for Gender Equality

On January 2, I had the privilege of leading a gender workshop for university students from across the United States, South Korea, and Japan who were in Washington, DC, to participate in the U.S.-Japan-Korea Trilateral Forum. There is nothing quite like a room full of millennials, challenging their own assumptions and yours, to give you hope for the future. I was impressed as they interrogated stereotypes of women as natural caregivers and the relative ease of being a man in today’s world, and humbled as they reflected on how their gender identities intersect with their race, economic status, religion, and sexual orientation. These motivated young men and women adeptly navigated the space between self-disclosure and diplomacy, finding comfort in their common ground and exhilaration in their disagreement, while plotting out actions they will take to dismantle harmful gender norms in their families, communities, and careers. It was a fitting way to kick off a new year that brings with it the momentum and high expectations of last year’s auspicious developments.

There is no denying that 2018 saw signs of change and notable gains for gender equality and women’s empowerment in Asia and the Pacific, particularly concerning political participation and legal rights. In Afghanistan, a record 417 female candidates participated in the October parliamentary elections. Japan adopted new legislation to promote women’s political participation by urging political parties to make the number of male and female candidates as equal as possible and set targets for gender parity. Though nonbinding, this law is an important gesture in a country with consistently low representation of women in politics. Last year also brought significant progress for transgender rights in Pakistan, decriminalization of gay sex in India, and the introduction of paid leave for victims of domestic violence in New Zealand.

In addition to these national developments, the #MeToo movement spread throughout the region as the year progressed, directing unprecedented attention to the historic injustices and inequalities experienced by women, specifically those related to sexual harassment in the workplace. Led by grassroots activists, this movement gained traction across Asia, opening space for countless stories of harassment and new opportunities to hold perpetrators to account. Combating sexual harassment can seem Sisyphean, but 2018 showed that from Hollywood to Hong Kong, survivors are strong, and systems can change.

LGBT activists hold a long rainbow-colored flag demanding equality during Queer Swabhimana Yatra Photo/reddees / Shutterstock.com

Some of the most exciting developments I encountered in 2018 were within the development community and among donor governments. Though catalyzed by scandals and reports of rampant sexual assault in the humanitarian and development aid sectors (as detailed in this report, among other outlets), efforts like DFID’s enhanced safeguarding standards for preventing and responding to harm caused by sexual exploitation, abuse, harassment, or bullying have enormous value. It would be wise for other governments, donors, and aid agencies to follow suit.

The year just past also saw multilateral agencies like the Asian Development Bank expand their focus on gender equality by pledging that at least 75 percent of their operations will promote gender equality by 2030. And the largest economies in the world outlined ambitious commitments, in the Charlevoix G7 Summit Communique, related to advancing women’s full economic participation, improving access to quality education, and ending all forms of sexual and gender-based violence. Civil society is standing by, ready to help bring these commitments to fulfillment.

And so, as 2019 gets underway, we have much to build on. Every year we see individual women break boundaries, shatter ceilings, and set records. These victories are always a cause for celebration. But the change we need is systemic. The new year began with the 385-mile Women’s Wall across Kerala, India, to protest gender inequality, and a conference room in DC full of ambitious students from the United States and Asia preparing to transform gender norms for the next generation. As we forge ahead in this new year, my resolution is to appreciate the progress, painfully slow though it sometimes feels, and keep an eye on those systems. The future is feminist. Let’s build.

Barbara Rodriguez is associate director of The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program. She can be reached at barbara.rodriguez@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

In India’s Cities, Women Should Work, Thrive, and Loiter

They say that India lives in its villages, but this is changing. In 30 years, some 60 percent of India’s population will live in cities. Larger metros such as New Delhi or Mumbai are already grappling with the challenges presented by the constant influx of rural migrants. These megacities are growing rapidly, while their governments are playing catch-up. Access to civic amenities, services, and safe and efficient public transportation is still difficult to come by. This gap affects women even more than men.

India’s smaller cities and towns are growing too; but standing at an earlier stage of their development, they still have the flexibility to plan for growth that is inclusive of women and sensitive to their needs. The Asia Foundation has been promoting women’s security, particularly in urban spaces, for several years. With support from the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), we have expanded our focus to include India’s smaller cities and towns, which also have fairly poor indicators when it comes to women’s safety. Based on our observations in the Indian cities of Bhopal, Gwalior, and Jodhpur, there are three principal factors that contribute to these unsafe circumstances.

First, women are largely invisible in India’s cities. When seen in public, women walk with purpose, and seldom, as sociologist and researcher Shilpa Phadke puts it, do they loiter. They tend to avoid spending time in public spaces without a specific reason to be there, and they certainly do not do so alone. Working-class women have little occasion for recreation, and using public spaces for such purposes remains a largely foreign concept. To end this public invisibility, women need to claim public spaces as their own.

Second, society incorrectly assumes that a woman’s safety is only a woman’s problem, and most narratives place the onus of women’s security on the individual. If it’s unsafe to meet friends at night, she should stay home. If attacked in a poorly lit street, she should learn martial arts to defend herself. If she is sexually harassed on a crowded bus, she should use a safety pin or a hair clip to poke the offender to teach him a lesson. If she is harassed on the street while walking, she should choose more conservative clothing next time. Stories from the field indicate that routine harassment often forces women and their families to restrict their public movements to identified “safe zones.” This kind of self-policing is indicative that women are not as safe in public spaces as they should be.

Third, the state has failed to provide the public infrastructure necessary to ensure that women can move freely without fear. In Gwalior, for example, safe and high-quality public transportation is absent. Far more than men, who have easier access to private vehicles, this excludes women from public spaces beyond a walkable distance. The state also needs to mount a robust law-enforcement response to crimes against women. Sometimes, the mere presence of police officers in busy areas is enough to deter even the most daring abuser. Most importantly, however, city police need to build public trust, and women’s trust—not as protectors, but as representatives of the state who will lend women a sympathetic ear in moments of trauma and crisis—while simultaneously rethinking their own policing strategies based on women’s needs.

Commuters at Mumbai Central Train Station, India.

To support urban governments seeking solutions to these problems, the Foundation’s long-time partner Safetipin is conducting safety audits in all three cities, which will ultimately feed into a “safe city index” that compares safety perceptions of women in Bhopal, Gwalior, and Jodhpur. Having this data, along with a body of qualitative interviews, will help these city governments make informed decisions about how they can make women feel, and be, safer.

In continuation of our efforts to promote women’s public safety as a state priority, the Foundation has made working with the police an integral part of our work against gender-based violence. Through interactive gender-sensitization trainings, our partner, the Centre for Social Research, is working with local police officers to help them understand legal provisions designed to protect women in public spaces, and their role in enforcing those laws. This is a new area for the police, who have more experience handling cases of private violence against women, such as domestic violence or rape. Convincing them that a case of stalking or street harassment is no less a crime has been an uphill battle. Convincing victims to register their complaints and demand their day in court is no easy feat either, given the slow pace of justice in India.

There is a lot of work to be done to convince the multitude of stakeholders that women’s security requires far more than just convicting rapists or designating gender-segregated spaces. Women’s security is also a key driver of economic growth and prosperity, and in an economy like India’s, this argument will be hard to ignore. A mere 10 percent increase in the rate of women’s workforce participation could add a whopping $770 billion, 18 percent, to India’s GDP. Getting women out of the house and into workspaces in India’s cities will be a crucial contribution to the country’s economic success. But to do that, cities need to become safer places for women to work, thrive, and loiter.

Diya Nag is a senior program officer, and Shruti Patil is an associate program officer, for The Asia Foundation in India. They can be reached at diya.nag@asiafoundation.org and shruti.patil@asiafoundation.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Reflections on the World Data Forum: Harnessing Data for Development

Data has become the oil of the Information Age, and there is now a steadily growing global movement of young people who are passionate about transforming their countries by harnessing the power of data. In Asia, this movement is still small, but it is growing day by day. In Nepal, for example, there is already a large community of civil society organizations and private companies that produce, share, and make use of data for development.

At the core of the data-for-development conversation is the critical need for more and better data, especially disaggregated social and demographic data, to make and measure progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals and to understand who is being left behind. Many countries, for example, still don’t collect comprehensive vital statistics, which means millions of births go unregistered, a data deficit that can effectively deny people their rightful citizenship. Census data is often out of date, preventing governments from developing effective policies on issues such as social support services, economic development, or migration. The next round of national censuses, due in 2021, represents an opportunity to close critical data gaps through careful planning, preparation, and partnerships.

The call for better data was very much at the center of last October’s UN World Data Forum in Dubai, which brought together the world’s leading data and statistics experts with data enthusiasts from several continents. Among the relatively small Asian contingent was a delegation from the Data for Development in Nepal program, an Asia Foundation partnership with the international development organization Development Initiatives.

During the three days of panel discussions, featured speakers, and side events, several key themes emerged regarding the production, sharing, and use of data to promote development:

1. Understand the politics behind national statistical systems. Efforts to build nations’ statistical capacity have traditionally focused on technocrats rather than politicians, yet the latter are the ultimate data policymakers and users. There was general agreement on the need to better understand how politics can influence national data policies, and the incentives to use data for evidence-based policymaking rather than to support political narratives.

Dubai, site of the World Data Forum

2. Gender and migration merit special focus. Women and migrants are uniquely vulnerable groups, yet many official statistics have no disaggregated data on women, and migrants are often simply overlooked. According to UNESCAP, of the 43 countries in the Asia-Pacific region that conducted a census between 2005 and 2014, only 16 have reliable data on international migration. Closing the gaps in the data on women and migrants will allow for better protections and support.

3. Better communicate data to facilitate its use. A lot of data has been collected, but much of it is not being used by governments, citizens, civil society, or the private sector, because they are unaware that it is available, or because the format doesn’t meet their needs. It is important to communicate data in ways that people, especially nonexperts, find compelling, such as visualizations and stories. While the Forum featured few journalists, various speakers emphasized the critical role they play as intermediaries and the need for stronger partnerships between national statistical offices and the media.

4. Alternative data sources have benefits. Government statistics are still fundamental, but data from alternative sources can complement them in important ways. The Forum considered examples such as using geographic information systems to demarcate boundaries and calculate samples for the 2020 round of censuses; using citizen-generated data to track progress on the SDGs in Guatemala, where malaria spray teams used the open-source platform Open Street Map to plan and direct malaria campaigns; and community data systems in Uganda, where community members, independent of any central agency, collect, record, and maintain their own data sets covering everything from household size and income, to local trade and commerce, to water and sanitation. The promise of big data in humanitarian efforts—for example, the telecommunications data used to locate people after the Nepal earthquake—was also mentioned, as was the potential of AI, underscored by Minister of State for AI Omar Sultan Olama of the United Arab Emirates, official host of the Forum. Many speakers highlighted the importance of public-private partnerships in the production and use of alternative data sources. In pilot projects in Ghana and Nepal, for example, citizens and civil society groups are collecting and mapping solid-waste management data that can be used by governments to track progress on the SDGs or to improve solid-waste services.

The Data for Development in Nepal team and partners at the World Data Forum in Dubai

5. Privacy, data security, and data ethics are key concerns. Episodes like the Cambridge Analytica scandal have contributed to growing public concern about data privacy and security. In May, the EU adopted the General Data Protection Regulation, forcing companies to adhere to strict rules when handling private data. Various countries in Asia have followed suit, adopting their own data-privacy rules. Rising popular mistrust of data in general has blurred the distinctions between anonymous government statistics, open data, and often-intrusive big data. More efforts are needed to educate the public that not all data contains personal information or invades privacy.

The Forum was an important opportunity for the Data for Development in Nepal program and selected members of Nepal’s open-data community to consider the latest thinking. While various Asian governments have established open-data platforms, and communities of practice such as Open Nepal are promoting open data, there is still enormous, untapped potential for data in open formats to spur economic growth, foster innovation, and improve human development across the region. The Forum heard strong calls for more South-South cooperation among national statistics offices, nongovernment data producers, and intermediaries. Nepal, with its vibrant local data community, would be a perfect candidate to share its best practices and lessons learned at the next Forum. With the next World Data Forum planned for 2020 in Bern, Switzerland, perhaps the most important recommendation from the Forum in Dubai is the need for more Asian voices.

The Data for Development in Nepal program works to improve the sharing and use of data in open formats to support development. The program is implemented by The Asia Foundation in partnership with Development Initiatives, with funding from the UK’s Department for International Development. The seven participating organizations from Nepal are Bikas Udhyami, Clean Up Nepal, the Foundation for Development Management, Kathmandu Living Labs, Open Knowledge Nepal, Young Innovations, and YUWA.

Nikki Sharma, Pranaya Sthapit, and Sunita Shakya are program consultants to The Asia Foundation in Nepal. They can be reached at nikki.sharma@asiafoundation.org, pranaya.sthapit@asiafoundation.org, and sunita.shakya@asiafoundation.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Remembering Shahjahan Kabir

Shahjahan Kabir passed away in Dhaka on January 8, 2019. News of The Asia Foundation’s former Bangladesh program advisor’s death hit hard among the many friends, colleagues, and professional counterparts, myself included, who were privileged to know and work with him over his distinguished four-decade career.

Shaj, as he was known to those closest to him, joined the Foundation in 1972, just months after the Foundation received renewed accreditation to work in a newly independent Bangladesh. He started with the Books for Asia program and went on to work on the Foundation’s milestone Female Education Scholarship Program and in other capacities until he was appointed program advisor—the senior-level position he held for decades. When Shaj retired in 2012, several of us who had worked in the Foundation’s Bangladesh office flew to Dhaka for a special evening to mark the occasion.

Shaj was involved in virtually every aspect of the Bangladesh country program. As our chief liaison with the government, he managed formal reporting relationships and helped civil society partners secure the NGO Affairs Bureau approval that was required for them to receive Foundation grants. The leadership and scrutiny of the NGO Bureau changed regularly with elections and political currents, and Shaj skillfully navigated the maze, advising partners on these transitions and ensuring that crucial grants continued without interruption.

Through his long tenure, Shaj was the familiar face of The Asia Foundation for counterparts in hundreds of government agencies, academic institutions, and civil society organizations, as well as donor partners. He cultivated working relationships with generations of NGO heads who led innovations in access to justice, women’s education and empowerment, environmental law and advocacy, voter and civic education, media, and other areas. Many of these distinguished leaders became his lifelong friends. Shaj was instrumental in the Foundation’s work with election observation and other coalitions, navigating the complexities of institutional cultures, personalities, and politics to help coalition partners achieve success. He earned the deep trust of all partners, finding practical solutions to the inevitable issues that would arise and deftly averting those that he instinctively saw coming. The relationships Shaj maintained also saw the Foundation through some lean stretches when goodwill was abundant but resources limited, preserving the loyalty and confidence that allowed us to move into new program areas and secure fresh donor funding. Shaj took tremendous joy when this occurred. “Very good,” he would say with characteristic economy of language—punctuated by a clap on the shoulder that made those simple words soar.

Shaj and his wife Farah’s hospitality was legendary. They hosted friends and colleagues at home for memorable Eid feasts and other special occasions, and for lunches and dinners at the Dhaka Club—where Shaj would order food enough to comfortably finish in a week. If my wife Muna missed a Dhaka Club evening, Shaj would quietly pass me a packet of kebabs or smoked hilsha at the end of the meal to bring home for her. He was fine company on field trips to monitor the Foundation’s programs in the remotest corners of Bangladesh—the “real Bangladesh” as Shaj called it, removed from the chaos of Dhaka. I close my eyes and see the green rice fields spilling past the jeep window as Shaj and I quietly absorbed the striking landscape. I recall our morning walks through the countryside with Fazlul Huq of Madaripur Legal Aid Association, and the charm of early evenings when sunset lit the sky crimson, villagers gathered to share the day’s news, and evening prayer was called over loudspeakers.

In my eleven years as Deputy Country Representative and later Country Representative in Bangladesh, Shaj consistently provided wise counsel, untangling political complexities and explaining cultural nuances—all with a familiar “You see…,” his wrist turned and fingers raised in a familiar gesture. He would discreetly signal when he felt things were going well, or otherwise, in meetings and quickly capture in his deep whisper the gist of a debate that to me was lost in translation.

Shaj was the model of grace under pressure. In the 26 years that I knew him, I never once heard him raise his voice or otherwise lose his composure. He was a remarkable colleague who, modest in manner and approach, worked quietly in and behind the scenes. His ability to gracefully adjust to leadership styles—and idiosyncrasies—in the office, and to maintain strong working relationships with government and partner organizations, is a crucial element of the Foundation’s successful seven-decade legacy in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has changed enormously since Shaj first joined the Foundation. Those who worked in Dhaka in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s will find just a handful of familiar landmarks from that time, as the city has grown, the old Dhanmondi and Gulshan neighborhoods have become high-rise canyons, and the capital has been seized by gridlocked traffic. Virtually all of us look back on our Bangladesh days with a sense of satisfaction, knowing that no professional assignment may ever quite measure up to that remarkable chapter of our lives. Memories like these are shaped by people, and our dear friend and colleague Shahjahan Kabir was a central part of this treasured common experience. We especially remember him for his love of Bangladesh and its people and the confidence he placed in a country whose birth he fought for in the Liberation War.

In the days since Shaj’s death, a touching conversation has unfolded through email, telephone, and social media among his many friends and colleagues, who have drawn comfort in shared feelings and recollections. His precious memory lives large in those who knew and served with him.

Kim McQuay is managing director of The Asia Foundation’s Program Specialists Group in Washington, DC. He served as deputy country representative in Bangladesh from 1992 to 1996 and as country representative from 2003 to 2009. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

2019: The Year Ahead in Asia

Happy New Year, and welcome to the first edition of InAsia for 2019. In our last issue we looked at some of our top stories from the year just ended, stories that chronicled the successes and failures, the triumphs, and the tribulations of 2018 through the eyes of our experts in Asia. This week, we invite you to look ahead with us to a still-young 2019, as The Asia Foundation’s country representatives offer their predictions of the stories that will dominate the news from Asia in the coming year. Here, to kick off 2019, are perspectives from our 18 offices in Asia. —John Rieger, editor, InAsia 

Afghanistan
Whether from a political, security, or economic perspective, 2019 promises to be a challenging year for Afghanistan. Parliamentary elections in October were marred by concerns over mismanagement, fraud, insecurity, and disenfranchisement. Lessons learned from these elections must be applied to the coming presidential elections, to be held in 2019, if a credible and acceptable process and outcome are to be achieved. On the security front, Afghanistan needs an inclusive, transparent, and Afghan-led peace process to ensure meaningful progress in peace negotiations with the Taliban. And economically, a combination of immediate, quick-impact employment programs and longer-term economic development initiatives, involving incentives for new investors and retention strategies for existing businesses, are among the country’s most pressing priorities. —Abdullah Ahmadzai, country representative

Bangladesh DhakaBangladesh
The resilience of the Bangladeshi people will continue to be on display in 2019 as the nation tackles the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis, the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, and progress towards an inclusive and sustainable graduation to developed-country status. —Sara Taylor, country representative

Cambodia
After a relatively turbulent year, in 2019 Cambodia’s government commences its sixth mandate, setting the direction for the next five years. Cambodian youth remain hopeful and dynamic, as evident particularly in the nation’s vibrant entrepreneurship and flourishing technology ecosystem. For Cambodia to move in a positive direction, the country will need to diversify its economy and balance relationships with the wider international marketplace and community. —Meloney Lindberg, country representative

China
2019 will be a year of several important anniversaries for China. The People’s Republic will celebrate its 70th birthday, reflecting with pride on the stunning economic growth of the past four decades but facing mounting pressure to create a more equitable society and provide better health, education, and social protection to all, especially the vulnerable and disadvantaged among the population. 2019 will also mark the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations with the United States, at a moment when the bilateral relationship has arguably deteriorated to an all-time low. Whether the two countries will find a middle ground on trade and resolve the Huawei CFO extradition issue in early 2019 will have significant bearing on the trajectory of bilateral relations for the rest of the year. —Ji Hongbo, country representative

India
The recent breakdown of various international trade alliances (the disruption of NAFTA, the U.S.-China tariff wars, the paralysis of the WTO) has created an opportunity for growing economies like India to play a greater role in the global and regional economic and political arenas. However, India will need political maturity and economic prowess to exploit these opportunities and attract business and investment to its shores. Despite pressures from higher oil prices, a depreciating currency, and the general decline of a decade-long bull market, the OECD projects that India’s GDP will grow at an average annual rate of 7.5 percent in 2019 and 2020. But these projections can only materialize with the support of significant structural reforms to aid business investment and exports. These reforms include the new Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, smoother implementation of the comprehensive indirect tax on goods and services—the GST—better roads and electricity, and bank recapitalization. For any of these reforms to substantially aid economic growth, however, they will need to be backed by transparent governance and a nonpartisan political climate that gives investors the confidence to invest. India is poised for national elections in early 2019, and political leaders need to abandon populist campaign agendas to harness the global opportunities that are knocking at India’s door. The myopia underpinning partisan and nonsecular politics must be replaced with a more inclusive, equitable, and global economic and social perspective. —Nandita Baruah, country representative

Indonesia
In 2019, 185 million Indonesians will exercise their constitutional right to vote, electing a president, a vice president, and members of the national legislature. Identity politics have become increasingly prominent in Indonesia’s social and political discourse in the last decade, sowing division between majority and minority communities. Democracy is increasingly framed as majoritarian rule, and surveys have shown that political and social intolerance are on the rise. While promoters of democracy encourage voters to cast their ballots based on programmatic proposals from the parties and candidates, louder messages, amplified by social media, emphasize the primordial ties of religion and ethnicity. The work to protect democratic values of inclusion has never been as crucial as it is right now in the world’s most populous Muslim country. How politicians campaign, and how the public responds to their messages, will be an important clue to Indonesia’s direction in 2019 and beyond. —Sandra Hamid, country representative

Korea
In 2019, the third year of the Moon Jae-In administration, South Korea stands at a social, economic, and foreign-policy crossroads. The sense of a narrowing window of opportunity could persuade South Korea, North Korea, and the United States to compromise on the nuclear issue, despite prevailing skepticism and the growing tension between U.S. pressure and the South’s desire to seize the last chance in a generation to engage the North. South Korea also faces the challenge—and opportunity—to align its development assistance with global trends, which have shifted from top-down, government-focused official development assistance (ODA) to the bottom-up, partnership-friendly and public-private approaches of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The shift from an ODA to an SDG mindset could be tested in the Moon administration’s new “Southern Policy,” directed towards ASEAN countries and India. Economically, South Korea is wrestling with the structural implications of reorienting its economy from manufacturing to services, while the Chaebols continue to act as both enablers of and obstacles to growth. They will be tested in the new year as the global economy slows down. The economy is showing early signs of stress, including declining employment figures and residential property construction orders for the past two years. The economic risk is compounded by growing household debt, as interest rates will face pressure to rise. Meanwhile, changing demographics remain a source of anxiety as South Korea’s population ages, stoking intergenerational tensions over jobs, public benefits, and other resources. —Kwang Kim, country representative

Laos
Infrastructure boomed in Laos in 2018, with the Lao-China railway reaching 20 percent completion and deals struck for two expressways—the first ever in Laos—and a national “backbone” power transmission line. These are all important pieces of the connectivity puzzle, assets that will help Laos to achieve its stated goals of being “land-linked” and the “battery of Asia.” However, 2018 also brought a tragic reminder of the risks of large-scale infrastructure development, in the form of the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy dam collapse. Going forward, Laos must seek a balanced path that addresses key infrastructure needs while protecting the critical ecosystems that are so inextricably linked to Lao culture and livelihoods. —Nancy Kim, country representative

Malaysia
Following the unprecedented result of the nation’s 14th general election in May, Malaysia experienced a change of regime for the first time in 60 years. In this new era, now famously dubbed New Malaysia, Malaysians will be closely following the ruling coalition’s progress in fulfilling their campaign promises, especially the promise of structural political and economic reforms. As the government further articulates the content and strategies of the New Malaysia agenda, the nation’s 2019 wish list includes greater rule of law and a thriving and robust economy backed by a just society. The new government’s success or failure in this project could largely determine whether Malaysia will be able to consolidate its recent democratic gains. —Herizal Hazri, country representative

Mongolia
Mongolia enters 2019 still reeling from a major corruption scandal, involving misuse of the national small and medium enterprise fund, and wracked by political infighting within the ruling Mongolian People’s Party. These two factors make it likely that government instability will persist until the 2020 elections. 2018 was a year of continued economic recovery, and Mongolia has been effectively implementing an International Monetary Fund package since 2017, so the economic outlook for 2019 remains positive for now. However, an uncertain outlook for the Chinese economy, on which Mongolia remains heavily dependent, and limited progress on key reforms due to government fragility and a divided parliament put the economic recovery of the last two years at risk. Preparations will soon begin for the critical 2020 national elections, and major sources of public dissatisfaction will dominate the national discourse in 2019, including the extreme air pollution in Ulaanbaatar and other cities and the public’s growing frustration with corruption. —Mark Koenig, country representative

Myanmar
Put simply, 2018 was a difficult year for Myanmar. The fallout from the Rohingya crisis has increased as the UN and assorted parliaments and governments have labelled it genocide and applied targeted sanctions. While humanitarian access and diplomatic dialogue have improved, the situation on the ground remains dire, with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh refusing to leave. Domestically, the NLD government of Aung San Suu Kyi faces growing criticism over the lack of movement in the peace process and the slow pace of reforms, particularly economic ones. As the country struggles both domestically and internationally, many wonder if Myanmar’s historic effort to reform and democratize is being lost in transition. Nevertheless, Aung San Suu Kyi and her party remain popular overall. If she can secure greater international involvement in resolving the Rohingya crisis—for instance, through the UN and ASEAN—encourage greater economic growth, and catalyze some high-profile reforms, such as to the banking sector and local public administration, both international support and Myanmar public opinion will likely be reinvigorated. —Matthew Arnold, country representative

Nepal local elections

Bidya Sundar Shakya after being elected the Mayor of Kathmandu in the first phase of Nepal’s local elections.

Nepal
Power sharing and self-rule will again be the center of attention in 2019, as Nepal’s three tiers of government continue to flesh out their working relationships. The crucial aspect to watch will be the provincial governments, as they work to demonstrate their still undefined political and administrative worth to both the 753 local governments and the federal government. While the provincial governments will be the front lines of these developments, the greatest gains are likely to be had at the local level. Hopes are high in municipalities across Nepal, as local authorities with new powers under the 2015 constitution feel pressure to deliver on last year’s campaign promises of inclusive democratic governance and economic growth, both central to the historic grievances of exclusion that fueled Nepal’s decade-long internal conflict. Mid-March is the constitutional deadline for revision of hundreds of federal laws that will set a new legal framework for the country, but antagonisms between elected politicians and the bureaucratic leadership that has managed the country over two decades of instability will remain a challenge. —Meghan Nalbo, country representative

Pakistan
With a newly elected government firmly in place after July general elections, economic stabilization, inclusive growth, and good governance will remain Naya (new) Pakistan’s priorities for 2019. —Sofia Shakil, country representative

The Philippines
Global headlines on the Philippines in 2019 will likely be dominated by President Duterte, his continuing war on drugs, and a plebiscite in January and February over new regional autonomy and a path to peace for conflict-affected areas of Mindanao. Domestic headlines will be dominated by a nonstop “festival of democracy” for the midterm elections on May 13, when more than 18,000 elected positions will be up for grabs. Support for democracy remains high: registrations of new voters surpassed expectations, adding 2.5 million people to the voter rolls for a total of more than 60 million, of whom 70–75 percent are expected to turn out. Among the key economic challenges for the year ahead are curbing the currently high rate of inflation, creating jobs, and delivering on infrastructure promises, alongside maintaining consistency in economic leadership amidst the expected postelection changes in the Cabinet. —Sam Chittick, country representative

Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is just emerging from a constitutional crisis that destabilized the country for over 50 days. On October 26, citing irreconcilable differences and the national interest, President Maithripala Sirisena sacked the prime minister and unilaterally appointed former president Mahinda Rajapaksa in his place. The resulting crisis provoked unprecedented public protests and resistance, until a definitive decision by the Supreme Court compelled the quarreling political leaders to adhere to constitutional norms. As Sri Lanka now struggles to hold together the fractured pieces of its 71-year-old democracy, 2019 will be a crucial year. There is no doubt that the power struggle at the top will continue unabated, particularly since provincial, parliamentary, and presidential elections are due in the next two years. The United National Party, its government reinstated by the court, has one last chance to demonstrate its commitment to the good-governance, accountability, and anticorruption agenda it was elected on. The president and the reinstated prime minister will need to find a way to work together. Most importantly, Sri Lanka has emerged from the crisis fundamentally changed. A newly activated electorate with high expectations is poised to demand change and will no longer tolerate the parochial interests of the political elite. The future of Sri Lanka will thus hinge on the ability of this spontaneously mobilized electorate to remain steadfast in defense of their democratic rights. —Dinesha de Silva, country representative

Thailand
Thailand is about to take center stage in world affairs once again. As ASEAN chair in 2019, Thailand is likely to preside over increasingly complex regional relations as the centrifugal force of the U.S.-China rivalry puts pressure on the 10-member bloc. Negotiations over the critical Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trading bloc and the South China Sea Code of Conduct could come to fruition during Thailand’s tenure. The chance of a refugee or regional security crisis is also high. Thailand has been preparing for this moment for a decade, and it has a talented and capable group of diplomats and officials who will be keeping the agenda on track. The big question, of course, will be the political leadership. Nearly five years after a military coup, Thailand will have an election on February 24. While the election itself is likely to be relatively smooth, the critical moment will be in the two or three months after the election, as three major political factions try to cobble together a majority coalition. If it can emerge from this test with a widely accepted and stable government, this will be a breakthrough year for Thailand after nearly 15 years of political instability and uncertainty. —Thomas Parks, country representative

Timor-Leste
2019 is looking to be a crucial year politically and economically for Timor-Leste. Historic early elections in 2018 led to a political impasse between the coalition AMP government and the FRETILIN opposition. At stake are the appointments of eight ministers still waiting to take office, and a cabinet reshuffle is possible early in the year. Another critical area to watch will be the final shape of the 2019 budget, currently the largest ever proposed. It includes a partial buyout of the $50 billion Greater Sunrise Gas Field and a plan to buy more in 2020, for a 56 percent stake in the joint development. Underlying all of this is the urgent need to continue diversifying the economy, raise educational standards, and decentralize service delivery to better reach the 40 percent of Timorese still living in poverty. —Todd Wassel, country representative

Vietnam
Vietnam conducts energy planning by matching short- and long-term demand projections with available technologies and energy sources. As we enter 2019, the declining cost of renewable energy, which can now compete with coal, and the equally declining cost of grid-connected battery storage, which can now compete with gas as a means of meeting peak demand, have unhinged this planning process. Reaching out to these new technologies carries risks, but not doing so could leave the country with stranded assets, security risks, and increasing sovereign debt. As planning for Power Development Plan VIII moves forward, an array of domestic and international pressures weigh on Vietnam’s leadership. Finding a compromise that balances Vietnam’s energy needs with its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will not be easy. No one will be satisfied. But that, unfortunately, is the only available course of action. —Michael DiGregorio, country representative

Editor’s Picks – The Best of InAsia 2018

Season’s Greetings. 2018 has been an eventful year, in Asia and in the stories shared here in the InAsia blog, where I had the pleasure in May to take over the reins from longtime editor Alma Freeman. We’re all grateful, at year’s end, for the continued engagement of our readers, and for the thoughtful contributions of our bloggers, who brought us their unique perspectives and insights on developments in Asia. Here are a few of the year’s most fascinating essays, some of them favorites of our readers and some favorites of yours truly. Enjoy! And be sure to join us in 2019, when our January 2 edition will feature predictions for the year ahead from our country representatives across Asia. 

John Rieger 
Editor, InAsia

  • From Myanmar, Kim Ninh looked back on an astonishing time in a country suddenly emerging from decades of dictatorship and isolation, and reflected on that country’s remarkable transformation. Matthew Arnold drew on the Foundation’s Myanmar Strategic Support Program for an analysis of the surprising institutional costs of dictatorship—in this case, a lack of institutions or experience to conduct effective policymaking. And economist James Owen took a look at municipalities snapping up the latest technologies to leapfrog traditional developmental hurdles.
  • The summer was punctuated by Pakistan’s general elections. As the polling date approached, Farid Alam considered the nation’s checkered electoral history and parsed the demographic data to ask a prescient question: will youth right the nation’s course? A week after the election, Sofia Shakil posted this tribute to the resurgent spirit she encountered on the streets and at the polls. And InAsia sat down with Avais Sherani to analyze the election results, acknowledge the power of the youth vote, and assess the remarkable victory of a new political party and a new prime minister, Imran Khan.
  •  In Afghanistan, the search for peace and stability was a common theme. Kabul policy and research analyst Moahammad Shoaib Haidary connected the dots between a new peace offer to the Taliban and the start of work on the long-delayed Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline. And Haidary and Farrah Azeem Khan mined the Foundation’s Survey of the Afghan People for insights into the state of Afghan society and the country’s fragile democracy.
  • In Nepal, whose economy depends significantly on remittances from abroad, Nandita Baruah and Nischala Arjal’s coverage of the latest ILO report on labor migration was a major draw for readers. And as Nepal navigates a transition to federalism, its constitutionally mandated eight human rights agencies have lagged behind. Namit Wagley asked if there were just too many cooks, and offered some suggestions for moving forward.

    Manila traffic

    Manila, Philippines. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

  • In 2017, President Duterte of the Philippines promised a “golden age of infrastructure.” In this article, King Francis Ocampo suggested starting with “roads, roads, roads.” And while the Philippines may be the social media capital of the world, it still trails much of Asia in terms of internet speed, cost, and accessibility. Mari Chrys Pablo explored the legal and regulatory changes that could unleash the Philippine internet. Finally from the Philippines, drones, phones, and property rights: Jaime Faustino and Lesley Wynn explored using aerial drones and mobile apps to fix the nation’s dysfunctional system of land titles.
  • In May, Timor-Leste offered a thought-provoking lesson in the mechanics of democracy when, as Asia Foundation Development Fellow Carmeneza dos Santos Monteiro reported, nationally televised political debates, a first for the country, changed the tenor of parliamentary elections in Asia’s youngest nation.
  • Paula Uniake examined the effects of a searing two-year drought in Cambodia, and considered ways in which environmental stress affects men and women differently (be sure to view the maps full screen). Amarzaya Naran and Soomin Jun brought success stories from Mongolia’s first-ever Women’s Business Center and Incubator. And former Luce scholar Allison Curro went looking for stories for her children’s book, Girl Power in Myanmar. Where are all the strong women in Myanmar? They’re everywhere, she reports, and they’re stepping up in historic ways and numbers.
  • Also in Mongolia, Bayanmunkh Ariunbold chronicled emerging signs that the business community may be ready to shrug off the corrupt business practices that have taken root in that country since the advent of democracy and free markets in the early 1990s.

    India. Photo/reddees Shutterstock.com

  • In early September, the Supreme Court of India overturned the nation’s 157-year-old law criminalizing homosexuality. “India Comes Out” was the title of Diya Nag’s analysis of the benefits of embracing India’s LGBTQI community, which is roughly the size of the entire population of the Philippines. And Development Fellow Vaibhav Lodha talked with InAsia about “ftcash,” his mobile payment platform to help micromerchants access India’s banking and financial system. Lodha’s company and their app went on to win $250,000 in MIT’s Inclusive Innovation Challenge.
  • On the evening of September 28, a magnitude 7.4 earthquake struck Palu, in Sulawesi, Indonesia, followed by a tsunami. Ade Siti Barokah chronicled the inspirational responses of local civil society organizations, communities, and individuals to the twin disasters. 2018 also marked the 10th anniversary of China’s Wenchuan earthquake, which struck Sichuan Province, leaving more than 69,000 people dead and over 40 million affected. There was a silver lining, wrote Huang Zhen from our China office: China has overhauled its disaster-management system, and Chinese civil society organizations are now an integral part of disaster preparedness and response.

    Krabi, Thailand. Photo/Flickr user Alex Berger

  • The seas around Southeast Asia are a vital source of food and livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people, and they generate several billion dollars in GDP for the region. But overfishing and destructive fishing techniques now threaten the sustained existence of this vital ecosystem. In this report, Santi Nindang and Kim DeRidder spelled out some of the urgent steps that are needed to head off this looming disaster. John Brandon reported from the 32nd annual ASEAN Summit on the pressing need for regional collaboration on cybersecurity in the world’s fastest-growing internet region. And in a pair of essays, Thomas Parks assessed the prospects for renewing weakening ties with America’s oldest ally, Thailand, and argued for an ASEAN that takes a stronger role in coordinating regional development cooperation in Southeast Asia.
  • Finally, in a pair of thoughtful and surprising reports from our series Asian Views on America’s Role in Asia, Dr. C. Raja Mohan considered the implications of President Trump’s sudden departure from longstanding diplomatic precedent in South Asia, and Prof. Harry Harding explored an Asia-Pacific where opinions of the Trump administration, two years in, remain decidedly mixed.

I hope you’ll enjoy these stories from 2018 as we usher in the New Year.

John Rieger is the editor of InAsia. He can be reached at john.rieger@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

A Christmas Story

Forty years ago, I spent my first Christmas away from home. I had been living in Thailand for about six months, teaching English to Thai university students. I grew up in New Jersey. Before I went to Thailand, I had never been to an airport, on an airplane, or west of Hershey, Pennsylvania. In other words, I hadn’t been very far.

Christmas is not an official holiday in Thailand, where Buddhism is the national religion, and I had to work that day. I felt terrible. I loved my family’s Christmas tradition, crowding into my grandparents’ home with all the aunts, uncles, and cousins. I am one of 25 grandchildren, and to be alone on Christmas Day made me terribly homesick and lonely.

When I’d written to ask my parents what they wanted for Christmas, my mother had written back, “John, please go to church.” So, on Christmas morning, I got dressed up in my three-piece suit and stepped into the Bangkok morning heat.

As I went to grab a taxi, I caught sight of a man nearby, a beggar, sitting on a pallet with wheels. As I drew closer, I saw that he had no legs. His left arm was missing, and his right arm was horribly disfigured.

I suddenly felt ashamed of my self-pity. I had a wonderful family, great friends, good health, and this fantastic opportunity, which would ultimately change my life, to live and work in Thailand. The man on the pallet had a begging bowl. I reached out and gave him all the money I had in my wallet—560 baht, about 28 dollars. I could still hear the man calling “kop khun mak khrap,” or “thank you very much,” when I was a block away.

Since Christmas wasn’t an official holiday in Thailand, I thought I would just go to the bank and withdraw some more money. But on that Christmas morning in 1978, I also learned the meaning of the phrase “international banking holiday.” Of course, there were no ATMs. And so, I found myself in front of the Bangkok Bank on Sukhumvit Road, dressed to the nines in the Bangkok heat, but without a baht in my pocket.

What’s more, I was miles from the nearest Catholic church. So, to give my mom what she wanted for Christmas, I walked to church, in the sweltering heat, in my three-piece suit, and sat inconspicuously in the last pew, mortified to have nothing for the collection plate. After Mass, I walked three miles back to the university, asked someone to lend me 500 baht, and taught my day’s classes.

I have thought often of that disfigured and penniless man on the pallet in the intervening years, on Christmas and at other times as well. I am sure he is long deceased. I understand now that it should have been me saying “kop khun mak khrap” to him forty years ago, not the other way around.

John Brandon is The Asia Foundation’s senior director for regional cooperation. He can be reached at john.brandon@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.