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“Let’s Read” Indonesia Helps Children Understand Mental Disabilities

Reading can exert a powerful influence on children’s social and emotional development. Storybooks and young-adult fiction can introduce children to characters and situations that expand their capacity for empathy and help them become adults who are more accepting of others and less likely to lash out at those they perceive as “different.” Reading, in this respect, can prepare children to be part of a more humane and inclusive society.

Early in their social development, both at home and at school, children begin to encounter and wonder about physical and mental differences among their family and peers. Intellectual disabilities or behavioral disorders can be particularly confusing to youngsters, who lack the social experience to understand what they are seeing. Reading can help them navigate these situations. As young-adult fiction author Rebecca Westcott has written:

Children live in families; they are surrounded by adults with all their adult problems…. Life happens, and they are a part of that. Their books need to reflect what they hear, what they see. They need to recognize their situations in a book.

Let’s Read Indonesia Raises Awareness of Mental Health Issues

The Asia Foundation’s Let’s Read in Indonesia has recently developed several new picture books for children with plots and characters that revolve around various mental disabilities. Play Me the Harmonica depicts bipolar disorder, Colorful Messages focuses on selective mutism, and Let’s Have a Water Fight! portrays a child with an intellectual disability. Each story is designed to help young readers make sense of these disabilities and remove the stigma that surrounds them.

Play Me the Harmonica by Shoba Dewey Chugani, illustrated by Singgih Cahyo and edited by Damar Sasongko and Eva Y. Nukman, tells the story of a little girl whose older brother, who loves to paint, has bipolar disorder. In one passage, the illustrator shows the brother, lost in his own despair, painting a picture so dark that it scares even the boy himself.

Illustrator Singgih Cahyo uses colors and facial expressions to convey the character’s inner experience to the reader. Bipolar depression is lonely and isolating, but the colorful illustrations invite the reader to understand and sympathize.
 
In Let’s Have a Water Fight! by Anna Farida, illustrated by Evi Shelvia and edited by Damar Sasongko and Eva Y. Nukman, a girl tells the story of a boy in her village named Alif who is obsessed with playing with water. But Alif is strange. He doesn’t know how to play with the other children.

The children make Alif go away. But when the girl sees him rejected and alone, she feels guilty and wants to help him. Her village in Central Java has a local tradition called gebyuran, which features a “water war” on the day before Ramadan. She invites Alif to join them, and he can’t stop laughing with happiness. Instead of shaming or shunning him because of his mental disability, the children in Let’s Have a Water Fight! learn to accept Alif and share in his happiness.

Colorful Messages by Dina Antonia, illustrated by Adinda Novalyawati and edited by Shoba Dewey Chugani and Damar Sasongko, is a story about acute selective mutism, a condition that renders sufferers unable to speak when they are anxious or under stress, even though they can speak normally at other times. In Colorful Messages, a little girl named Pelangi can’t sing along in class or join the fun at parties because of her disability.

Pelangi can cook. She can draw beautiful pictures, and the girls even overhear her speaking to her mom. But the book’s illustrations capture her loneliness and shame in public situations. In the end, the other girls reach out to her to make her their friend and help her overcome her social anxiety.

Reality in Fiction

Children occupy a world of imagination, and that is what makes childhood such an innocent time. But they also live in the real world, with all its troubles and contradictions. Storybooks are a delight to a child’s imagination, but they can do more: they can help them prepare for the world around them and the things about this world that are hard to understand, like mental disability.
 
Reading together is one of the best ways to introduce children to complex subjects like disability. Sooner or later, they will encounter people from other walks of life, people who are “different,” and reading can prepare them to open their minds and step into others’ shoes. With these new stories, available on our website in multiple languages, Let’s Read hopes to bring awareness of mental disability out of the shadows and to nurture the virtue of empathy for others among young readers, creating an antidote to stigma and bullying, and fostering a spirit of inclusion for all.
 
These and other stories on similar themes are available in multiple languages at www.letsreadasia.org.
 
Aryasatyani Sintadewi is a Books for Asia officer in The Asia Foundation’s Indonesia office. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

A Work in Progress: Nepal’s Bold Bet on Federalism

Opening panel of the International Conference on Federalism, Devolution of Power, and Inclusive Democracy in Nepal and Asia, Kathmandu, Nepal, November 2023. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

Less than a decade ago, after a long civil war and years of postwar political gridlock, the diverse and multicultural nation of Nepal chose a new form of government. In a decisive break with the past, the Nepali people made a bet on federalism, with a new constitution in 2015 that handed significant powers to two newly created tiers of elected government: provincial and local.

Nepal’s bold undertaking has had its ups, and also its downs—you can’t just “add federalism and stir.” Last November, with support from the Australian government and The Asia Foundation, Kathmandu University School of Law held an international conference to take a closer look at the theory, the mechanics, and the discontents of federalism at home and around the world.

Joining us this week on InAsia to explore some of those questions is Professor Bipin Adhikari, founding dean of the law school and leader of the conference, and conference presenter John Warhurst, emeritus professor of political science at Australian National University.

The International Conference on Federalism, Devolution of Power, and Inclusive Democracy in Nepal and Asia was supported by the Subnational Governance Program (SNGP) implemented by The Asia Foundation under a strategic partnership with the Australian government.

An Accessibility Conundrum in the Philippines

There were laws requiring accessible infrastructure in Philippine public schools. The money was in place. Why was it not getting built? (Photo: Advocates of Inclusion)

The question had long confounded proponents of disability inclusion in the Philippines. Laws had been passed and budgets were in place, but public schools in the Philippines remained stubbornly inaccessible to people with disabilities. Everywhere, school buildings with wheelchair-blocking staircases, inaccessible restrooms, and no tactile cues for the blind continued to thwart the full access and participation of a substantial part of the population.

Every Filipino will use a public-school building at some time in their life. Aside from their obvious role in public education, public schools in the Philippines serve as polling places in elections, emergency evacuation centers, and venues for community events. These vital public spaces must be accessible to the entire public, regardless of age or disability.

This is the story of how advocates solved a long-standing policy puzzle by identifying a strategic reform to unlock the implementation of accessibility features in Philippine public schools.

An accessibility audit in San Jose Elementary School, Quezon City, the Philippines. (Photo: Advocates of Inclusion)

Getting the money

In 2020, The Asia Foundation’s Coalitions for Change program supported a local coalition, Advocates of Inclusion, to study and address the gaps in school accessibility policy. The investigation began with conversations with experts, advocates, and interest groups in the disability sector. Their concerns clearly converged on a principal problem: budgets for the construction and repair of accessible facilities.

Advocates of Inclusion worked for the insertion of new line item, “repair, rehabilitation, and construction of access facilities such as ramps, accessible toilets, pathways, and tactile paving,” in the Basic Education Facilities Fund of the Department of Education (DepEd). The coalition worked with allies in the Senate who successfully added the new provisions to DepEd’s 2021 budget. For the first time in decades, DepEd could now use its budget to build and repair access facilities in public school buildings.

This should have marked the triumphant conclusion to the story—DepEd now had the budget to address the accessibility needs of public schools—but simply providing the funds was not enough. Within DepEd there were implementation policies that needed to be updated before the new monies could be put to use.

Getting things built

Digging deeper into the department’s spending policies, the coalition turned its attention to the National School Building Inventory (NSBI), an annual assessment of the physical condition of the nation’s public-school buildings. NSBI data is an important factor in deciding how the national infrastructure budget for schools will be spent, but the coalition discovered that the NSBI did not collect data on school accessibility. The DepEd could not plan or build access facilities in the schools because it did not monitor them.

The coalition made a straightforward proposal: add accessibility to the list of school facilities monitored by DepEd. The goal was not to disrupt the NSBI survey, but simply to add a few columns to it—a simple solution to a complex problem. The inauguration of a new presidential administration after the 2022 elections was an opportunity for change. A new undersecretary, who was a champion of mobility and school accessibility, presented the coalition with a golden opportunity to work with DepEd to update the NSBI. In March 2023, the coalition’s efforts materialized with the department’s release of an updated NSBI tool that included the accessibility features that the coalition had advocated. With the revised NSBI tool in place, the annual inventory of school buildings will now include data on accessibility.

Discussing the National School Building Inventory proposal with the Department of Education. (Photo: Advocates of Inclusion)

Navigating the Philippines’ biggest bureaucracy was a challenge. Established procedures can make a government agency stubbornly resistant to change. But the coalition’s careful work to understand DepEd operations before suggesting tailored policy reforms made all the difference. The coalition’s success has shown that even the biggest bureaucracy can welcome change if it seamlessly integrates into existing systems and frameworks.

Sure enough, DepEd took ownership and institutionalized the reforms. In July 2023, the department released a policy that integrates accessibility into its multiyear guidelines for the use of the Basic Education Facilities Fund. This new policy weaves together the budget process and the NSBI with new implementation guidelines that highlight accessibility. The coalition hopes to see concrete results from these school accessibility reforms in 2024.

Thinking and working politically

It is fundamental to effective policy reform to first study the laws, policies, and interests that govern the existing state of play. With that understanding, advocates for reform of a government program or agency are better equipped to seek allies or reform champions within the bureaucracy, without whom their advocacy will often fall on deaf ears.

In the Philippines, where law and policy already mandated accessible public schools, persistent lack of progress in this arena prompted Advocates of Inclusion to make a careful study of the existing policy framework. In it they discovered a crucial gap, a lack of information, in the operationalization of these otherwise well-intended policies. With the advent of a new presidential administration, Advocates of Inclusion found allies in the bureaucracy to advance the carefully targeted policy reforms that they had crafted through study and analysis.

The value of these reforms will be measured by their fruits: more-inclusive schools that are accessible to every Filipino. Coalitions for Change and Advocates of Inclusion remain steadfast in their commitment to this goal.

A frame from Advocates of Inclusion’s campaign video. (Photo: Ninjadog Studios / Advocates of Inclusion)

Monique Angela Cadag is an assistant program officer for The Asia Foundation in the Philippines. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Quantifying the Care Economy in Mongolia

Асрахуй (Latin asrahui) is the Mongolian word for care. (Image: The Asia Foundation)

Throughout Asia and the Pacific, and indeed in much of the world, caring for children, the sick, and the aged is consigned to mothers, wives, and daughters. This care work, an essential part of a functioning society, is typically unpaid, keeping women out of the paid workforce and depriving them of their share of inclusive development, and the economy of a substantial chunk of potential GDP.

In Mongolia, initiatives to address the social and economic inequities of caregiving have occasioned some confusion as the term asrahuin ediin zasag—the “care economy”— has made its way into public discourse. “Care” in the Mongolian language bears connotations of familial bonds or social norms rather than economic relationships. In answer to this initial perplexity, The Asia Foundation Mongolia has been working to familiarize the public with this important economic concept. Mongolia has in turn taken significant steps in the last year, with extensive research and data collection, to integrate the care economy into the nation’s development vision.

A critical part of these efforts has been the identification of key concepts and indicators. This includes both a language issue—the need for a common Mongolian vocabulary to support public discourse and policymaking—and the empirical question of how caregiving is rendered and remunerated. To help launch this conversation, the Foundation recently published a Mongolian translation of its 2022 white paper Toward a Resilient Care Ecosystem in Asia and the Pacific: Promising Practices, Lessons Learned, and Pathways for Action on Decent Care Work.

A dialogue between the National Statistics Office, Women for Change NGO, and The Asia Foundation, in Mongolia, October 2023.(Photo: The Asia Foundation)

Getting the data

Effective policymaking is based on solid evidence, and the government has taken steps to assess the conditions of care work and caregivers in Mongolia in collaboration with civil society organizations (CSOs) including the National Committee on Gender Equality, Women for Change NGO, and the Mongolian National Feminist Network (MONFEMNET).

Working with researchers, the government has launched a comprehensive study of the economic impact of care work in Mongolian households. A recent assessment by Professors B. Otgontugs, B. Myagmarsuren, and D. Khishigt of the National University of Mongolia (NUM) has found that paid and unpaid care work has an economic value equivalent to 26.3 percent of Mongolia’s GDP, including 10.8 percent from paid care and 15.5 percent from unpaid care. This puts care work on par with the vital mining industry in economic importance.

Another nationwide study by NUM, slated for presentation in early 2024, is assessing the intersectionality of unpaid care and climate change, and NUM’s recently launched Gender Studies Program, one of several research partnerships between the government, CSOs, and academia, will examine the gendered aspects of the care economy.

The National Statistics Office (NSO) is emerging as a key player in care-sector data. A recent meeting between the NSO, Women for Change NGO, and the Foundation noted the pressing need for comprehensive data and the limitations of current resources. The NSO acknowledged the care economy’s vital role in socioeconomic development and expressed full support for including care economy data in the next nationwide annual survey.

Meeting of the National Committee on Gender Equality, Women for Change NGO, and The Asia Foundation, in Mongolia, October 2023. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

Making the gender connection

Limited access to affordable care services in Mongolia forces many women to provide unpaid care for their families, preventing them from joining the paid workforce. Last October, Women for Change NGO and The Asia Foundation convened a meeting with the National Committee on Gender Equality (NCGE) to discuss policy solutions. Ms. T. Enkhbayar, secretary of the NCGE, spoke of the need for better care infrastructure and more affordable and accessible care. The parties agreed to introduce the concept at the NCGE’s monthly meeting with high-level policymakers, and at a subsequent trilateral dialogue with the Ministry of Labor and Social Security and the Ministry of Economy and Development.

Awareness raising by Mongolian CSOs, particularly under the guidance of MONFEMNET, deserves particular note. Their energetic engagement can be traced back to a national forum in May 2023, where unpaid care work took center stage. The forum particularly galvanized CSOs led by marginalized women, who emerged as champions of this cause.

Members of the civil society coalition Feminist Movement Building for Women’s Economic Empowerment pledge their leadership and participation during the 14th “Through Women’s Eyes” national forum, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, June 2023. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

Core areas of the care economy

Mongolia is encouraging government agencies, civil society, and the private sector to focus on key parts of the care economy. Researchers have pinpointed several priorities: (1) establishing a framework that embeds care issues in major policy documents, (2) forming a multi-stakeholder platform for discussion of policy, (3) instituting a national system for collecting care-related statistics, (4) increasing public investment and private-sector involvement in care services, (5) enhancing policy coordination and standards of care, and (6) addressing gender-based caregiving norms.

Acknowledging unpaid care work, addressing gender disparities, and identifying key areas for intervention mark the beginning of an important journey for Mongolia. The emergence of civil society organizations and government champions dedicated to advancing the care economy through research and data collection underscores the nation’s commitment to inclusive development.

Tsolmon Gantuya is deputy program manager for The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Economic Empowerment program in Mongolia. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Asia and the Pacific in 2024: Elections, Economics, and Geopolitics

Peering into the prospects for 2024. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

Every January, we ask our country representatives in Asia and the Pacific to share their predictions for the year ahead. While prediction is an uncertain art, their forecasts suggest that 2024 will be a year dominated by elections, economics, and geopolitics.

Elections will take place this year in India, Indonesia, Korea, Mongolia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and three Pacific Island nations. June elections in Mongolia will be the first to include both direct and proportional representation. Experiments with federalism and decentralization continue to make news in Nepal and Indonesia. In more than one country, elections are entangled with issues of religious nationalism.

With the return to robust economic growth, many countries seem poised to shake off the last, lingering effects of the Covid economic downturn, but several still face trouble ahead for different reasons, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Timor-Leste. For Asia’s developing economies, technology remains a pillar of national development strategies.

In Southeast Asia, Laos will assume the chair of ASEAN this year, while Vietnam has just elevated its diplomatic relations with geopolitical rivals China and the United States. Thailand has achieved an uneasy political equilibrium, but violence seems unlikely to diminish in neighboring Myanmar, and tensions are rising between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, the threat of climate disruption, and the possibility of a global recession are fueling anxiety across the capitals of Asia and the Pacific.

Here, now, is a country-by-country look at the news of 2024, before it happens.

 

Afghanistan

Abdullah Ahmadzai

Nearly two and a half years after the return of Taliban rule, Afghanistan has seen some security improvements, but still faces escalating challenges. Issues such as mounting poverty, growing unemployment, widespread migration, economic hardship, and deficient public services have become more evident. Of significant concern is the persistent restriction of women’s rights, severely constraining their access to education and work outside the home and hindering their participation and advancement in society.

The Taliban’s continuing reluctance to discuss a more inclusive government is perpetuating Afghanistan’s international isolation as an unrecognized state, and the restriction of political participation to religious loyalists and Taliban fighters is undermining domestic social cohesion and intensifying tensions among non-Taliban factions seeking representation. It is crucial to involve all segments of society—civil society, political figures, women, and minorities—to prevent further conflict and steer Afghanistan toward long-term stability.

As a nation bordered by six countries, including three Central Asian states and Iran, China, and Pakistan, Afghanistan’s stability is pivotal for regional security and trade. The construction of the Qosh Tepa canal, begun in 2022 with the ambitious goal of converting 550,000 hectares of desert into vital agricultural land, has strained relations with the neighboring states that rely on the downstream waters of the Amu River. Diplomatic measures are imperative to prevent conflict over projects of this kind. At the same time, tensions with Pakistan, especially concerning the Afghan Taliban’s alleged support for the Islamic militant group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, are escalating and require immediate attention.

Addressing these multifaceted challenges demands a coordinated approach from neighboring nations, emphasizing a need for collective engagement with the Taliban. Simultaneously, the international community and Afghans within the country and the diaspora must persist in advocating for gender equality in education and employment. Constructive dialogue with the Taliban leadership is also essential to establishing an inclusive government representing all segments of society in order to address the country’s dire circumstances, especially the struggling economy. This will require a political process that enables the Afghan people to elect their leaders. The Taliban also need to actively pursue impartial engagement with all Afghan factions, which could potentially be facilitated by the United Nations and other stakeholders.

Such efforts will pave the way for a more promising future for Afghanistan.

 

Bangladesh

Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj

On January 7, in national elections that were largely uncontested, voters in Bangladesh returned the ruling Awami League to power for an unprecedented fifth term. The notable absence of the major opposition party from the electoral process raises concerns about the inclusiveness of this democratic exercise.

As the nation navigates this fraught political terrain, an ominous economic downturn has cast a shadow over its future. The threat of a financial crisis looms large, exacerbating the danger of a political crisis if stability is not promptly achieved after the elections.

Beyond its borders, Bangladesh finds itself at the intersection of geopolitical interests as contesting superpowers eye the nation strategically. Tensions between global players could further complicate the domestic situation, potentially aggravating the country’s economic and political challenges.

As Bangladesh stands at this critical juncture, the interplay of elections, economics, and geopolitics will undoubtedly shape the nation’s trajectory in 2024.

 

Cambodia

Meloney Lindberg

Last July the Cambodian people elected a swathe of younger leaders who promised to pursue their mandate with renewed vigor and purpose. The 100-days milestone of the new government has now passed, and there have been many examples of increased consultation and dialogue with development partners, civil society, the private sector, and academia. This increased engagement generally bodes well as Cambodia strives to meet new challenges in 2024.

At the same time, there are concerns that a global recession and continuing armed conflict in Ukraine, the Middle East, and elsewhere will cause significant disruption to the Cambodian economy. To mitigate this risk, the government has prioritized improving livelihoods, public service delivery, and social protection measures. While the World Bank predicts that Cambodia’s economy will grow by a healthy 5.8 percent in 2024, this is still below the country’s typical pre-Covid growth rate of more than 7 percent.

The new government has also focused on technology as a pillar of its national development framework—the “Pentagonal Strategy”—which seeks to achieve upper-middle-income status by 2030. While this target is undeniably ambitious, there could be many laudable achievements along the way, among them ensuring that 70 percent of the nation’s energy needs are met by renewable sources, and creating more opportunities for young people through better formal and vocational education.

Amid this air of optimism, all eyes are on the younger leadership as they seek to build credibility and deliver on their promises to a tech-savvy younger generation of Cambodians who harbor great expectations.

 

Indonesia

Hana Satriyo

For Indonesia, 2024 will be dominated by politics as the world’s third-largest democracy holds its sixth nationwide elections since democracy was restored in 1998. On February 14, 200 million Indonesians are expected to cast their votes at over 820,000 polling stations to elect a president, a bicameral national legislature, and provincial, regency, and city councils.

The political competition has been marked by many surprises and intense debates. One controversial issue has been a Supreme Court ruling changing the minimum age for presidential and vice-presidential candidates, enabling President Jokowi’s son to join the contest as the running mate of Prabowo Subianto. The other two candidates are former governor of Jakarta Anies Baswedan, and former governor of Central Java Ganjar Pranowo. A presidential run-off election is expected in June, as it is unlikely that any candidate will win more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, as required by law.

Elections for chief executives in 548 localities will be held in November. Heads of 415 regencies and “majors” of 98 cities will be chosen, while 37 provinces will elect governors. The simultaneous election of governors, majors, and heads of regencies in 2024 will meet a long-held goal of Indonesia’s decentralization effort, the synchronization of formal planning cycles, especially the five-year, medium-term planning that was previously undertaken at different times across the country.

Indonesia’s economic outlook will be a bit brighter in 2024. The World Bank projects that the economy will grow by an average of 4.9 percent per year in 2024–2026. Private consumption will be the primary engine of growth, supported by election-cycle spending. Experience from the 2014 and 2019 elections suggests that consumption rises in election periods, and the economic impact may be substantial.

Civil society and student groups are expected to play a significant role in maintaining the resiliency of democracy throughout this dynamic period and beyond, as Indonesia marks 25 years of post-Suharto Reformasi. The advent of artificial intelligence and cyberattacks on democratic processes pose a worrisome challenge, but it is expected that Indonesians will continue to see the importance of free and fair elections as the key foundation of the country’s democracy.

 

Korea

Kyung-sook Lee

The general election on April 10 will be the highlight of 2024 in the Republic of Korea (ROK). With the National Assembly currently dominated by the opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), the coming election holds significant implications for President Yoon Suk-yeol’s leadership. A victory by his People Power Party could empower President Yoon to continue implementing his policy agenda, enhancing his ability to navigate international relations, foster strategic partnerships, and position Korea as a key player in global affairs. A DPK victory could increase opposition to those policies, requiring adept negotiation to navigate political hurdles. External factors such as geopolitical tensions and global economic uncertainties may also pose challenges for President Yoon’s leadership.

In foreign affairs, Korea will continue to bolster relations with the United States and Japan while maintaining its aggressive stance towards North Korea and its wariness towards China. South Korea’s new, conciliatory attitude towards Japan has been welcomed with open arms by Japan and the United States. There are still issues to be resolved, but Japan’s restoration of Korea to the export “whitelist” is an important first step towards further economic, intercultural, and military cooperation. In contrast, South Korea will maintain its hardline stance towards North Korea, as the 2018 Pyongyang Joint Declaration between the two Korea’s seems in danger of unraveling. China remains Korea’s top trading partner by a substantial margin, but the ROK’s close relations with the United States will continue to complicate this relationship.

The National Assembly increased the 2024 budget for official development assistance (ODA) to 6.5 trillion won (approximately 5 billion dollars), a roughly 44 percent increase from 2023. This hefty boost could significantly advance President Yoon’s Indo-Pacific strategy, positioning Korea as an influential contributor to global development and cooperation. But spending this ODA windfall will also require meticulous planning, training, and capacity building to ensure that projects are effectively managed and executed. Productive collaboration with other stakeholders, including international organizations, NGOs, the private sector, and other donor countries, will also be crucial for Korea to make a meaningful contribution to global development, foster sustainable growth, and address pressing global challenges.

 

Laos

Todd Wassel

While Laos often garners less attention than its regional neighbors, 2024 will be different as Laos assumes the ASEAN chairmanship and is thrust into the spotlight in an increasingly contested Indo-Pacific arena. Laos will attempt to leverage the power of the spotlight with a “Visit Laos” campaign to attract international tourists, and their much-needed foreign currency, to its weakened, post-Covid economy.

Although it faces macroeconomic instability and lacks the extensive infrastructure of its regional neighbors, Laos is poised for a diplomatic balancing act, using its position in ASEAN to engage with regional powers under the chosen theme Enhancing Connectivity and Resilience. This theme reflects a domestic focus on economic challenges and underscores the land-locked country’s strategy of increasing land links and exporting green energy across the subregion. At the same time, the theme notes that “climate change, natural disasters, and traditional and nontraditional security issues remain pressing challenges” for the region, and that the ASEAN community must grow stronger to meet the moment.

While it is unlikely that Laos will achieve a breakthrough on the South China Sea dilemma, it may still prove adept at balancing interests and showcasing its ability to manage larger regional neighbors and dialogue partners. The unprecedented challenge lies in navigating the Myanmar crisis. Southeast Asian leaders have agreed to set up a “troika mechanism,” comprising the immediate past, current, and incoming chairs of their regional grouping, to work out a consistent approach to the crisis in Myanmar. If the situation on the ground changes in Myanmar, an opening may present itself quickly, and Laos, which shares a border with Myanmar, could take the lead in making progress for the regional block. In what is usually a predictable and steady-paced domestic environment, the ASEAN chairmanship promises a more varied landscape for Laos in 2024, where it must navigate domestic economic priorities, diplomatic challenges, and regional dynamics all at once.

 

Malaysia

Robin Bush

As Malaysia heads into 2024, analysts are giving the first year of Anwar Ibrahim’s “Unity Government” a mixed report-card. On the plus side, Malaysia has enjoyed growing public engagement in policy discussions and positive institutional shifts such as a strengthened judiciary and expanded parliamentary roles. Some substantive policy outputs of the year just ended include the Industrial Master Plan 2030 and the National Energy Transition Roadmap, as well as important legislation abolishing the mandatory death penalty, decriminalizing suicide, and ensuring child protection, guaranteed social security for housewives, and the recognition of trade unions. On the downside, many reformists are angry at perceived back-pedaling on long-promised reforms, and they accuse Anwar of pandering to an Islamist agenda for his own political advantage. This, combined with increasingly fraught race relations and little concerted effort to promote social harmony, have intensified divisions among communities.

In the last month of 2023, Anwar reshuffled his cabinet, strengthening the Finance Ministry and adding a new portfolio, the Digital Ministry. One might expect 2024 to see an emphasis on Malaysia’s digital transformation and its leadership role in the digital economy across the region. Other priorities that will likely get attention in 2024 are climate change and related developments, the possibility of a carbon tax, and perhaps the reduction of some of the fuel subsidies that both obstruct climate action and weigh down the economy. Meaningful reforms to lift wages across all levels of the workforce and provide workers with some retirement security should also be prioritized. One might hope that Anwar’s government would take a few more risks in support of anticorruption and governance reforms, while keeping a strong focus on inclusive economic growth.

 

Mongolia

Mark Koenig

Mongolia’s robust economic growth in 2023, driven by coal and other mineral exports, gives some cause for optimism in 2024. A relatively stable period of governance also allowed Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene’s cabinet to complete some significant policy reforms in 2023. These include an overhaul of education laws and a constitutional amendment that will introduce a mixed majoritarian and proportional-representation electoral system and, for the first time since Mongolia transitioned to democracy, increase the size of Parliament.

The constitutional amendment was supported by all major Mongolian political parties, but the public remains somewhat skeptical about increasing the number of MPs from 76 to 152. Mongolians are also frustrated by persistent issues ranging from corruption to Ulaanbaatar’s stubborn traffic congestion and air pollution. Concerns about efforts to limit press freedoms and online speech have also arisen.

Early signs also point to a difficult winter ahead, including a dzud, a severe winter climate phenomenon that could threaten the livelihoods of the more than 200,000 herder families and increase migration to the already crowded cities, where uncertain supplies of fuel and electricity from Russia are causes for concern.

Against this background, Mongolia is approaching a consequential parliamentary election in June, the first since the passage of the election-related constitutional amendment. While the ruling Mongolian People’s Party retains significant support, frustration with issues like corruption could boost the opposition, particularly in urban areas. Regardless of which party wins the most seats, the increase in MPs and the mixed electoral system are likely to deliver a more diverse parliament with members from a larger number of parties, which may significantly change the policymaking environment.

The emergence of new parties is also likely to add dynamism and uncertainty to the local elections coming in the fall. But for this new electoral system to have a positive impact on democratic legitimacy, it will be important that citizens understand how it works, which will require significant civic education during the first half of 2024.

 

Myanmar

Mark McDowell

Almost three years have passed since the military coup that toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government, but the junta’s State Administration Council (SAC) has had no success in consolidating its rule in Myanmar. The last months of 2023 found the junta suffering sustained and significant battlefield losses on multiple fronts to both Ethnic Resistance Organizations and People’s Defense Forces. The junta has now lost control of large swathes of the countryside, not only in the traditionally restive ethnic minority areas, but also in the Burmese heartland of the country.

2024 will be a decisive year for the political, military, and economic struggle between the junta and the loose, diverse coalition of forces hoping to topple them and install some kind of federal democratic government. A negotiated settlement is extremely unlikely, and the SAC has repeatedly postponed its own ostensible timelines for elections and the end of military rule. While many outside analysts have predicted the collapse of the junta in the coming year, the Myanmar military has survived similar challenges for decades and has shown no sign of concern for the will or welfare of the people.

Early 2023 saw signs of economic recovery after the first two years of the coup, but conditions deteriorated in the second half of the year, accelerated by increasing conflict and attendant disruptions to movement and trade. The population feels the effects on a daily basis, from inflation and financial panics to extended power outages that affect even major cities. There is no prospect of a significant turnaround in the coming year.

Poverty continues to deepen and spread, with The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warning that fully one-third of Myanmar’s 55 million people are currently in need of humanitarian assistance, and that the developmental gains achieved during the brief restoration of democracy have now been entirely wiped out. Myanmar added a million more internally displaced persons in 2023, bringing the total to 2.6 million. These human tragedies are unlikely to be reversed under military rule.

 

Nepal

Meghan Nalbo

More than a year into their five-year terms of office, the new guard of local, provincial, and national elected officials is now firmly in place in Nepal. The next two years, 2024 and 2025, will be defined by their progress on essential, if not politically compelling, reforms as Nepal grapples with its highest national debt in two decades, 6.1 percent of GDP, and struggles to achieve a modest projected growth rate of 3.9 percent, below the average of 5.6 percent projected for South Asia as a whole.

Economic turnaround and reform of fiscal policies, including the ongoing challenges of microfinance, are bread-and-butter issues for the average Nepali. Political leaders will have to juggle priorities amidst mounting discontent over unemployment and labor migration and anticipated revelations of large-scale corruption. Paramount among these priorities will be charting a course for engagement with India after the historic elections in Nepal’s southern neighbor. Local conflict and agitation will continue among the supporters and detractors of the federal system itself, established by the 2015 constitution, which promises inclusive decision-making and development for Nepal’s dozens of ethnic minority communities, but which still has kinks to iron out.

The most pressing areas of reform this year will be in three principal domains: legislative reforms of the electoral system, the civil service, and intergovernmental jurisdictional boundaries; judicial rulings to clarify the law on federalism; and internal reform of political parties. Failure to make progress in at least one of these areas could ignite calls for broader constitutional amendments.

The strongest leaders will be those who stay laser-focused on reform despite the national state of economic distress and the distraction of political appeasement through anticipated government reshuffles. The greatest threat lies in the failure to act, particularly to address the looming challenges of climate change in the Himalayas and downstream ecosystems, natural disasters, and a deep digital divide that could cripple Nepal’s economic competitiveness and the state’s control of its own security by leaving a significant portion of the workforce without up-to-date digital skills.

To bolster its foreign relations, Nepal is well-positioned to cultivate deeper peer networks across Asia, especially with nations facing similar challenges. Nepal’s domestic development goals are inextricably connected to its diplomatic and trade relations. Strengthening ties with smaller and medium-sized states will help the nation strike a balance between domestic and international priorities, negotiating its needs with its international counterparts while prioritizing legislative and political reforms at home.

 

Pacific Islands

Sandra Kraushaar

Resilience and public trust continue to top the development agenda in the Pacific Islands.

There are several elections slated for 2024, including those in United States and India, which will have some implications for the Pacific given recent interest in closer ties. Within the region, all eyes will be on national elections in the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, and Palau.

In the Solomon Islands, which successfully hosted the 2023 Pacific Games, national elections this year will reveal some of the complexities entangling national and provincial politics. The recently adopted Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union Treaty, which provides migration pathways to Australia for Tuvalu citizens threatened by rising seas, along with binding provisions for security cooperation, will be a point of contention in the forthcoming Tuvalu national elections, as opposition leader Enele Sopoaga has promised to scrap the treaty if he is elected to lead the government. November elections in Palau, which recently signed the new Compact of Free Association with the United States, will likely focus on the proposed permanent deployment there of U.S. Patriot missile defense batteries. Finally, on January 2, 2024, the Republic of the Marshal Islands elected Dr. Hilda Heine to a nonconsecutive second term as president. Along with Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa of Samoa, the region enters the new year with two female heads of state for the first time.

The Fiji Reserve Bank has identified a litany of risks for 2024, including geopolitical conflicts, tightening monetary policy, climate change and natural disasters, labor shortages, and constraints on the vital tourism industry. The same could be said for most of the region.

2024 is looking like the year to have a plan. Fiji recently announced consultations on a comprehensive National Development Plan that will “facilitate practical solutions to the social and economic sector” while also turning attention to institutions of governance. The regional 2050 Blue Pacific Continent strategy has come into effect, with Pacific leaders signing off on the Implementation Plan during their annual meeting in November 2023. Despite handing down its largest ever budget for 2024, focusing on jobs and growth, the year in Papua New Guinea has started with public protests over rising costs of living, and a declared state of emergency. Plans are well underway for Samoa to host the 2024 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in October 2024; the theme will be One Resilient Common Future: Transforming Our Common Wealth. In addition, Tonga’s National Action Plan to address trafficking in persons, launched in late 2023, comes into effect in 2024.

Issues surrounding the migration of people seeking better livelihoods or fleeing the effects of climate change will only grow more pressing in 2024. Pacific Island leaders are stepping up their public planning for social protection measures and their calls for short- and long-term migration opportunities, heralding the possibility of significant social disruption and population movement. Safe passage, decent work, freedom of choice, cultural identity, and political sovereignty continue to frame the Pacific migration narrative.

 

Pakistan

Haris Quayyum

For Pakistan, the general election will occupy center stage in 2024, with profound implications for the nation’s economic well-being and democratic institutions. The outcome of these elections will decisively set the priorities and policies of the new government, which must address a host of daunting challenges including a balance-of-payments crisis, runaway inflation, political instability, dysfunctional governance, unemployment, education poverty, and a surge in terrorist violence.

After months of uncertainty, the scheduled elections have already been marred by widespread allegations of bias, harassment, and intimidation. A crackdown on former prime minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI), popular with young voters, threatens to further disenfranchise the youth constituency that comprises 45 percent of the electorate, damaging the social contract and the legitimacy of the state. Simultaneously, the country remains vulnerable to geopolitical stresses and exogenous threats, compounded by the risk of climate change and natural disasters.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has introduced another layer of significance to the political-economic landscape. Though it averted sovereign default in 2023, Pakistan is still on life support and urgently needs a new agreement with the IMF to keep the economy afloat. The country needs a national consensus to prioritize macroeconomic stability and fiscal discipline, restructure its institutions, expand worker productivity and the development of human capital, and up-skill the rapidly urbanizing population of young people who are eager to participate in the global economy.

 

The Philippines

Sam Chittick

January 2024 is the one-quarter mark of the six-year term of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. After 18 months of his administration, expectations are high for a productive legislative year, reduced security threats, and strong economic growth of around 6 percent. With midterm elections bound to consume much of the administration’s political energy in 2025, 2024 is perhaps the best opportunity for President Marcos to effect the changes he wants to see.

There is no shortage of legislative opportunities: a majority of the administration’s own priority initiatives are already moving through Congress, including tax, governance, and climate-change measures. In parallel to this legislation, there are high expectations for executive actions to create jobs, boost investment, address the continuing crisis in education, update the social protection system to help those who most need it, craft a comprehensive approach to climate change, pursue the pathway to peace that the administration has opened with the leaders of the Communist insurgency that still affects much of the country, and deal with recurring security challenges, including in the country’s maritime zones.

President Marcos sees unity, both political and social, as essential to crafting a better future for the country. A key determinant of progress in 2024 will be the degree to which he can maintain that unity while also pursuing the changes that will define his administration.

 

Sri Lanka

Dinesha de Silva

Sri Lanka heads into 2024 with a blend of optimism and apprehension, facing an uncertain future amid an ongoing economic crisis and simmering social and political tensions.

A tenuous and superficial sense of normalcy returned to Sri Lanka in 2023 following the debilitating economic crisis of the previous year. Although the acute scarcity of essentials has eased, underlying challenges remain. Notably, approximately 7 million citizens continue to live in poverty. The country is also grappling with a significant brain-drain, as many educated professionals seek opportunities abroad. This exodus particularly impacts the public healthcare sector, vital to the nation’s poorest citizens, which is experiencing a critical shortage of medical professionals.

Despite these challenges, there have been positive developments. Inflation dramatically decreased from a peak of 70 percent in September 2022 to a manageable 4 percent in December 2023. Foreign reserves staged a remarkable recovery, from a staggering low of just US$20 million in April 2022 to an impressive US$3.6 billion by November 2023. Sri Lanka also successfully secured the second installment of an IMF bailout package worth $337 million, recognizing its efforts to increase revenue, rebuild reserves, and curb inflation. This financial assistance comes at a cost, however, particularly to those in poverty. The introduction of stringent tax policies is also beginning to exert pressure on citizens, a burden expected to intensify.

While the ambitious 2024 budget aims to lay the groundwork for economic recovery, the combination of higher taxes and delays in the Aswesuma social safety-net program has already sparked social unrest. The government’s response to public dissent, including arrests and the use of force, has raised concerns. The impending Antiterrorism Bill and Online Safety Bill, set to replace existing legislation, could further curtail freedom of expression.

Following the indefinite postponement of the 2022 local elections, President Ranil Wickremasinghe has promised to hold presidential elections in 2024, with local and parliamentary elections to follow. The importance of these elections cannot be overstated, especially considering the constitutional amendments that are expected to follow the election. The new Anticorruption Act, mandating asset declarations by electoral candidates, and the Regulation of Election Expenditure Act are expected to influence the electoral campaigns.

In a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka recently held several former leaders, including former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, responsible for the economic crisis of 2019–2022. While the ruling imposes no penalties, its repercussions will undoubtedly reverberate through the forthcoming elections.

 

Thailand

Thomas Parks

The year ahead for Thailand will likely be characterized by an uneasy but stable political equilibrium. While many are predicting considerable political turbulence in 2024, particularly if the Move Forward Party (MFP), the main opposition, is dissolved, it is more likely that such turbulence will not disrupt a tenuous continuation of the status quo. This may include a change in prime minister, but probably not a change in the coalition government, which is led by the Pheu Thai Party and includes an uncomfortable mix of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s other factions, former coup leaders, and conservative parties. The coalition is likely to work through its many differences in order to stay in power. From August onwards, the Thai senate will no longer have a role in electing prime ministers, which means that the MFP will have a much better chance of securing enough votes to lead a future government should the current coalition government collapse.

Everything hinges on the Constitutional Court’s expected late-January ruling on whether to dissolve the MFP over a controversial petition that accuses the party of violating Section 112 of the Criminal Code (lèse majesté laws) by proposing to amend that same law. Dissolution of the MFP would likely provoke a repeat of the events that followed the dissolution of the predecessor Future Forward Party in February 2020: large-scale protests followed by the establishment of a new party to take the progressive movement forward with an even stronger mandate. The more likely scenario is that the MFP will avoid dissolution—keeping unrest to a minimum—but will face ongoing legal challenges. This scenario is likely to occur even if MFP’s former leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, is banned from holding future political office in a case against him for running for office while holding shares in a now-defunct media company.

If Thailand avoids political turmoil, expect to see steady progress in a wide range of areas. According to multiple forecasts, the Thai economy is poised to accelerate, with economic growth in the range of 3.2 to 3.8 percent projected for 2024. Thailand’s tourism sector is finally rebounding from the pandemic downturn, leading the government to open the long-completed satellite terminal at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport.

Look for new progress in the peace talks to resolve the long-simmering conflict in the southernmost provinces, as a result of recent changes on the Thai government side. Thailand’s response to the continuing crisis in Myanmar could also see positive steps towards support for migrants and exiles in Thailand and more openness to international cooperation along the border. Under current circumstances, however, Thailand is unlikely to assume a serious leadership role in addressing the turmoil in Myanmar, and very unlikely to join international efforts to isolate the junta in Naypyidaw.

 

Timor-Leste

Héctor Salazar Salame

This year, Timor-Leste will commemorate the 25th anniversary of the historic referendum that restored its independence in 1999. The country’s ninth constitutional government, formed after parliamentary elections last July, will have to address acute and persistent development challenges this year while striving to maintain the nation’s progress since independence.

Entering 2024, Timor-Leste continues to face supply-side challenges and inflationary pressures on staple goods, especially food. Since 2019, food costs have soared more than 78 percent, according to the World Food Program. If food price inflation continues, potentially exacerbated by the current El Niño weather pattern, Timor-Leste may face a severe food security emergency this year if. Effective interventions to support food security and nutrition will be important to mitigate these risks, as well as to make progress on critical issues such as stunting, which affects approximately half of all Timorese children under five.

Investment in human capital more broadly will continue to be essential to the country’s development prospects. According to a 2023 report by the World Bank, Timor-Leste is facing a crisis, with the third-lowest human capital index among 15 comparable countries. The new government’s investments in health, education, social protection, and skills development in 2024 will be prominent topics of policy debate.

Expect the government to maintain an unwavering focus on the development of the Greater Sunrise oil field and associated processing facilities. With the exhaustion of the Bayu Undan field, 2024 will be the first full year in which monies from Timor-Leste’s economically vital Petroleum Fund cannot be replenished by existing oil and gas revenues. The Greater Sunrise megaproject is viewed as an essential source of replacement revenues, but the cost and the technical and political intricacies of the project will make its feasibility a subject of vigorous discussion.

Timor-Leste will make significant progress this year toward regional and global integration. The nation expects to be admitted to the World Trade Organization in the first quarter of the calendar year, and preparations for full membership in ASEAN continue. The likelihood that the government will achieve its stated goal of ASEAN ascension by 2025 will be determined by the progress made in 2024.

 

Vietnam

Dr. Michael DiGregorio

The word of the year in Vietnam for 2023 was “bamboo diplomacy,” which will continue to be the metaphor for Vietnam’s international relations in 2024. The metaphor refers to a clump of bamboo swaying in a storm, firmly rooted in principles but flexible in tactics. Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong first invoked this image in 2016 and elaborated on it in 2021 with invocations of “strong roots, stout trunk, and flexible branches.”

Metaphor or not, the party and the state have used the combination of principles (like Vietnam’s “Four Nos”: no military alliances, no siding with one country against another, no foreign military bases, no threat or use of force in international relations) and tactics (like balancing its own interest in a context of opposing big powers) to their advantage. In 2023, Vietnam upgraded ties to strategic rivals the United States and China, as well as to South Korea, Japan, India, Russia, and the Vatican. While the country is home to 7 million registered Catholics, Vietnam has not had a resident Vatican representative in Hanoi since relations broke off in 1975.

The purpose of these agreements is, first and foremost, to maintain Vietnam’s independence in an increasingly polarized world. Integration is a means to that end. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that each of these diplomatic upgrades includes agreements on the types of cooperation between the parties. Vietnam signed 36 cooperation agreements with China and 10 with the United States, mostly focused on trade and development issues fundamental to Vietnam’s transition to a green and digital advanced middle-income economy.

Entering 2024, we expect both Australia and France to get diplomatic similar upgrades, while those who have already signed on implement cooperation agreements through trade, finance, and development assistance.

The Democracy Monument in Bangkok, Thailand (Photo: Nawit science – Own work / Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0)

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Dancing on the Line between Art and Activism

Asia Foundation Development Fellows (from left) Shazia Uzman and Jan Mikael de Lara Co

Each Fall the Foundation selects 12 promising Asian professionals under 40 to be Asia Foundation Development Fellows, a year-long fellowship of short courses, conferences, and study tours in Asia and the United States.

Today John and Tracie are joined by two of our 2023 fellows. Feminist activist Shazia Usman, who now works for the UN, is a celebrated author from Fiji. Jan Mikael de Lara Co, formerly head of communications for the Liberal Party of the Philippines, is also a published poet.

 

Indonesia: Promoting District-Village Collaboration

Luwu Utara district head Indah Putri Indriani discusses fiscal transfers to villages in her district with a USAID ERAT public financial management specialist. (Photo: USAID ERAT)

After the “big bang” of government decentralization in 2001, the national government of Indonesia transferred responsibility for many public services to district governments. Frontline health services, water and sanitation, nine years of public education for every child, and services involving certification of legal identity are among these devolved responsibilities. Most of these district services are paid for with funds transferred from the central government.

In 2014, Indonesia adopted a new Village Law to reinforce local self-government. The law recognized the importance of the village as the administrative unit closest to the community, and significantly increased fiscal transfers to villages—both directly from the central government and from the district governments. District governments are required to pass along to villages 10 percent of their locally generated revenues, and 10 percent of any uncommitted transfer funds from the central government.

The districts are still responsible for most public services, however, and these transfers to the villages have strained districts’ ability to meet their statutory budget obligations. At the same time, villagers and village governments sometimes have limited ideas for how best to use these new funds. Through several initiatives, The Asia Foundation is working to address this imbalance by encouraging “collaborative governance” in the form of district-village cooperation on public services.

A community health clinic in the Luwu Utara district of South Sulawesi. Districts are still responsible for most public services, and fiscal transfers to the villages have strained districts’ ability to meet their statutory budget obligations. (Photo: USAID ERAT)

A Zero-Sum Game

Budget allocation is a zero-sum game: increasing the budget for one line-item means decreasing it for others. From 2014 to 2021, growing fiscal transfers to the villages reduced district personnel and capital spending by 10.6 percent and 9.4 percent, respectively. The latter figure is particularly concerning, because capital expenditures are important to public services, especially in rural districts, which are hungrier for development.

This district-level belt-tightening has also resulted in district governments missing their spending targets. The Indonesian constitution mandates that all levels of government spend 20 percent of their budgets on the education sector. The 2009 Health Law mandated that 10 percent of subnational budgets be assigned to non-payroll healthcare costs. Although this requirement was recently repealed by the new “omnibus law” on health, failing to meet mandatory spending targets suggests problems with district budgeting.

Despite some improvement, 14 percent of rural districts missed their spending targets for education in 2021, and 23 percent missed the mark on healthcare. Meanwhile, village budgets are burgeoning. An Asia Foundation assessment conducted in connection with Australian DFAT’s KOMPAK governance program in 2016 found that village governments have limited ideas about where to spend their growing budgets, other than on roads or other basic infrastructure.

While this narrow vision has been widely criticized, village governments have strong incentives to prioritize these projects, which are highly visible and clearly lie within their authority. Their authority to provide other public services, on the other hand, is unclear. Village governments have recognized the need for more robust midwife services, for example, but they’re unsure if they can pay for the operational costs, because midwife services fall under district governments. These are among the challenges that the Asia Foundation is working to address through its local governance programs in Indonesia.

Collaborative Development

Under KOMPAK, the Foundation has been trying to help work out some of these service delivery kinks by promoting district-village collaboration. The Foundation has promoted better access to legal identity services by encouraging villages to hire facilitators to help citizens, particularly the poor and marginalized, navigate district services. Through the DFAT-funded PEDULI program, the Foundation has promoted district-village collaboration to improve access to public services for people with disabilities. The Asia Foundation has also supported a village-level paralegal initiative to provide legal aid services through the USAID-funded MAJu program (eMpowering Access to Justice).

The Foundation is also implementing the USAID ERAT program (Effective, Efficient, and Strong Governance), which is pursuing district-village collaboration to reduce childhood developmental stunting. The program has worked with the district governments of Nias and Karo, in North Sumatra, and Lamongan, in East Java, to promote village co-financing of anti-stunting programs. New regulations clarify what stunting prevention programs can be financed by village budgets—among them premarital counseling and parental education, mother-and-child nutrition programs, and better access to healthcare services, clean drinking water, and decent sanitation.

A community-based stunting prevention program in a village in the Barru district of South Sulawesi. (Photo: USAID ERAT)

Although the regulations were only issued in 2022–2023, they have started showing results. Among 170 villages in Nias, 2023 budgets for stunting reduction grew by 20.9 percent. More impressively, the 259 villages in Karo increased their collective anti-stunting budget threefold to about USD 729,000 a year later. In Lamongan, the new regulations haven’t yet changed village budgets, but community-based anti-stunting programs and organizations have begun to proliferate.

Another mode of district-village collaboration was developed by The Asia Foundation, the Government of Indonesia, and local civil society organizations. TAKE (Transfer Anggaran Kabupaten berbasis Ekologi) creates performance-based fiscal incentives for villages to improve their economic, social, and environmental performance. The scheme was first adopted by the district government of Jayapura, Papua, where initial implementation has shown positive results. TAKE has been replicated in at least 21 districts in Indonesia, and the concept has also been adopted by other development partners.

Launching a “model village” for the prevention of child marriage in the Sumenep district of East Java. (Photo: USAID ERAT)

Through USAID ERAT, the TAKE scheme has been further developed to consider village performance in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, and has been adopted in Luwu Utara, South Sulawesi. Funds transfers can be used to improve access to water, sanitation, housing, waste management, disaster preparedness, empowerment of women and people with disabilities, and child protection services at the village level. A similar scheme is currently being developed in Sambas, West Kalimantan, to specifically address maternal, neonatal, and child health issues in the district. This transparent, performance-based formula for allocating district funds to villages is expected to increase accountability and create incentives for villages to address development issues more effectively.

The Village Law laudably intended to empower village communities, but it had unintended consequences for district governments. As Indonesia continues to fine-tune its decentralization efforts, these cooperative district-village initiatives demonstrate the great potential of collaborative governance to turn a zero-sum game into an opportunity for inclusive, sustainable development.

Erman Rahman is activity director, and Saeful Muluk is a public financial management specialist, for the USAID ERAT program. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation or USAID.

Local Governance Fellowships Empower Change in Nepal

Young women from The Asia Foundation’s local governance fellowships program in Nepal. (Photo: Krita Raut / The Asia Foundation)

Since the adoption of its post-civil-war constitution in 2015, which mandated government decentralization, Nepal has been engaged in a bold, nationwide experiment in local governance. In villages and municipalities, now called upon to govern themselves for the first time, many of the skills required for effective local government—including legislating, policymaking, and delivering public services—are still unfamiliar. Aspects of Nepali society and culture such as the traditional place of women and historically marginalized groups, also pose challenges for democratic local self-rule.

Since 2021, The Asia Foundation’s Subnational Governance Program (SNGP), through its strategic partnership with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), has been offering fellowships to women from marginalized communities that place them in positions with urban, municipal governments. This pioneering program is designed to equip the fellows with in-depth, practical understanding of local government’s core functions, foster leadership and professionalism, and build human capital in marginalized communities for democratic participation and engagement.

The SNG Program’s overall objective is to create the conditions for stable, effective, and inclusive subnational governance that addresses the health and economic security of all, including women, people with disabilities, and marginalized groups. By providing targeted support and opportunities to these underserved communities, the program hopes to democratize access to governance and decision-making roles.

Ram Kumari Mandal, a member of SNGP’s first cohort of fellows, is the first woman of the Dalit caste in Mithila Municipality to have completed a higher education, and an inspiration for other young women in her community to pursue higher studies and build independent careers. “Participating in the fellowship,” she says, “has helped me to solidify my commitment to enter the civil service and acquire the knowledge required to pursue this goal.”

Ram Kumari from the first SNGP cohort making a presentation to the team. (Photo: Pallavi Payal / The Asia Foundation)

A central feature of the SNGP fellowships is the placement of participants in their own municipalities. This arrangement allows them to develop an insider’s familiarity with their own local governments. By engaging in day-to-day municipal functions, the fellows learn the ins and outs of the daily business of governing—service delivery, policymaking, judicial committees, and the budget and planning process.

“Previously, I harbored fear towards government officials, and I disliked visiting any government offices. However, my time [as a fellow] at the ward office has been enlightening, and I no longer feel intimidated by government officials,” reported Krishna Gaha Magar, a fellow from Birendranagar Municipality, during a discussion with the SNGP team after working with constituents to secure services in her ward office.

In addition to practical experience, the SNG Program emphasizes theoretical understanding and critical thinking. Online discussions organized by the program examine various aspects of governance, law, social justice, and development. This combination of theoretical and practical knowledge, as Amrita BK from Bhimeswor Municipality told us upon completing her fellowship, builds understanding, confidence, and empowerment—perhaps the biggest takeaways from the program.

Salina GT from the second SNGP cohort working at the municipal service delivery desk. (Photo: Salina GT / The Asia Foundation)

Because the fellows are drawn from economically disadvantaged and marginalized communities, the fellowships include a stipend for travel and communication expenses. “For some of us, it marked the first time we felt economically empowered,” said Ram Kumari Mandal. “I even saved some money to study for the civil service examination.” While this was not a planned objective, the stipend illustrates the empowering aspects of the program.

By empowering women from marginalized communities like Ram Kumari, Krishna, and Amrita, the SNG Program is addressing the underrepresentation of these groups in Nepal’s still-young municipal governments. The fellows go on to become advocates for inclusivity and diversity, working to create a government that truly reflects the diverse voices of the population.

The SNGP’s local fellowships are not just changing the trajectories of individual lives, but also shaping the future of democratic local governance in Nepal. Some of the fellows from the first cohort are now employed at NGOs working in the governance field, while others are studying to enter the civil service. Two individuals from the second cohort are now employed by their municipalities.

SNGP Fellow Merina Toppo working in the ward office. (Photo: Merina Toppo)

Another fellow from the second cohort, Merina, who hails from the marginalized Uraw community, used her assignment in a municipal ward office to help community members get better access to local government services. “The people from my community do not have access to local government. Most are unaware of the services provided there. Most do not have citizenship cards either. I have been able to facilitate their access to the municipality to obtain citizenship cards and other services,” said Merina.

By fostering inclusivity, breaking barriers, and nurturing a new generation of critical thinkers, the local government fellowship program is contributing to a more equitable Nepali society in which the voices of multiple communities are heard. As the fellows go on to pursue their professional paths, they take with them a better understanding of their communities and a commitment to making a difference. The Foundation’s SNGP is set to run until 2025 and has just welcomed a third cohort of fellows.

 

In this short video, fellows from the first SNGP cohort reflect on their experience.

 

Pallavi Payal is a senior program officer and Dhrubaraj BK is a program officer with The Asia Foundation’s Subnational Governance Program (SNGP), which is a part of the Australian government’s strategic partnership in Nepal. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Markets, Motives, and Micro-Finance: A View of the SDGs

(Photo: Conor Ashleigh / The Asia Foundation)

The UN Action Summit in September marked the half-way point for the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. There’s been some progress since 2015, but some tough setbacks too, says our guest today. Atul Tandon is the CEO of Opportunity International, a social enterprise that develops financial services for the poorest of the poor in Asia, Africa, and Central America.

Atul has his own insight into the power of markets and financial inclusion. Born poor in India, he rose through the ranks at Citi Bank to become a leader in retail banking, until, at a certain age, he set out in a different direction. He shares some of that story with us today, and what he thinks about our progress on the SDGs.

 


 

Atul Tandon, CEO of Opportunity International (Photo: Opportunity International)

In Bangladesh, Preserving Indigenous Culture through Storytelling

The Khagrachari District of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (Photo: Sathirtha Dewan / The Asia Foundation)

The population of Bangladesh includes more than 54 Indigenous peoples, among them the Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Tanchangya, Chak, Pankhua, Mro, Bawm, Lushai, Khyang, and Khumi. Approximately 80 percent of this Indigenous population, which numbers close to a million individuals, live in the flatland districts of the north and southeast of the country, while the rest reside in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Farming in Bandarban (Sathirtha Dewan). (Photo: Sathirtha Dewan / The Asia Foundation)

Along with the official language of Bengali, the Indigenous peoples of Bangladesh speak at least 35 distinct languages. These languages, with their own alphabets and intonations, are part of the country’s rich cultural heritage, but many are in decline under pressure from the dominant culture.

Drying yarn for weaving. (Photo: Joseph Chakma and Praban Chakma / The Asia Foundation)

The disappearance of Indigenous languages, known as “language death,” is a widespread issue affecting not only Bangladesh but also the world. According to the United Nations, 96 percent of the world’s approximately 6,700 languages are spoken by just 3 percent of the world’s population. Although indigenous peoples make up less than 6 percent of the global population, they speak more than 4,000 of the world’s languages. Many of these languages are now considered endangered. The UN estimates that at least one world language dies out every two weeks, and most could become extinct by the year 2100.

Weaving cloth for clothing. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

The decline of indigenous languages in Bangladesh has many causes, including sociopolitical and cultural factors such as a growing preference for Bengali and lack of attention from planners and policymakers. Children belonging to Indigenous linguistic communities often have no opportunity to use their mother tongue in school and must learn Bengali to pursue their education.

The government has adopted policies to protect indigenous languages, but these initiatives have had mixed success. Measures have been taken to include texts in Indigenous languages and teachers from Indigenous groups ??at the preschool level, and the government has distributed books to preschools in five Indigenous languages: Chakma, Garo, Kokborok, Marma, and Sadri. But qualified teachers who speak these languages are still in short supply, and no plan has yet been offered for mother-tongue education at higher levels.

Chakma girls in their traditional dress. (Photo: Sukla Dey / The Asia Foundation)

Hooked on Peace

In 2022, UNESCO, in collaboration with The Asia Foundation and the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, launched the project Hooked on Peace: Promoting Positive Peace through Indigenous and Local Language Digital Storytelling. With support from the Japanese Funds-in-Trust, Hooked on Peace will use digital storytelling in the Indigenous languages of Asia to promote youth development and intergenerational dialogue, mother-tongue education, digital literacy, gender equality, and preservation of Indigenous heritage and practices.

In Bangladesh, Hooked on Peace will bring young and old together in two ethnic communities to share and document traditional narratives. The stories will be developed by young Indigenous people through dialogue within their own ethnic communities, and will then become the basis for a series of digital publications, in Indigenous languages, that promote traditional practices and solutions for peacebuilding and sustainability.

Hooked on Peace workshop in Bangladesh with UNESCO and The Asia Foundation. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

The Asia Foundation has already conducted a three-day training for 20 Chakma and Tripura young people to equip them with the skills to collect local stories. Joseph Chakma, a presenter at the workshop, is a scholar at Martin Luther Christian University exploring how acculturation shapes the career choices of Chakma youth in the Chittagong Hill Tracts:

Hooked on Peace stands as an exceptional initiative to empower indigenous youth, fostering a platform for them to express their voices while simultaneously safeguarding their invaluable cultural heritage through the art of storytelling.

Another program participant, Jahangirnagar University student Ananto Tripura grew up in one of the remotest areas of the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Hooked on Peace is an excellent project to restore the color and beauty of my faded ethnic community by telling my own story. Heartfelt gratitude to The Asia Foundation for this wonderful initiative.

The primary objective of the training was to encourage participants to think about the meaning of peacebuilding, gender equality, and sustainability within and beyond their own Indigenous communities. Participants received guidance on effective interviewing techniques and basic methods for extracting meaning and themes from qualitative data— “finding a story.” They also explored the ethical dimensions of research in indigenous communities.

Conducting an interview in Kangrachari. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

Workshop participant Twisa Tripura is a university undergraduate and a program officer with Khagrapur Mahila Kalyan Samity, an indigenous development and women’s empowerment NGO in Khagrachari.

I am so delighted to be a part of the Hooked on Peace project, as I always endeavor to contribute to my community. Being an Indigenous youth changemaker, I feel great responsibility to protect and promote our traditional culture and document all the untold stories for our future generations.

Atina Chakma is a workshop participant from Khagrachari, where she was a presenter for Bangladesh Television:

I feel preserving cultural stories is mandatory. This is an excellent initiative to be more concerned and responsible to preserve Indigenous non-tangible culture by utilizing my inner writing capability. I am proud to become a part in persevering our cultural stories. My heartfelt gratitude to The Asia Foundation for this amazing initiative.

Interviewing a respected elder in Khagrachari, Bangladesh. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

When the young interviewers have finished their fieldwork, The Asia Foundation will provide training on story editing and establish a review process to finish the stories. These will be released to the public on February 21, 2024, in celebration of International Mother Language Day.

UNESCO’s priority is to preserve and share these aspects of humanity. The stories collected by Hooked on Peace will be published on UNESCO and Asia Foundation social media platforms, and the Foundation will publish them in a series of children’s books via the Foundation’s digital platform for children, Let’s Read.

We believe that Hooked on Peace will help preserve Bangladesh’s rich Indigenous culture and the knowledge and wisdom of older generations.

Sukla Dey is senior program manager and Nusrat Hossain and Labiba Najeeba are consultants for Let’s Read in Bangladesh. They can be reached at [email protected], [email protected], and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.