Khmer Times, 10 March 2017
It seems that globalization is in retreat and multilateralism and regionalism have hit a roadblock amid rising populism and protectionism in Europe and the US.
Asean is under mounting pressure to maintain its relevant role by promoting an inclusive and open regional institution in which every member state should share fair benefits and responsibility.
An inclusive and participatory national development and regionalism are the necessary foundations for long-term regional peace, stability and prosperity.
A collective leadership and efforts are required to realize a people-oriented and people-centered Asean, a vision of Asean community building.
If Asean is unable to deliver, the less developed members will be forced to rely more on major powers for their own survival and economic opportunities.
Development disparity, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, between the urban and rural areas, breeds political and social ills. It also puts Asean’s cohesiveness, unity and centrality at greater risk.
A two-tiered or multi-tiered Asean may lead to regional disintegration and instability. Nationalist and populist movements in some member countries may cause disruption to regional integration.
Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are the new members and less developed economies in Asean. Their average per capita income is slightly more than $1,100.
The institutional capacity and connectivity infrastructures of these countries are far behind those of the more developed member countries.
However, some efforts have been made to address development disparity and inequality within Asean.
At the 6th Asean Summit in Hanoi in 1998, Asean leaders expressed their political will and commitment to “narrow the development gap among member countries to reduce poverty and socio-economic disparity in the region.
The Hanoi Declaration on Narrowing the Development Gap for Closer Asean Integration in 2001 gives a roadmap and political commitment to address development gaps.
In addition, the Vientiane Action Program of 2004-2010 outlines regional projects to narrow the development gaps.
The most important regional framework is the Initiative for Asean Integration (IAI), which was launched in 2000. The IAI aims to specifically narrow the development gaps and accelerate the economic integration of the new members.
However, the implementation of the initiative is very limited due to a lack of financial resources.
The IAI Work Plan 2016-2020 adopted last year consists of five strategic areas – food and agriculture, trade facilitation, micro, small and medium enterprises, education and health and well-being.
Moreover, the IAI Task Force was also created to monitor the implementation of and give guidance to the initiative. However, implementation remains an issue.
So how can the development gaps be narrowed?
To narrow the development gaps, the more developed Asean members and the dialogue partners of Asean need to put more resources to implement the IAI and other regional policies on narrowing the gaps.
Asean needs to revitalize and energize the role of IAI by identifying the development gaps, suggesting policy interventions, and mobilizing resources to implement the policy.
More technical assistance is needed to assist the less developed members to catch up with others, especially in institutional capacity building, infrastructure development and human resources development.
The less developed members must expedite their reforms as well. They need to strengthen good governance, promote trade facilitation policy, attract more foreign investment, invest more in education and healthcare and promote innovation.
The partnership between the state, the market and society, which is under-utilized, needs to be strengthened to better develop policy and deliver results.
The government leaders of Asean’s less developed nations should allocate some of their national budgets on social innovation to address social needs and provide novel solutions to social issues.
The more developed members and the dialogue partners of Asean should provide more technical and financial support to promote social innovation in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.