Asean's sustainable future? Science and technology
October-December 2015
By: David L Carden and Montira J Pongsiri

Asean is a region of low productivity. This is one of the biggest challenges facing its member states as they try to improve the lives of their people. A few statistics underscore the situation. It is estimated that 53 percent of Asean’s 618 million people live on less than $2 a day, with 18 percent earning less than $1.25. Most of Asean’s poor, like many of developed countries in the past, are subsistence farmers. Such farmers comprise 45 percent of Asean’s population. The regional grouping’s agricultural sector has particularly low productivity, which is a consequence of low value and labor-intensive crops such as rice, the small size of family plots and land-use policies that make it difficult to aggregate land.

Cultural attachments to land also complicate matters. So, too, do the policies of several Asean member states on food security, food independence and food sovereignty, which encourage domestic food production and prohibit or impede the importation of food. These policies understandably emerged from, or were reinforced by, the rice crisis of 2007-08, which saw prices triple within a matter of months. Yet they have made and will continue to make hundreds of millions of Asean citizens dependent on low-productivity agriculture for their sustenance. Of course, this truth also has the beneficial effect of providing employment for millions of farmers.

Then there are the urban poor, who are growing in number given the mass migration into Southeast Asia’s cities. The 2014 United Nations World Urbanization Prospects Report projected that an additional 34.5 million people in the region would be living in cities with populations larger than one million by 2025, which by then will be home to more than one-third of Asean’s population. Many of Asean’s urban dwellers are self-employed, which most often means they are underemployed. They lack the basic skills and tools to participate meaningfully in the global economy, including English language, education, infrastructure, adequate housing, sanitation and health care. The available revenue to address these shortcomings is in very short supply. Against this backdrop, Asean’s farmers and urban dwellers, especially its urban poor, are facing existential and developmental threats arising from such things as climate change, the health impacts of air pollution, euphemistically called “haze” by some, and poor nutrition.   

A new model 

The world is focused on economic growth, which increasingly is difficult to achieve and sustain. The reasons for this are many.  It will be difficult for Asean to grow at the rates it hopes to achieve while trying to manage the many needs and challenges ahead, including promoting human health and empowerment by providing such things as health care, education and infrastructure; coping with climate change, rapid urbanization, natural disasters and emerging infectious and chronic noncommunicable diseases; and transitioning away from its dependence on diminishing natural resources.

Allison 11/03/2015 09:40 AM
David L Carden and Montira J Pongsiri rightly highlight how science and technology (S&T;) could help address sustainability issues looming in ASEAN members’ futures. There is clearly a need for greater S&T; collaboration throughout the Southeast Asian region, and Carden and Pongsiri provide valuable detail about the activities that the US Mission to ASEAN facilitates. However, I am surprised that ASEAN’s own S&T; mechanisms were overlooked for their potential to contribute. ASEAN’s S&T; activities trace to the establishment of the Committee on S&T; (COST), which first convened in 1978. The high level body is a focal point for coordinating regional cooperation on S&T; matters and has responsibility for developing ASEAN’s Plans for Action in S&T; (APAST). The ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Science and Technology (AMMST) regularly brings together member leaders and S&T; ministers to discuss regional issues of S&T; significance, with an informal AMMST (IAMMST) interspersed between them. Contrary to what the authors state, ASEAN does in fact have long term planning initiatives in place that could help address regional sustainability. The extant APAST, which plans for the 2007-2011 timeframe (and was later extended to 2015), identifies several avenues of S&T; cooperation that address issues such as climate change, renewable energies, transboundary marine pollution, and environmentally-friendly materials development. APAST’s planned successor, which is set to cover the 2016-2020 timeframe, will likely be organised around the eight thematic tracks identified at the 2010 Krabi Initiative. These tracks include green technologies, food security, water management, and biodiversity for health and wealth. In addition, COST coordinates several S&T; flagship programs with aims in building an early warning system for disaster risk reduction, building climate change resilience in ASEAN, and reducing the incidence of infectious diseases in Southeast Asia. The challenge for ASEAN may well lie in implementation as it’s not always clear how such initiatives have progressed in practice. Yet ASEAN certainly has communicated a desire to support members in “moving up the technology ladder” and move away from economic growth that is founded on exploiting natural resources. At the eighth IAMMST in 2014, ministers agreed to a new vision that seeks to build “a Science, Technology and Innovation-enabled ASEAN which is innovative, competitive, vibrant, sustainable and economically integrated”. It is perhaps too early to tell how this will advance past a policy statement, but continued US technical assistance would definitely help this occur. S&T; collaboration can facilitate a sustainable future for the region, though the best solution will be one that is entrenched within existing ASEAN mechanisms. This way, like Cardin and Pongsiri argue, we can see ASEAN building informed ASEAN solutions. ---------------------------- Dr Allison Sonneveld is a Research Officer for the Australian Army. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence, or the Australian Government.
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