ASEAN needs to address serious development gaps among members, says UN

ESCAP makes recommendations as ASEAN Summit discusses integration plan

The Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) needs to address development gaps between its 10 members, if it is to build a more integrated ASEAN community, says the United Nations.

As ASEAN leaders gather in Singapore to sign the ASEAN Charter and the ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint this week, a study by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), released to coincide with the ASEAN Summit, outlines the major challenges for ASEAN integration and recommend key actions for ASEAN integration. These include meeting minimum international standards of governance, providing financial transfers to poorer members, and strengthening trans-ASEAN networks to enable all member countries to benefit from the free movement of goods, capital and people.

Development gaps: key challenges for ASEAN integration

The study, Ten as One: Challenges and Opportunities for ASEAN Integration, is the first in a new ESCAP series on inclusive and sustainable development that aims to provide strategic analysis of key Asia-Pacific issues and contribute to regional and subregional policy dialogue and solutions.

The many achievements of ASEAN notwithstanding, the study notes serious development gaps between its members. These disparities need to be bridged urgently to prevent losers of the integration process from being permanently left behind.

Noeleen Heyzer, Executive Secretary of ESCAP, stresses the urgency of addressing development gaps, stating that, in the long run, “uneven development is unsustainable, as instabilities resulting from disparities will spill across borders into neighbouring countries, involving the movement of displaced people and the transformation of border areas into possible conflict zones.” Nor is it sustainable to build “firewalls” to contain instabilities rather than address root causes.

The largest disparities pertain to some environmental and health issues. The ASEAN contribution to global carbon emissions is relatively small -- about 3.3 per cent of the global total, while its share of the world population is 7.7 per cent. However, Brunei Darussalam, Singapore and Malaysia exceed the world average of per capita CO2 emissions by a large margin. Brunei Darussalam’s per capita emissions rate is over 60,000 times higher than that of Cambodia.

Disparities in health are stark. The child and maternal mortality rates of Cambodia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Myanmar, for example, are between 11 and 47 times higher than those of Singapore.

In trade and investment, huge gaps remain between ASEAN members. Intraregional trade remains at a low level of one quarter of total ASEAN trade, despite the liberalization efforts under the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) agreement. Foreign direct investment (FDI) in ASEAN has been heavily skewed, with four countries, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Viet Nam, taking in 93 per cent of all FDI inflows. Intra-ASEAN FDI has been low and stagnant.

In addition to development gaps, the study identifies a lack of reliable and timely statistical data and inadequate governance as two other key challenges that ASEAN faces. On governance, some countries trail behind the world average in indicators related to freedom of expression, association and media, quality of policy formulation and implementation, rule of law, and corruption. Member countries that are relatively well-off also do not rank commensurately in one or another of these indicators.

The study examines current ASEAN initiatives and identifies areas where actions need to be strengthened and transformed into genuine integration mechanisms. For example, on cross-border human mobility, the study finds that the economic benefits from migration are clouded in several countries by concerns over social costs and unintended consequences of migration policies. The report calls on ASEAN to promote a regional strategy for managing migration in a coordinated and integrated manner. The migration-development nexus and the role of remittances in poverty reduction, as well as the gender dimensions of migration in ASEAN should also be addressed.

Opportunities and recommendations

ESCAP emphasizes that efforts towards regional integration will require all ASEAN members to obtain minimum levels for economic and social development for them to be in a position to benefit from the envisaged free movement in various spheres. The report identifies three key areas where actions are required.

First, governance: this includes transparency and access to reliable information and data. The study points out that the economic benefits of ASEAN integration will not serve to ensure domestic political stability, if the poor do not have a share in development benefits and if the environment is damaged leading to imperilled livelihoods for the most vulnerable citizens.

The study states that ASEAN’s approach of “non-intervention” in national issues has limited the effectiveness of agreements, declarations and action plans. As ASEAN integrates further, multilateral governance for agreed goals among member States needs to be strengthened.

Second, cohesion policy: the ASEAN vision on the new freedom of movement will only be sustainable if supported by a cohesion policy aimed at narrowing the gaps between winners and losers of the integration process. The policy requires financial transfers for social, economic and environmental development and strengthening social safety nets.

Third, trans-ASEAN networks: as the backbone for the envisaged freedom of movement, network infrastructures and services in transport, ICT, energy and water need to reflect a regional rather than a national perspective. The report calls on governments, for example, to play a larger role in cross-border transports projects, even in projects which are private sector-driven. It also urges ASEAN to integrate its ICT sector to enhance its competitiveness.

The report makes eight specific recommendations in the three areas. The full report is available online:[email protected].