If ASEAN’s Coordinating Council comprising its foreign ministers and their High-level Task Force manages to influence their national leaders to make the right moves despite global uncertainty, ASEAN’s environmental, socio-economic and cultural future can be set on the right, albeit steeper, trajectory.
The 40th and 41st ASEAN Summits in Phnom Penh (10-13 November 2022) are when ASEAN’s High-level Task Force will try to inspire ASEAN Leaders on the ASEAN Community’s Post-2025 Vision. While it can be expected that the Post-2025 aspirations will adapt to the current volatility in geopolitical and economic megatrends, to assert ASEAN centrality amidst major power rivalry, the Leaders will also discuss pressing socio-developmental issues such as bridging the development gap among ASEAN member states (AMS), tapping the region’s youth potential, and future-proofing the region from climate change.
ASEAN has an excellent opportunity to reinforce its Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint on multiple issues like poverty, youth, gender empowerment, and the environment. Once considered the least developed among the three ASEAN Blueprints and criticised for lacking focus, timeliness and specifics while being full of generalities, the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) Blueprint has evolved into a critical vehicle for fostering regional awareness and keeping the region’s citizens engaged in ASEAN’s future.
Regionalism in ASEAN and social development must go hand in hand. There will be no sense of ‘openness’ if poverty remains rampant within some AMS and their people have limited access to resources to improve their socio-economic well-being.
Considering the importance of the ASCC Blueprint for ASEAN’s future regionalism, how should ASEAN implement it? The enthusiasm for the ASCC Blueprint is still high. For instance, the Community believes that accelerated digitalisation in the region could present an opportunity to bridge the intra-regional socio-economic divide. ASEAN dialogue partners and the private sector are increasingly providing ASEAN with socio-development initiatives such as educational exchange, professional training, gender empowerment, public health, and environmental protection programmes. This is a signal that the global community sees the benefits of investing broadly and deeply in ASEAN communities for future market access, new sources of a high-quality workforce, or finding like-minded partners to enhance people-to-people cooperation.
Figure 1. Snapshot of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Progress in Southeast Asia, 2021
The challenge is how to make the ASCC Blueprint more targeted to achieve greater results. As the late ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino suggested, ASEAN should avoid making the ASCC “a hodgepodge of wide-ranging activities” that could burden the capacity of the ASEAN Secretariat. ASEAN must complement what the AMS has already done, or act as a convener to direct resources from external partners to the most pressing needs.
On its part, ASEAN has been working to promote the complementarities between the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 and the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, thus consulting the latest UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) report (see Figure 1) can help to provide a quick assessment on what else ASEAN needs to do to reach its socio-development goals. (Covering 17 interlinked global goals, the SDGs have been widely adopted by all AMS to guide them in achieving progress for their people and the planet.)
The latest report suggests that ASEAN is not on track to achieve any of the 17 SDGs by 2030, if the pace of progress remains the same. Yet the region has made tremendous progress towards “no poverty” (Goal 1), thanks to its market openness and dynamically growing economy that have advanced poverty alleviation efforts. However, two of the largest AMS, namely the Philippines and Indonesia, still have the highest prevalence of poverty, each with five to six per cent of their population living below US$1.90 a day.
Overall, ASEAN as a region made some progress in industry, innovation, infrastructure (Goal 9) and “life on land” or in terrestrial habitats (Goal 15). For Goal 15, while the status of biodiversity within ASEAN has improved, this might be only a temporary reprieve. The gains ASEAN has made in protecting biodiversity can be easily inversed if long-term development does not consider sustainable economic recovery efforts that also protect nature and biodiversity.
…ASEAN has not put in a concerted effort to establish a regional growth model that could lessen carbon emissions.
AMS have made little progress on improving the quality of education (Goal 4), providing decent work and economic growth (Goal 8), and exhibiting partnership for the goals (Goal 17). In the case of quality of education, the region needs to improve secondary students’ academic proficiency, especially in Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand. This slow progress, undoubtedly exacerbated by the unprecedented impacts of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, will require the region to somehow mobilise concrete efforts to accelerate its achievement of these goals in the medium to long term.
More negatively, the region regressed on five goals: clean water and sanitation (Goal 6), sustainable cities and communities (Goal 11), responsible consumption and production (Goal 12), climate action (Goal 13), and the “life below water” or in marine habitats (Goal 14). Almost all indicators relate to environmental protection. Some AMS have not decisively dealt with increased carbon emissions and material consumption, increased casualties from disasters, or problematic fuel subsidies (as a share relative to overall GDP). In the case of climate action, despite ASEAN’s proliferation of climate frameworks, dialogues and engagements, this goal saw the biggest regression among all the other indicators. While all ASEAN countries have continued to demonstrate political will through their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), they might not be fast enough to respond to more frequent natural disasters or hazards or to control growth that drives more consumption of food, energy, water, and land to the detriment of the environment.
In sum, the report suggests that while ASEAN has made tremendous progress on economic growth – at least before Covid-19 sharply affected this trend, ASEAN has not put in a concerted effort to establish a regional growth model that could lessen carbon emissions. Extreme weather events, such as the devastating Cyclone Nalgae that hit the Philippines recently, will continue to adversely impact human health and regional productivity. ASEAN Leaders should leverage on the momentum of the ASEAN Community’s Post-2025 visioning exercise to put sustainability at the heart of the ASCC Blueprint.
Melinda Martinus is the Lead Researcher in Socio-cultural Affairs at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.