Do we really need development goals for ASEAN?

It was not surprising to see the serious interest surrounding the 25th Asean Summit in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. After all, while the establishment of the Asean Community later in 2015 is already a fact, what will actually happen post 2015 in Southeast Asia is not yet clear.

It was in this spotlight that the summit produced the so called Naypyidaw Declaration on Asean’s post-2015 vision.

In the brief document that outlined a vision of post-2015 Asean, we can see that Asean members decided to “promote the development of clear and measurable Asean development goals”. To see such a commitment in an open regional declaration, one question needs to ask why.

After their formulation, the Asean Development Goals — if managed similarly to the global Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) — will be adopted by Asean countries to help design their national development strategies.

The development goals will also be a benchmark for the success of development in Asean countries.

Therefore, if Asean countries decide to pursue, for example, better literacy rates, lower maternal and infant mortality, as well as better environmental sustainability then the success of a nation’s development in Asean will be measured against those targets.

Moreover, as a part of the post-2015 Asean Community vision, they will also be referred to as measurements of the success of the whole Asean Community. All of these can be positive steps forward for ASEAN countries.

The use of development goals as measurements of success might balance the trade-heavy narrative of the ASEAN Economic Community. This will make the idea of economic integration more grounded in the needs of common people and sound less threatening to them. Taking inspiration from the MDGs, the Asean Development Goals can promote a more inclusive regionalism through the participatory process.

This can also push Asean countries to readjust their focus and put more priorities and resources into socio-economic issues, such as those described above. And more importantly, they will make it possible to augment the implementation of MDGs, and perhaps also their successors the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

MDGs, and the yet-to-be-seen SDGs, feature prominently in this article since they can be considered as one of the success stories of international development cooperation.

The first success of the MDGs is simply the fact that they managed to exist in a world where international cooperation is not always looked upon favourably, let alone in something as lofty as development cooperation. One of the reasons for this success is that the MDGs were formulated to be, to borrow the words of former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, “ambitious, but […] technically feasible”.

Secondly, countries have used the MDGs as reference points for their national development agendas, and they also have collectively made substantial progress in achieving MDG targets. We can now see that globally extreme poverty has been reduced by half since 1990, more than 2 billion people now have access to drinkable water (a rise of 76% since 1990), and gender parity in school enrolment increases throughout developing regions and at all levels of education.

These kinds of success story also apply to Southeast Asia. As such, Asean Development Goals, or any international and regional development goals for that matter, should be compared to both MDGs and SDGs in terms of what they are trying to achieve and how they were formulated.

Furthermore, to give the Asean Development Goals reason for their existence, in some ways they should address the shortcomings of MDGs and SDGs. However, not all of these should be addressed since some of the perceived shortcomings of MDGs and SDGs are just too narrow to be addressed in global or regional development goals, e.g. addressing specific issues such as domestic legislation for land rights that are best discussed and solved at a national level.

The issues that can and should be addressed by the Asean Development Goals are ones that result from having many countries and stakeholders in a vast consultation process. Some of these include difficulties in accounting for dynamics in power and politics between stakeholders in trying to formulate and then achieve the development goals. Such dynamics are often what determine which targets are preferable and “feasible”.

As regional development goals, they have the potential to achieve this. Region-specific development goals can provide room for more focused discussions and stronger partnerships, which are difficult to facilitate in the broad reaching MDGs or their successor SDGs. Henceforth they can address development issues that are not, or just cannot be, facilitated in the MDGs and SDGs.

To this end, the process of defining goals must be transparent, participatory and inclusive. The framework of the Asean Development Goals should be formulated in extensive consultation involving stakeholders at local, national and regional level.

Marginalized groups who found difficulties in joining the MDG and SDG consultation — especially due to constraints of resources on their part — should be encouraged and promoted to join the process.

To fulfil their potential, the Asean Development Goals should not be formulated half-heartedly or as another product of compromise. If this occurs then why bother? Instead, the Asean Development Goals should be commitments that truly focus national resources on addressing socio-economic injustice.

While they are region specific they should not shy away from addressing issues not addressed in the MDGs and SDGs, while at the same time being tailored to Southeast Asian needs. Their targets can be realistic in accordance with the resources that are available. But they should still try to reach deeper than the global development goals.

Indeed, the main question should not be whether Asean countries can have development goals made by and for ourselves or not. The question should always be why we need our own development goals.


Written by Wirya Adiwena

Published in The Jakarta Post, 2 December 2014

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