The Reality of Aid Network – Asia Pacific (RoA-AP) welcomes 2021 with conviction and vigor, ready to power through the multiple and intensifying crises we are facing with stronger and louder assertions.
Early this year, we learned of a new variant of COVID-19, which led many national governments to review their cross-border restrictions and community quarantine policies. Other countries enforced lockdowns (again) following an increase in cases that overwhelmed hospitals and as precautionary measure to contain the spread of the new variant.
In parallel, we saw how big pharmaceuticals raced to market and distribute their COVID-19 vaccine. We also saw how developing countries placed bets on procuring the best available or in some cases, the most strategic in terms of foreign policy.
The Philippine government, for instance, favored the China-based firm, Sinovac, over competitors with higher efficacy rates and cheaper prices such as Pfizer and Moderna. This is one of the many examples of how a government puts premium on foreign relations over its peoples’ health in the midst of a crisis. In contrast, we see both Vietnam and Thailand make headway in developing their own vaccines with substantial support to their public health sector.
Response and recovery from the pandemic are still the top priority of development cooperation actors to date. However, civil society must remain vigilant over initiatives that support the calls, “build back better”, “green recovery” or “great reset”, because these can easily be exploited by foreign superpowers to subvert national development priorities and democratic ownership in favor of their own geopolitical interests.
Truth be told, no substantial progress and sustainable response have been made despite several dialogues and consultations on how development cooperation can address the world’s long-standing problems that have been accelerated by the pandemic. The status quo continues to ravage peoples’ livelihood and well-being as well as trample developing countries’ sovereignty.
As RoA-AP rigorously monitors development cooperation issues, here are six (6) major areas that are important for the network to continue engaging:
- Prolonged inefficient response plans and unsustainable recovery programs for COVID-19, further leaving behind already disadvantaged peoples in Asia Pacific
More than a year has gone by and yet majority of the region’s population sees no light at the end of the tunnel. The millions of dollars worth of loans mainly from international finance institutions proved to be insufficient to respond to the pandemic and fund recovery programs. Government corruption and transparency issues worsened in many countries and health protocols became relatively weaker today to give way to ailing economies. Several governments chose to rely on vaccines to “go back to normal”, without strategizing for decent and humane COVID-19 policies for their constituents.
However, vaccination is not the catch-all solution to the pandemic and its compounded impacts on the socio-economic order of the region. As long as development actors fail to address the root causes of poverty, inequalities, and conflicts, we will never see the end of COVID-19.
- Decreasing Official Development Assistance in Asia Pacific as donors resort to protectionism following the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic
Donor countries were among the first to be affected by COVID-19 and with millions of cases, they suffered major financial losses trying to curb the virus and address the consequences. While donors quickly provided aid to developing countries for their own national COVID-19 response plans, and acknowledged the importance of international cooperation in times like these, donors fell short in reaffirming their commitment to uphold the 0.7% GNI ODA to developing countries for the years to come.
Tracing back to the colonial histories of developing countries, ODA’s role in development cooperation goes beyond donor countries showing solidarity with fragile and developing nations, but actually repaying debts for centuries of exploitation. Such exploitation, however, still exists today and ODA is being catalyzed to leverage private flows, which is a threat to the integrity of ODA’s supposed public interest mandate. In addition, donors continue to report refugee assistance as part of ODA – a move heavily criticized by CSOs for its potential to distort ODA accounting and also as means for donor countries to undermine their ODA commitments.
- Escalating attacks and threats to Civil Society Organizations endangering their capacity to engage in effective development cooperation
CSOs remain steadfast in pursuing their work amidst the global trend of shrinking civic spaces. There is a lack of an enabling environment for them to be able to fully play their crucial role as a key development actor, especially in the midst of responding to COVID-19. CSOs and other peoples’ organizations in the region are being threatened and attacked as they organized relief operations, circulated solidarity statements and sign-ons, and conducted peaceful assemblies to call for rights-based policies in addressing the pandemic, among others.
Despite these attacks and other forms of harassment, CSOs continue to assert the democratic participation of citizens and enabling environment for civil society as well as demand that development cooperation providers must honor these as their responsibility and commitment to leave no one behind.
- Intensified corporate capture of development as manifested by donors’ call toward greater roles of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Private Sector in achieving Agenda 2030
As the neoliberal global economy is resuscitated, donors, multilateral institutions, and developing countries call for an intensified private sector intervention in development. Indeed, the private sector is seen as the most viable option to accelerate initiatives to achieve the Agenda 2030. However, this diminishes the integrity of ODA and loses focus on domestic resource mobilization.
Evidence suggests that the use of ODA to leverage private-public partnerships through international finance institutions results in human rights violations and shrinking civic spaces in marginalized communities. Corporate capture of development, or the prioritization of bankable development projects, essentially leaves the poor and marginalized behind while developing countries themselves sink deeper in debt.
- Intensified militarization and human rights violations across the region as authoritarian regimes continue to cling on to power thus eroding democratic systems
The rise of authoritarian governments made the case of shrinking civic spaces more apparent. In many developing countries, the trend has become to criminalize civic society and dissent. From the imposition of stricter regulations on organizations to the issuance of illegal or warrantless arrests to human rights defenders, authoritarianism has effectively trumped democracy and justice.
The pandemic raised urgency for governments to respond with the lens of effective development cooperation, specifically because the majority of developing countries lack social protection policies for their citizens. However, many developing countries implemented militarist policies that all the more oppressed peoples’ rights. On top of this, authoritarian governments took advantage of the crisis to railroad anti-people policies, suppress the media, and harass the opposition.
- Escalating conflicts and worsening fragility increased development actors’ interest in the humanitarian-development-peace nexus or triple nexus approach as development framework in addressing conflict and fragility
In an OECD Report published in 2019, only 2% or USD 1.8 billion of ODA provided that same year is allotted for conflict prevention, while humanitarian assistance still received the lion’s share. Partly due to the lack of development aid for the long-term and funding for conflict prevention programs, conflict-affected, fragile states remain impoverished, ill-prepared for disasters, prone to terrorism and militarization, and vulnerable to forced displacement. These critical situations are exacerbated by the protracted impacts of COVID-19, especially in socio-economic, peace, and security contexts.
Moreover, it is worth noting that the United States of America is looking into a possible return to Obama’s “Pivot in Asia” approach, following President Joe Biden’s appointment of Kurt Campbell, one of the proponents of the said foreign policy, as the new Indo-Pacific Coordinator. Such approach will undermine fragile states’ long-term development and compound security risks as US will be consolidating its alliance with key Asian countries to tame China’s growing economic and political influence in the region.
It is thus important to scale up advocacy and monitoring efforts in conflict-affected, fragile states not only in asserting for a human rights-based financing and programming of triple nexus projects, but more so in fighting for democratic ownership and sovereignty and honoring the participation of local CSOs in this process.
Our situation may be overwhelming, but Reality of Aid – Asia Pacific, with the leadership of its Steering Committee, is dedicated to continue building relations and strengthening engagement with key development actors in the region to be able to feed critical CSO positions into policies and publications as well as rally the membership towards a more united voice when engaging in key policy arenas.
2021 is our time to take charge. We must stand our ground, commit to the fullest, accelerate our efforts toward promoting a rights-based, people-powered development, and amplify our voices for a just society that serves the poor and marginalized.