As the pandemic was able to shine light on the gaps of the current approach to development, there is opportunity to forward alternative paradigms that are able to reflect people’s realities on-ground and can exact accountability from development actors. With heightened vigilance, sustained engagement with development actors and solidarity with CSOs and social movements, a transition to a people-centered and rights-based development approach is possible. 

The Asia-Pacific region is in a critical juncture as it transitions to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, to new political leadership following last year’s various national elections, and to advanced climate-resilient systems in addressing the impacts of climate change. Despite being in a period of change, it is burdened by the same challenges of increasing debt, rising commodity prices, fragile social infrastructure, intensified conflict and pressing climate emergency. These are borne out of the current neoliberal development paradigm that promotes profit over positive development outcomes, military interests over just peace, and environmental degradation over preservation. 

While the pandemic was able to highlight the inadequacy of the current paradigm to address the multi-faceted crisis the region faces, major players in development cooperation have revived and pursued this approach. Recovery agendas echo the same solutions that have brought upon these issues. Private sector financing is further promoted as a silver bullet to the world’s challenges, despite their historic role in violating people’s rights and exploiting natural resources. Climate finance remains to be out of reach for frontline communities who face the brunt of climate change. Donor countries continue their securitization of aid, paving the way for the intensification of conflict and fragility. Civil society, activists and defenders continue to face increased attacks and threats despite their contributions. 

Nevertheless, this period of transition also serves an opportune time to forward people’s interests and further international solidarity in order to ensure development for all. As the pandemic was able to shine light on the gaps of the current approach to development, there is opportunity to forward alternative paradigms that are able to reflect people’s realities on-ground and can exact accountability from development actors. With heightened vigilance, sustained engagement with development actors and solidarity with CSOs and social movements, a transition to a people-centered and rights-based development approach is possible. 

In this era of transition, the Reality of Aid-Asia Pacific will engage these three major areas this 2023: 

  1. The declining quantity and quality of ODA becomes justification for donors to push developing nations to rely on IFI and private sector financing, despite worsening debt levels and recorded rights violations and lack of accountability of these actors. 

Despite the severity of crises being faced by the global South, total ODA in 2021 increased by only 4.4%, a figure heavily inflated by the channeling of aid to COVID-19 vaccines, in-donor refugee costs, debt relief and private sector instruments. This also falls short of donor countries’ 0.7% GNI commitment, as the total aid disbursed only amounts to 0.33% GNI. Faced with the rising inflation, pandemic recovery, diminished aid and persisting development challenges, developing countries are forced to increase borrowing. In 2021, developing countries’ debt has accumulated to USD 11.2 trillion. Debt distress has become a reality for countries in the region, who are forced to accept burdensome loan terms and structural adjustment programs from International Financial Institutions (IFIs), as can be seen in Sri Lanka. 

Instead of pursuing development effectiveness, the issue of declining quantity and quality of ODA is used as an excuse to allow for more private sector influence in development cooperation. Aid is increasingly disbursed in loans, through new financial modalities and coursed through private sector entities. The leading IFIs in the region, such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), have increased lending during the pandemic, with accompanying neoliberal policy conditionalities, thus continuing  adverse impacts to peace, security, environment and people’s rights in the name of “development”.

New financial modalities, such as green and SDG bonds, are being promoted as an additional resource to advance climate and Agenda 2030 commitments. Market-based solutions and public-private partnerships are also promoted, which only facilitate profit-making activities for private sector partners. Despite the historic role of large corporations in contributing to rights violations, exploitation of resources and environmental degradation, they are given influence to shape important development policies.

2. Lack of political will to stop militarism and to fund context-based and locally-led conflict prevention initiatives, along with development and humanitarian efforts, continue to marginalize communities living in conflict-affected, fragile states. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led allied countries to invest in rearmament and security tactics. With this, the Asia-Pacific region is subjected to the tug-of-war between the world’s superpowers and ODA is increasingly utilized to further donor’s security interests. In the name of economic cooperation, the US Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) is pursued to counter China’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and overall influence in the region. However, underlying these frameworks reveal financing and support for security alliances, allowing for donors’ military intervention, increased threats and attacks on communities, and the intensification of conflict. 

 This comes at a time when a USD 51.5 billion appeal for humanitarian relief is needed to provide assistance for an additional 65 million people subjected to the multiple crises of food insecurity, loss of livelihood, displacement, outbreaks and natural disasters. Climate change also serves as a risk multiplier for those living in conflict-affected, fragile states. Without addressing the root causes of conflict and climate crises, these will continue to trudge on and impact people’s lives.

 While the DAC Recommendation on the Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus highlights the need for an interlinked and holistic approach, this remains to be focused on rhetoric as there is a lack of financing and support in the implementation of such programs. Furthermore, renewed commitment of several donor countries in pursuing locally-led development still remains to be translated into actual financing and changes in processes coursed through local organizations and communities in these contexts.

3. Anti-people regimes and policies persist in the region, demolishing civic spaces, eroding democratic rights, and perpetuating neoliberal economic models exacerbating maldevelopment, poverty, and inequality. 

As donor countries abandon their aid commitments, governments incur more debts and private sector entities assume a larger role in development, the people shoulder the burden. Aid falls short in financing progress towards Agenda 2030 and in attending to the urgent crises in the region, especially the worsening conflict faced by countries like Myanmar, Afghanistan, Palestine, and the climate emergency that disproportionately impacts marginalized communities in the global South.

 In paying off debts, the people face increased taxes, rise in prices, privatized social services and passing of austerity measures. In 2021, an additional 89 million people were pushed into extreme poverty in the region, with the loss of livelihood and lack of social protection measures in the midst of the pandemic. Private sector engagement in development cooperation has led to further exploitation of the resources and labor of the global South.

 While the pandemic was able to expose the fragility of existing systems in responding to emerging crises, the same dominant models of development are still being pursued, exacerbating existing inequalities. Alternatives presented by communities and civil society are viewed as threatening to the status quo by governments and armed forces, leading to increased threats and attacks on the people.

The shrinking of civic spaces persists, as authoritarian governments continue to impinge on people’s rights and freedoms. Despite repressive measures, social movements persevere to organize, mobilize and protest against anti-people regimes and policies. In Asia-Pacific alone, protests were held in 27 countries as they demand for the rightful inclusion of civil society in development processes and the promotion of a rights-based, people-centered development for all.

The Reality of Aid-Asia Pacific, with the leadership of its Steering Committee and with its membership, will continue to engage in key policy arenas and foster relations with development actors in order to forward alternatives that uphold a people-centered, rights-based and climate-resilient development. The network will also be supporting member’s initiatives in monitoring development projects and demanding accountability from development actors in their own contexts. As the peoples of Asia-Pacific confront these challenges, the network will contribute to compelling change that genuinely responds to the needs of the marginalized and forwards a just and sustainable future for all. 

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