Whilst much attention has been given to the celebration of the fortieth birthday of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an equally important institution crucial to the building of an ASEAN community, the ASEAN Foundation, reached its tenth anniversary recently.
The ASEAN Foundation (AF) was set up as a result of an increasing realization among the political elites of the region of the need to raise the awareness of ASEAN among its citizens. During the Fifth ASEAN Summit, in 1995, ASEAN leaders decided that the consciousness of the spirit and identity embodied in ASEAN should be instilled among the general population of the region, particularly the younger generation. As a result, AF was established on 15 December 1997 with this as one of its primary goals.
Since then, the objectives of AF have included the improvement of livelihoods and well-being of the people of Southeast Asia, the promotion of ASEAN awareness and people-to-people contact through academic and professional exchanges to mention a few. In addition, AF has also been mandated to act as one of the instruments to address unequal economic development, poverty alleviation, and socio-economic disparities in the region. It is for this reason that, as the grant-giving arm for specifically ASEAN socio-cultural co-operation activities, AF has provided US$ 16 million for some 100 projects over the past decade in the areas of social development, culture and information, environment, and science and technology.
Despite the noble and challenging roles that were given to AF, more attention and priority should be accorded to the Foundation by ASEAN member governments as well as its various dialogue partners and supporters of the organization. The tenth anniversary of AF should be the time for ASEAN elites and the other relevant parties to reflect on the crucial contribution that the AF is capable of making to help achieve the goals of the ASEAN Leaders of creating an ASEAN Community by 2015.
It is probably worth reiterating why the AF should receive the attention it deserves. To date, AF is probably one of the ASEAN-related bodies that have been given the most challenging tasks, sometimes even difficult to quantify. It is supposedly an institution to help address the multi-farious needs of the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community, one of the three pillars in the ASEAN community building framework.
In a recent interview with the Asia Views (December 2007 / January 2008), the new ASEAN Secretary General, Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, even reiterated that the socio-cultural pillar of ASEAN co-operation is not only the most exciting, but also the pillar that could either make or break ASEAN. He also further argued that this area of co-operation has not been given much attention throughout ASEAN's existence.
The support that ASEAN member countries and other partners should lend to AF is also due to the reference in the newly signed ASEAN Charter for the Foundation to play a more prominent role in the engagement process between ASEAN and various stakeholder groups in the region. The future activities of AF are likely to be more challenging as a result of the provisions indicated in the ASEAN Charter which stipulates in Article 15 that the role of AF is to support the ASEAN Secretary General and relevant ASEAN bodies in the area of ASEAN community building efforts through close collaboration with the private sector, academia, and civil society groups, among others. Also under the Charter, AF is made accountable to the ASEAN Secretary General who is expected to submit its report regarding the progress and achievements of the Foundation to the ASEAN Summit, which is the highest decision-making body in the ASEAN structure.
The role that AF should serve as a bridge between ASEAN and the broader societal constituents is not necessarily new as AF has been pursuing this since its establishment, albeit at a smaller scale. The major difference that the ASEAN Charter brings to AF is that its roles and activities are likely to be more intensive as well as extensive. In other words, under the new Charter, AF will be tasked to make the people of the region perceive and appreciate the value and benefit of ASEAN more concretely.
Given these developments, AF now has to think beyond its existing framework. In the past, AF has given much attention to supporting the human resources types of activities, as well as some pro-active initiatives, such as on youth and corporate social responsibility (CSR), mainly through conferences, seminars, and training workshops among the traditional mainstream groups (i.e. academic experts, government officials, and some private sector representatives). In the coming years, AF must re-emphasize and expand its activities in the areas of: (1) awareness raising on ASEAN; and (2) networking towards the ASEAN Community building to include a broader range of stakeholders and partners.
To start with, the awareness creating efforts must include initiatives to improve the existing networking of AF, as well as extending support for groups in such sectors as tourism, media and communications and the wider civil society groups whose outputs have a multiplier effect in the community at large. AF must, therefore, adopt an ‘enabling the enabler' strategy where it focuses on the outreach component. Simply put, AF can no longer just target a selected group of civil society members and / or networks in its activities.
As a result, networking towards the ASEAN community building will have to include civil society sectors and segments, such as workers or trade unions, peasants, fisherfolks, rural women, urban poor, informal sector, the homeless, the elderly and disabled, women, children, youth, indigenous peoples, human rights defenders, etc. AF can, for instance, lend its support to regional sectoral and / or thematic meetings to address and foster the notion of ASEAN Community building amongst these groups. In essence, AF will have to create spaces and opportunities for people to be able to operationalise the AF slogan of "think, feel, and act ASEAN" and realize how they and the Association could work hand in hand together towards a more peaceful, prosperous and harmonious Southeast Asia.
The tenth anniversary of AF should therefore provides an ideal opportunity for all concerned to reflect on the past, present, and future contributions of AF and the other relevant parties to the betterment of the Southeast Asian region. One thing is for certain - AF is an integral part of the community-building effort that ASEAN is pursuing. Consequently, it is probably worthwhile for ASEAN policy-makers as well as other friends and partners of ASEAN to consider improving the resources - human, financial and otherwise - provided to AF in order to put it in a more sustainable and firm footing commensurate with the crucial tasks that it is mandated to perform.
About the author:
Dr. Alexander C. Chandra is a regional observer on ASEAN affairs. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org