ASEAN Ministers Workshop 2017: Navigating the Headwinds of Sustainable Development in ASEAN

On April 25 and 26 of 2017, the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development (JSC) at Sunway University brought together planning ministers and leading experts from the ASEAN countries and Australia to brainstorm over the best way forward in accelerating the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the 193 UN member countries. The workshop hosted three plenary sessions and three parallel sessions, as well as an open dialogue session, all of which were aimed at making conversations on SDGs as inclusive as possible.

Prof Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, as an intellectual leader in the area of sustainable development and chair of the centre, gave two lectures that bookended the workshop: at the beginning of the first day, to spur high-quality interlocution from the workshop participants; and at a public lecture on the evening of the same day, to provide illumination on the urgency of the SDGs to the contemporary world.

Professor Sachs used his opening keynote to challenge all the workshop participants to turn the idealism of the SDGs into workable solutions for addressing global and regional problems. The SDGs have been introduced to carry on the torch of sustainable development first set out in the Millennium Developmental Goals (MDGs) while correcting for the weaknesses of the latter.

Despite the detailed 169 targets and 232 indicators that were set out to aid the world governments in formulating and consolidating their national development plans to ensure alignment with sustainability metrics, the translation from theory to practice is highly complex and requires the contribution of different expertise and consideration of the short and long-term.

The speakers at the plenary sessions encompassed ministerial leaders from the participating countries. They included: Datuk Seri Abdul Rahman bin Dahlan, minister in charge of the Economic Planning Unit at the Malaysian Prime Minister’s department; Undersecretary Dr. Rosemarie G. Edillon from the Philippines’ National Development Office for Policy and Planning; Mr Saleumxay Kommasith from the Foreign Ministry of Lao PDR; Dr Bambang Brodjonegoro, Minister of National Development Planning of Indonesia; Dr Somkiat Triratpan, secretary to the Minister attached to the Prime Minister’s Office in Thailand; and Mr Phillip Green, First Assistant Secretary of the Southeast Asia Mainland and Regional Division of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The workshop provided the space for government leaders and various community stakeholders to collaborate in finding solutions to the problems they face collectively, therefore serving as a platform for encouraging regional thinking in addition to addressing domestic requirements. Presentations from ASEAN representatives such as Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Thailand, Vietnam, and Singapore included the accomplishments and challenges faced by each country, and how each is moving towards fulfilling Agenda 2030. Despite the limitations on available resources and a need to balance between conflicting demands that could stymy the smooth implementation of developmental programmes, all representatives affirmed their countries’ commitment to the SDGs.  

Throughout the workshop, critical areas were discussed from national and transnational perspectives, including: the governance of natural resources; responses to the effects of climate change and resulting natural disasters; the preservation of the ecosystems on land and under water; public health; and inequities. It was acknowledged that for the bigger ASEAN countries, especially with significant numbers in the hinterlands, issues of poverty and inequities were the result of fragmentation in governance stemming from decentralisation; poor communication between central and peripheral governments; and bottlenecks in information flow. At the same time, the least developed countries also face the problem of not having sufficient data to help them make informed choices on how to pursue their developmental priorities.

The ASEAN ministerial representatives brought to the fore important national considerations in implementing the SDGs.

  • Dr Bambang Brodjonegoro from Indonesia reminded the audience of the necessity of setting realistic goals and understanding what those goals entail. He cited the example of aiming for clean water versus drinkable water, something which most ASEAN countries still struggle with because a large number of its populations still live in unsanitary conditions with limited access to clean water, let alone drinkable water.
  • Undersecretary Rosemarie G Edillon from the Philippines spoke of the incommensurability between the priorities of political regimes that are limited by the terms of their tenure and the need for continuity and long-term planning for the successful deployment of developmental projects.
  • Mr Saleumxay Kommasith spoke of how Lao PDR has an additional SDG due to an urgent need rid one-third of its territory of a substantial number of unexploded landmines; as well as the difficulties the country faces in terms of access to education and economic opportunity.
  • Datuk Seri Abdul Rahman Dahlan spoke of the integration of the SDGs into the six strategic thrusts of the Eleventh Malaysian Plan and the developmental milestones Malaysia has achieved. Along with a number of ministerial representatives from ASEAN, Malaysia will be reporting its progress and milestones in their meeting of the SDGs at the upcoming High-Level Political Forum taking place in New York in July. 
  • Mr Phillip Green spoke of Australia’s developmental aid and transfer of knowledge to regions within Southeast Asia in need of critical intervention and external support; and the importance of innovation and adaptation to cultural and local conditions in the implementation of their developmental aid projects.

Among other provocative issues raised during the workshop were:

  • how the public and private sectors could link up for mutual benefit and the benefit of their communities;
  • how to incorporate behaviour modification in society into sustainable development plans, especially in view that many sustainability practices require people to put up with short-term inconveniences for longer-term rewards; and
  • how to interpret the seemingly conflicting data regarding energy technologies, energy use and the harnessing of renewable and clean energy.

The workshop ended with a dialogue between members of the audience and expert panellists on the way forward in the tackling the SDGs at multiple levels.  Professor Sachs took the opportunity to chart out some of the priority areas that will be led by JSC in the coming year, especially for serving as a resource centre on sustainability development in ASEAN. These included:

  • embarking on an ASEAN Research Programme
  • development of a Master’s Program on Sustainable Development Practice
  • delivery of executive training programmes
  • development of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) with a focus on ASEAN
  • hosting important annual events and conferences