How is Australia contributing to ASEAN’s ambitious development targets?

International Relations Honours student Hayley Winchcombe has spent the last 11 months in Southeast Asia as the inaugural New Colombo Plan ASEAN Fellow. During an internship with the Australian Mission to ASEAN, Hayley had the opportunity to spend a week with the ASEAN-Australia Development Cooperation Program Phase II (AADCP II). 


What is ASEAN actually doing? Why should we care about it?

I spent last week on the inside of the ASEAN Secretariat, the home of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Sitting in the open office of the ASEAN-Australia Development Cooperation Program Phase II, or the AADCP II as it is more commonly known, I gained a new appreciation for the breadth, depth, and impact of ASEAN integration, and of Australia’s role in supporting this.

Before last week, when I thought of ASEAN, I usually pictured something like this:

Political leaders waving at the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit I attended in March.

Huge amounts of work goes on prior to these meetings to build substantive agreements up from Senior Officials Meetings to Leaders Summits. These men and women set the agenda for tackling regional issues and endorse the master plans and work plans for integration across the Political-Security, Economic and Socio-Cultural pillars. They build trust, share knowledge and start regional initiatives to combat challenges such as people trafficking, counter terrorism, poverty and sustainable development.

But sometimes it’s hard to imagine what happens after the fanfare of meetings and glossy leaders’ statements fade from the front page. In a region spanning such a diverse and geographically immense space, it can be hard to see how grand visions such as “ASEAN 2025” are being turned into reality when the rubber hits the road.

Last week I got some glimpses.

I saw leaders’ statements and outcomes-level documents translated down into workable, implementable project streams. I saw how big ideas like “economic integration” can mean little things like ensuring a common standard for raising chickens in safe ways, or sharing best practices to reduce post-harvest losses in dragonfruit and lychee farming so that countries like Lao PDR, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam can export competitively.

I saw how “closing the development gap” between the more advanced ASEAN countries and the newer members is being achieved little by little through small projects such as financial literacy training for micro-enterprises. And those are only a tiny sample of the 76 projects supported by Australia through AADCP II, which itself is only one of several of Australia’s regional programs. The wider body of work encompassed by all the projects being conducted by ASEAN bodies, external partners and countries themselves across all the areas of regional cooperation is constant and unfathomable.

As an intern with AADCP II for the week, I saw firsthand how a small, efficient team can make a big difference in the world.

AADCP II is a unique kind of development cooperation program. Its focus is on ASEAN’s Economic pillar, and it is a demand-driven cooperation program. This means that project proposals come from Desk Officers inside the Secretariat who are working under the Sector Bodies and Working Groups that implement ASEAN work plans. The handful of AADCP II staff work in partnership with the Desk Officers to develop, manage and evaluate projects across their lifetime.

Collaboration occurs across agriculture, financial integration, investment, tourism, services, consumer protection, connectivity, narrowing the development gap and cross-cutting issues. Projects are incredibly diverse; in agriculture, they are supporting ASEAN to establish a framework for mutual recognition of agri-foods whilst in energy they are supporting a feasibility study on ASEAN multilateral power trade being conducted by the International Energy Agency.

AADCP II has played a key role in supporting the development of several strategic documents to guide ASEAN integration. They supported the development of the Initiative for ASEAN Integration’s Work Plan III, which guides internal and external ASEAN efforts to lower the development gap with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. Under connectivity, they supported the hugely influential Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025 along with a suite of videos to communicate its goals, and are continuing to support its implementation with the ASEAN Sustainable Urbanisation Strategy and the World Bank-implemented Rolling Priority Pipeline List of Potential ASEAN Infrastructure Projects.

Another of AADCP II’s projects I found significant is their work to institutionalise a system for monitoring this integration. Most recently they supported the 2017 ASEAN Community Progress Monitoring System (ACPMS) master book and the production of four infographicson inclusive development, narrowing the development gap, connectivity and tariff liberalisation. Through these efforts ASEAN can better understand their progress, and identify gaps that need to be addressed through further efforts.

The infographics illustrate the significant benefits of the ASEAN Community building project thus far, and the huge potential for further benefits and integration into the future. I was particularly struck by the average years of schooling and electricity access rates across the region (from the infographic on inclusive development) and by the steep decline of intra-ASEAN tariffs since 2005.

From the range of AADCP II projects in different phases from proposal and initiation to implementation and completion, I got a sense for the intricacies of the project management cycle. Delays can occur at any point in the process, so having good strategic management and a strong team communication is essential. Furthermore, for projects that are trying to address such broad outcomes as achieving an “integrated economic community”, monitoring and evaluation can be a real challenge. A single project on its own may only go one step of the way to achieving the final outcome. But built into strategic plans with follow on projects which bounce forth from the momentum, projects can have a big effect. It was great to see an examples of this in AADCP II’s “Influence on Consumer Protection Policy” case studies from across the region.

// With Adrian and Irene from AADCP II. Seeing their open and collaborative styles of leadership in action was inspiring. //

Overall, spending time with AADCP II was invaluable for developing my understanding of ASEAN mechanisms, and gave me a taste for how Australia’s development cooperation program are contributing to a peaceful and prosperous region.

Our regional agenda brings benefit to all Australians. Through ASEAN mechanisms Australia is able to contribute to combating regional challenges and ensuring Australia’s key interests in the region are protected. Aside from AADCP II, other Australian supported programs such as the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement (AANZFTA) Economic Support Program (AECSP) have direct benefits for Australia. AECSP implements our free trade agreement with our neighbours, which opens up economic opportunities for exporting successful Australian products, and importing our favourite ASEAN products.

On my last day with the team, just when I thought I had already seen all the major pieces of the puzzle, more layers of complexity were unveiled to me. I attended a workshop run by the ASEAN Secretariat’s project coordination and management body that oversees external partner programs housed within the ASEAN Secretariat. The workshop was for “ASEAN Centres and Entities” which encompasses a whole new book of acronyms. The AHA Centre which coordinates regional disaster response and management, the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity, ASEAN Business Advisory Council, ARMAC (landmines), AIPA, ASEAN-IPR, and others came together to discuss how they could better coordinate between each other and with the ASEAN Secretariat and external partners. It was great to see new collaborative partnerships already beginning to form after the morning’s session.

From my glimpses of the work going on through ASEAN, I can conclude that it is multifarious, flexible, responsive and achieving what it has set out to do. Progress can be slow as not every country faces the same context and challenges. Decisions on regional cooperation are made through a consensus model which requires every member state to agree, sometimes limiting scope and speed. But with regional cooperation the ASEAN Member States are achieving more than they could on their own. Australia’s programs are directly helping our neighbours to achieve a peaceful, prosperous and secure region. This will only create greater opportunities in the decades to come.

Now when I think of ASEAN, I think of all the people around the region and all the work going on day by day to improve lives, lift development, boost prosperity and address challenges together to make everyone’s life a better one.

When I ask myself, does ASEAN matter? I can confidently say it does. From working to build standards on animal husbandry or to support micro, small and medium enterprises, to working to close development gaps and increase connectivity, it matters. From the outside it can be hard to see, but work is constant to promote development and improve lives throughout the region.

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I’m incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity and would like to thank the AADCP II team: Adrian, Irene, Pat, Catherine, Fithri and Arlene for having me. My thanks go to the ASEAN Secretariat staff who let me sit in on meetings and workshops, to the Australian Mission to ASEAN for supporting me in my internship and of course to the New Colombo Plan initiative and staff for making my regional experience possible.

For more on AADCP II check out their website or twitter @theAADCP2.

You can check out all of Australia’s work with ASEAN through the Mission’s website and keep up to date with Ambassador to ASEAN Jane Duke’s twitter @AusAmbASEAN.

To find out more about ASEAN’s work across the region you can visit their website or find them as @ASEAN on FacebookTwitterYoutube or Instagram.

To apply for the New Colombo Plan, head to the website and check out these great tips from fellow NCP scholar Julian Vidal.

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