Asia Pacific is the fastest-growing economic region in the world. Yet effective democratic governance continues to be a serious challenge in many countries, particularly given the demands of a global economy plus pressure from citizens for increased transparency and participation. In many countries, governments struggle to implement and sustain effective policies and programs, and weak governance has constrained the achievement of development objectives.
As a whole, the region has made considerable progress in meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) for reducing poverty, achieving gender parity in primary and secondary education, and providing access to clean water in rural areas. Yet many countries have not met MDG targets for child mortality; maternal health; the fight against HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; and environmental sustainability.
In 2008, the East-West Center initiated a multi-year Asia Pacific Governance and Democracy Initiative (AGDI) that concentrates on bolstering national and regional institutional and leadership capacities by focusing on important dimensions of democratic governance. Over the years, the Initiative has brought together government and civil-society leaders from countries in the region to discuss critical aspects of democratic governance. Many of these meetings have resulted in books designed to share state-of-the-art thinking on governance issues with a wider audience within the region and around the world.
To complement the East-West Center’s resources and expertise, activities are designed and implemented in partnership with a wide range of regional, national, and global institutions. Over the years, these activities have been funded by a consortium of multilateral and bilateral donors.
Urban governance for sustainable development in Asia
Cities in Asia are on the forefront of economic, social, political, information, and technological change. At the same time, they are often characterized by poverty and inequality, deteriorating quality of the environment, and enormous deficiencies in access to basic urban services—including water supply, sanitation, shelter, waste management, energy, transport, and health.
A consortium of six leading national institutions in Asia have collaboratively designed a multi-year project on Urban Governance for Sustainable Development with support from the East-West Center and international development partners including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UNHABITAT and Cities Alliance. The goal is to improve the governance of Asia's cities by strengthening the capacities of government entities, civil-society organizations, and training and research institutions through country studies, regional dialogue, trend analysis, and country-anchored city consultations. Participating national institutions are:
- Department of Urban Planning, Tongji University, China
- Regional and City Planning Department, Bandung Institute of Technology, Indonesia
- National Institute for Urban Affairs (NIUA), India
- Department of Public Administration, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh
- Urban Unit, Pakistan
- Jesse M. Robredo Institute of Governance, De La Salle University, Philippines
The project seeks to promote sustainable urban development in Asia by focusing on four sets of governance challenges:
- Service delivery and access
- Environment and climate-change adaptations
- Urban planning and land use
The project partners will undertake analyses at the city, national, and regional levels leading to policy-relevant knowledge products. They will also promote dialogue and exchange among urban governance stakeholders, including mayors, urban planners, the private sector, civil-society organizations, and government officials. Another goal is to inform urban policy through national forums and policy briefs to bring about sustainable urban development. The project will contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 of the 2030 Agenda of Sustainable Development—to make cities and towns inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.
A workshop on Urban Governance and Access to Services in Asian Cities, held in Bangkok, Thailand, 28-29 September 2015, contributed to the design of this multi-year regional program. The first main activity of the project was a Regional Workshop on Urban Governance for Sustainable Development: Access to Services for Social Equity, held in July 2016 as one of the parallel events of the Third PrepCom for UN-HABITAT III in Surabaya, Indonesia. The regional workshop produced a book that will be published by Springer Publications in Singapore. Two project activities were planned for 2017: A workshop on Internal Migrants to Cities in Asia, that was organized in partnership with the Pacific Basin Research Institute and held in Honolulu on 17–18 March 2017; and an Asian Conference on Peri-Urbanization, to be held in Shanghai in partnership with Tongji University, China, on 8–10 May 2017.
As part of the focus on urban governance, a new study on Political and Social Inclusion and Local Democracy in Asian Cities: Cases from Indonesia, India and Vietnam will enhance knowledge and understanding about structural and institutional barriers that impede inclusiveness, participation, and equity within urban communities. This project will also look at the potential role of the United Nations' Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) as a global platform to promote people-centered development.
Political transitions and cross-border governance
In collaboration with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), AGDI conducted a Regional Workshop on Political Transitions and Cross-Border Governance, held in Mandalay, Myanmar, 17–20 February 2015. Driven by the recent uneven history of democratic deepening in the region, the workshop yielded valuable insights about the state of democratic institutions, norms, practices, and implications for a potential UNDP Regional Program. The workshop also produced three policy briefs based on the discussions that took place, current research, and papers commissioned for the project:
Featured Earlier Activity: Civil-Society Engagement in Democratic Change
Civil-society organizations in the Asia Pacific region play a vital role in promoting inclusive governance at the local, national, and global levels. At the local level, civil-society organizations have been particularly active in mobilizing against privatizations that they perceive serve business interests rather than the interest of the population at large. At the national level, civil-society organizations perform watchdog functions to improve the quality of electoral and parliamentary processes and the responsiveness of parliamentarians to the interests of minorities, the poor, and marginalized groups. At the global level, civil-society organizations advocate on issues such as debt relief, climate change, implementation of United Nations conventions and treaties on civil and political rights, transparency in global governance, and increased foreign assistance from the donor community.
AGDI held a Workshop on Civil Society Engagement in National and Global Governance on 14-16 June 2008. It was sponsored by the East-West Center, Harvard University's Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the United Nations University, and the Soka University of America. Discussion was based on a country-specific analysis framework for civil-society engagement that included the history and patterns of growth of civil-society organization, their legal framework, their capacity to fulfill their mission, and their upward and downward accountability. The workshop:
- Identified innovations and good practices
- Discussed country experiences in China, Japan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Pacific Islands, and the Philippines
- Reviewed the role of civil society in global public goods, including debt relief, human-rights promotion, climate change and environmental sustainability, and cross-border corruption
- Examined civil society’s capacities, accountability, constraints, and opportunities to promote inclusive governance at national and global levels
This project led to the publication of a book-length study, Engaging civil society: Emerging trends in democratic governance, edited by G. Shabbir Cheema and Vesselin Popovski and published in 2010 by the United Nations University Press in Tokyo. The book examines the changing roles of civil society in global and national governance and identifies factors that influence the effectiveness of civil society in promoting democratic governance. It asks: To what extent and how has global civil society influenced global governance and democratic change? What have been the patterns of growth of civil society in Asia and Africa including the legal frameworks under which civil-society organizations are established? What are the capacity gaps of the civil society vis-à-vis its assumed roles? What are the mechanisms for the horizontal and vertical accountability of civil society? And how and with what effect has civil society been engaged in promoting democratic change and inclusive governance?
In connection with the workshop, AGDI also produced a policy brief, Governance through civil society engagement in Asia, published by the United Nations University. This short publication explores how the structures and functions of civil society have evolved at the global, regional, national, and local levels and recommends sustainable ways to build capacities and improve the quality of governance.
Other Earlier Project Components
William Ascher, Garry D. Brewer, G. Shabbir Cheema, and John M. Heffron (2016). The evolution of development thinking: Governance, economics, assistance, and scurity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Asia Pacific Governance and Democracy Initiative (AGDI). 2015. Building democratic institutions, norms, and practices. Regional Workshop on Political Transitions and Cross‐Border Governance Policy Brief 1. Honolulu: East-West Center.
Asia Pacific Governance and Democracy Initiative (AGDI). 2015. Realizing expectations for social and economic opportunities. Regional Workshop on Political Transitions and Cross‐Border Governance Policy Brief 2. Honolulu: East-West Center.
Asia Pacific Governance and Democracy Initiative (AGDI). 2015. Addressing internal conflicts and cross-border governance. Regional Workshop on Political Transitions and Cross‐Border Governance Policy Brief 3. Honolulu: East-West Center.
Cheema, G. Shabbir, ed. 2013. Democratic local governance: Reforms and innovations in Asia. Tokyo: United Nations University Press.
Cheema, G. Shabbir, and Popovski, Vesselin, eds. 2010. Engaging civil society: Emerging trends in democratic governance. Tokyo: United Nations University Press.
Cheema, G. Shabbir, and Popovski, Vesselin, eds. 2010. Building trust in government: Innovations in governance reform in Asia. Tokyo: United Nations University Press.
Cheema, G. Shabbir, McNally, Christopher A., and Popovski, Vesselin, eds. 2010. Cross-border governance in Asia: Regional issues and mechanisms. Tokyo: United Nations University Press.
Clark, Allen. 2010. The changing nature of urban risk. In Workshop on urban risk. Taipei: Tapei Disaster Management Center.
Popovski, Vesselin, Cheema, G. Shabbir, Lowry, Cameron, and Notaras, Mark. 2008. Governance through civil society engagement in Asia. Policy Brief No. 7. Tokyo: United Nations University.