Sustainable Development in ASEAN: Towards More Inclusivity?

By: Zeeda Mohamad - 2014-06-27


Due to its environmental historico-ethical genesis, sustainable development (SD) has been shaped by the predominant concerns in finding a balance between economic development and ecological sustainability – with lesser emphasis on the social development pillar. The latter is usually seen ‘in context’ to the former, rather than a priority in itself. For instance, in dealing with the sustainability challenge of Climate Change, major decisions are mainly determined by issues pertaining to natural resource use, carbon emissions, and their impact to economic growth. While social impacts of climate change, e.g. poverty eradication and human well-being, are predominantly shaped by decisions already made on these overarching economic-cum-environmental priorities. Another similar trend is in the move by Malaysia (KETTHA, 2010) and Singapore (Tay, 2012) in using “green technology” as a new engine of growth to drive their future economic development. Partly, this is influenced by increasing international emphasis on moving towards a green economy (UNESCAP, 2012, 2012, OECD, 2010; RIO+20 Website). Although this trend is commendable from an environmental economics point of view, it also raises an important question on how far the issue of social development (including aspects of inclusive development) can be adequately incorporated into the overall implementation of the SD. How can we ensure that the issues of fairness and inclusivity are properly addressed, when facing looming environmental and economic challenges on the horizon? 


“Green growth” can be defined as “maximizing economic growth and development, while avoiding unsustainable pressure on the quality and quantity of natural assets” (OECD, 2011). “Inclusive development” refers to strategies that address economic and social inequalities, and exclusion by providing marginalized and vulnerable people and groups with the opportunity to contribute to the process and benefit from its outcomes (Chairatana & Carrillo, 2012). The three scenarios in this article will be based on how the future of the “Green Economy” agenda will be shaped, based on the different levels in which the issue of inclusive development will be addressed. The scenarios will be divided into three categories: Expectable, Challenging and Visionary (Bezold, 2009).[1] In developing the scenarios, I take inspiration from two classic frameworks: the “Ladder of Citizen Participation” by Sherry R. Arnstein (1969) and the “Ladder of Sustainable Development” by Baker (2006). The scenarios will take their departure from Malaysia as the primary example of the South East Asian context. 

Challenging: Non-inclusive Green Economy 

Green technology and climate change policies in countries like Malaysia are being implemented vociferously by policymakers, but the focus is more on using sustainability issues to support the country’s vision to achieve its high income country status by 2020. The strategy is to use green science and technologies as the latest catalyst for economic catching-up, especially in attracting more foreign direct investments (FDIs) and participation in the growing export market for green products. For example, in the context of Climate Change, more investment has been made to develop and commercialize technologies for global climate mitigation, but less effort has been put in place to tackle the more local issue of enabling local communities to adapt to the impact of climate change. As a way to speed-up decision making in accordance with their economic growth priorities, governments tend to manipulate and influence the views of their citizens (especially those who are marginalized) by placing them on advisory committees for the express purpose of “educating” them or engineering their support. Efforts on inclusivity remain a public relations vehicle by policymakers and the elites. Decision making is mostly top-down with very limited/superficial dialogue between state and the civil society. 

Expectable: Partially Inclusive Green Economy 

Governments in Southeast Asia have the intention and are conducting actual strategies to balance the environmental and economic dimension of sustainable development strategies with inclusive development. There are many efforts, at least on paper, to link top-down policies with programs on public participation and bottom-up solutions, with special attention on looking into the plight of poor people and the marginalized. Catching-up, as often reiterated in political statements, should not only be about achieving high-income, but also protection of the natural environment and enhancing the livelihoods of all citizens. Consequently, in dealing with climate change, attention is given equally to both mitigation and adaptation. There have also been open dialogues for citizens to envisage alternative futures for sustainability. However, these promising policy statements and programmes seem to fall short of their aspirations, as a high degree of ‘tokenism’ is being observed on the ground. Although citizens may be proffered by the power-holders to participate in decision making through various participatory platforms, citizens lack the power to insure that their views will be heeded by policymakers. Since participation is restricted to these levels, there is no follow-through, hence no assurance of changing much of the status quo. The ground rules may allow citizens from various levels to offer their opinions – but power holders retain the primary right to decide. 

Visionary: Highly Inclusive Green Economy 

Sustainability with inclusive development is the main agenda of most countries in Southeast Asia. Policies (as mentioned in the previous scenario) are not merely on paper, but are seriously implemented on the ground. National and regional sustainability-related policies are based on both top-down and bottom-up solutions, with a strong institutional framework to ensure effective integration and cooperation between different stakeholders to take place. Decentralization and citizen power are gaining strong acceptance in policy making. The role of green technology in the SD is not only perceived as the domain of the scientific elites and industrialists, but is also well appreciated by the public. In fact, members of the scientific community, the private sector and civil society work together with communities in an inter-disciplinary way (combining both formal and non-formal knowledge), to create holistic and sustainable programs that are economically, socially, and environmentally viable to the local context. This includes creative localized solutions for climate mitigation and adaptation. 

Due to the high level of trust necessary, the task of implementation and continuous improvement are shared and ensured by various partners. Politically, the ideas of economic catching-up that are ecologically sound and socially inclusive are also gaining acceptance by a large majority of the populace, and this agenda is becoming a strong determining factor for election results in most countries in the region. There are strong sentiments supporting the notion that a high-income country with a deteriorating natural environment and a failing social structure is unacceptable, and will eventually collapse. Hence, it is not the speed, but the ‘quality’ of growth that matters. Interestingly, unlike in the past, the citizens of Southeast Asia seem to share a deep ethos for the SD, and are leading the sustainability movement in the global scene. 


In the challenging vision, countries would tend to repeat similar mistakes from the past, where economic growth does not commensurate with genuine accumulation of technological and dynamic capabilities that are necessary for long-run competitiveness. This is because policymakers and businesses, due to their lopsided understanding of SD, have been less creative in creating lasting and holistic eco-socio-economic value from the new era of the green economy. National per-capita income may rise, but remains volatile due to its dependence on external economic forces, i.e. FDIs and the export market. Profits, new knowledge, and improvement in livelihoods only benefit certain sections of the community, and do not trickle down to the masses. This can create distrust and lack of cooperation among citizens, resulting into low confidence in the value of the green economy. 

In the foreseeable vision, most achievements of the green economy are based on what has already been pre-planned by the governments of each country, with little injection of creative ideas from citizens. However, all is not lost, due to the existence of a clear policy framework for inclusive development, there is at least some institutional basis for pockets of real linkages and trust between top-down and bottom-up efforts to emerge – especially by those who are more visionary and creative in looking beyond the status quo, both from the part of the policymakers and general citizens. These pockets of social experiments can become a nurturing ground for a more holistic green economy. However, the impact of such efforts can be limited and too scattered, and it is uncertain whether the experiments are strong enough to influence the dominant institutional regime to move beyond ‘partiality’. 

Finally, the visionary scenario envisions an ASEAN region with a deep ethos on the SD, with countries being able to reap lasting value from their entry into the green economy. Through broad social participation in this new economy, many creative solutions are being applied to address pressing and difficult problems faced regionally, nationally, and within local communities. Due to the high trust that exists between different stakeholders, there is stronger commitment to follow-through on these solutions. In addition, the increasing public demand for the SD can lead to a stronger political will to set-up and carry out conducive policies and the institutional framework. The formation of green markets, social entrepreneurs, trans-disciplinary knowledge networks, green businesses, and a deeper sense of public and corporate responsibility can also flourish, and become the norm rather than the exception. Under such a condition, one could now foresee the ASEAN region becoming a strong hub for entrepreneurial experimentation and innovation for the green economy. 

Obviously, the three scenarios and their implications are a simplification, but it helps to illustrate the point that different gradations of inclusive development can influence how far the SD could be achieved in the region. This article tries to elucidate the point that “inclusivity” is an integral part of the green economy, and cannot be tackled superficially by policy makers if ‘sustainable’ development is to be a reality. Inclusivity may require more effort and time, but it will eventually provide a more lasting and creative impact to the region as the knowledge, skills, aspirations and efforts by various groups in the region are harnessed and combined to mobilize the efforts needed for sustainability to take place. 



- The institutional framework for participatory processes has been given increasing importance since it was endorsed as a legitimate process in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development in 1992 (Lawrence, 2011). This framework has been further enhanced and strengthened by the Aarhus Convention in 1998. Such an institutional platform, if strategically employed, could provide useful support in legitimizing transdisciplinarity approaches, bottom-up movements, and community-based knowledge networks. 

- Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) is increasingly viewed as an important group in society that needs to be uplifted, while being simultaneously a potential multi-million market (IBoP Asia, 2012). The former has led to the rise of social entrepreneurs, while the latter has influenced a number of companies, big and small, to deepen the meaning of corporate responsibility – redefining businesses to become more inclusive of the needs of the poor. 

- The emergence of Sustainability Science as a new inter- and trans-disciplinary field of knowledge (Komiyama et al, 2011). The establishment of the “Sustainability Science” journal and strong networking in the field among researchers at a number of leading universities (such as Harvard University, University of Tokyo, and several European universities) has strengthened the prospects that this trend will be further strengthened. Trans-disciplinary research approaches such as Action Research are also gaining recognition. 

- The Southeast Asian region, with an estimated population of 600 million, is anticipated to join the ranks of China and India as a major economic growth force in Asia should its constituent countries succeed in integrating their economies by 2015. If the ASEAN regional economic integration agenda goes beyond economic objectives and taps into the region’s unique social and cultural wealth, tackling the issue of inclusivity will be one of our greatest challenges. Yet, it can also provide ample room for knowledge exchange and innovation. 


-The urgency of dealing with pressing environmental challenges, e.g. climate change mitigation and adaptation (UNFCCC website, 2012), may hasten the move towards non-inclusive green economy and put the preference on top-down and short-term solutions – while undermining the slower process of social inclusion in the ASEAN sustainable development agenda. 

-The rapid rise of China, India and other emerging economies places competitive pressure on ASEAN countries to speed-up their economic catching-up process. Accelerated economic growth through rising income is the main priority in development, with both the environmental and social agendas taking the back seat. 

Competition in university ranking has been pressuring university researchers in ASEAN to place undue emphasis on publication outputs and frontier research, reducing the motivation and opportunities for conducting research and teaching that are more community-based, trans-disciplinary, and action oriented. 

- Corruption and rent-seeking is still an on-going obstacle to national development in most ASEAN countries (Transparency International, 2011). This could reduce the necessary political will to develop, implement and follow-through long-term policies that are more contributive to the welfare and greater good of the community. 



About the Author

Dr. Zeeda Fatimah Mohamad is a senior lecturer and researcher at the Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS), Faculty of Science, University of Malaya. She holds a BSc. in Ecology from the Institute of Biological Sciences, Universiti Malaya; MSc in Environmental Management and Policy from the International Institute of Industrial Environmental Economics (IIIEE), Lund University, Sweden; and MSc and PhD in Science and Technology Policy from SPRU Science and Technology Policy, University of Sussex, United Kingdom. In line with her academic background, Zeeda s research interest is primarily to understand the relationship between the development of science, technology and innovation (STI) and environmental protection, particularly within the context of sustainable development and associated challenges to late-industrialising countries.


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