Sustainable Development Goals and ASEAN Community

This speech was delivered at “SDGs and ASEAN, Sustainable Development Goals and Human Rights as Framework for Conflict Resolution and Mediation: Implications for ASEAN and Malaysia”, 27 Oct 2015 in KL Convention Centre. The event was organised by Global Movement of Moderates (GMM), Society for the Promotion of Human Rights (PROHAM) and Institute of Ethnic Studies-Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (KITA-UKM). You may also find a copy of this speech in UKM Ethnic Studies Paper Series No. 45, February 2016, “Sustainable Development Goals and Malaysia Society: Civil Society Perspectives edited by Denison Jayasooria.


How can Asean promote the realization of SDGs? We are basically hearing the same language of socially responsible, people-oriented and people-centered development in SDGs and Asean. Recognizing that the MDGs might have failed certain people and countries, the 2030 Agenda sets out to “reach the furthest behind first” and concludes with a pledge that “no one will be left behind”.

SDGs are an opportunity for Asean. Asean should utilize the adoption of SDGs to both strengthen and partly refocus their framework for regional integration, as doing so would better serve sustainable development across the region. In practice, this would mean aligning the overall objectives of the Asean Community with those of the SDGs and strengthening this regional framework.

While the establishment of the Asean Community later in 2015 is already a fact, what will actually happen post-2015 in Southeast Asia is not yet clear. In the Naypyidaw Declaration (2014) on Asean’s post-2015 vision, we can see that Asean members decided to “promote development of clear and measurable Asean Development Goals (ADGs) to serve as Asean benchmark for key socio-economic issues”. It is positive to see such a commitment in an open regional declaration; yet, it does not seem to gain much exposure.

First, Asean Community and SDGs both have 2015 as starting date. Many environmental impacts are expected from increased regional economic and social integration in Asean (transboundary/ transnational solutions). Asean could prioritize SDGs as part of their integration post-2015. Second, to also use existing institutional framework but make greater effort at institutional coordination. For example by expanding the two-track approach to plan and implement for future goals and targets.

There have been suggestions such as, to incorporate SDGs using pre-existing mechanisms, to incorporate SDGs into Asean Community Roadmaps (2016-2025) and to establish Asean SDG Expert Committee that sits institutionally across the three blueprints.

There are however several key challenges. One is the financial in term of big investments. Second is the governance issue. Innovations and improvements in governance will be needed at every level. Legislative, and regulatory changes are going to be needed for sustainable development. The whole of government approaches are also needed across economic, social, and environmental decision-making.

Hence, one crucial point that I would like to highlight is the multi-stakeholder participation, which is by increasing the engagement and meaningful involvement of non-state actors in Asean meetings, which directly reflect the spirit of Asean Community. That means, development actors of all kinds will need to work collaboratively across the range of inter-linked SDGs.

In her public lecture entitled, “The SDGs: Key Considerations for a People-Centered Asean” on 19 October in IDFR, Helen Clark, the Administrator of UNDP too particularly emphasized the multi-stakeholders dialogue. Agenda 2030 requires broad coalitions to be formed: of governments – national and local, multilateral and regional organizations, civil society, NGOs, academic and research organizations, and the private sector. This is precisely one of today’s key objectives, which is to establish a Malaysian CSO alliance on SDGs, which I think is a wonderful strategy to start with.

Up to today, there is still little information on ADGs. It would seem that the consultation might only occurs at a high level among Asean member countries. Such region-specific development goals at one hand could provide room for more focused discussions and stronger partnerships in the context of Asean, but they are difficult to facilitate. To this end, the process of defining goals must be transparent, participatory and inclusive. Therefore, the framework of the ADGs and SDGs should be formulated in extensive consultation involving stakeholders at local, national and regional level.

Previously, the MDGs have mainly been handled within the ASCC and institutional links of ASCC with other pillars have been limited. However, in contrast, the future SDGs should be more embedded throughout the three Community Blueprints. Without effective institutional coordination mechanisms, Asean’s institutional response for the SDGs will likely be fragmented and as a result, only able to provide very limited support for national and sub-national implementation.

Therefore, far more attention is needed to addressing governance challenges in term of implementation and monitoring. Currently, the crosscutting nature of SDGs makes it hard to find a “comfortable” fit within current Asean’s structure. Asean’s treatment of the MDGs suggests that with the existing structure, effective coordination will be challenging. The Asean itself is based on three loosely-coordinated Community pillars that are further subdivided into a large number of sectoral ministerial and working group mechanisms, and which also involve a number of different dialogue partners and external non-government stakeholders.


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