Spanning from the southern border of China to Indonesia, and from Myanmar’s coastal rain forests to those of the Philippines lies one of the most dynamic and diverse regions in the world. Southeast Asia is home to a population of more than 675 million people, living in both some of the largest and most vibrant global megalopolis to rural towns and hinterlands. The region’s rapid development has brought many to enhanced standards of living, yet caused many other social tensions, which are now intertwined with the local impacts of global challenges such as climate change and economic inequality. The following report, which has been developed thanks to a conversation with the human rights professional Windi Arini from Jakarta’s Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law Office, aims to bring the region’s social agenda closer to our Catalan and global audience: from Southeast Asia’s social issues and priorities to the role of NGOs in protecting rights and democracy and how to advance towards more effective and meaningful cooperation between territories.
Cover image source: View of Kuala Lumpur by Naim Fadil
Social issues in a diverse region undergoing profound transformations
The rapid development of the region has brought economic opportunity, yet socio-economic issues still define its governance agenda.
Gender inequality remains a persistent issue and thwarts women and girls to benefit fully from economic development and socio-political participation. Urban inequality is particularly acute and local services have limited capacity to provide for the needs of growing populations and the urban poor. These needs are especially related to housing rights, labour inclusion and social and health care, which are often addressed through informal means: informal settlements, economic activities, and caring networks.
Another crosscutting factor behind exclusion and inequality is that of social discrimination based on origin, disability or sexual orientation and gender diversity. These and other factors are often behind structural patterns of poverty, marginalisation and inequality.
The region is also experiencing acute social challenges linked to global issues; chiefly, the local impacts of climate change, which affect both urban populations and rural ones. Many of the region’s largest metropolises are sinking and residents of informal settlements are more prone to suffer from more frequent climate-induced disasters. Residents of rural populations relying on natural resources and whose livelihoods depend on agriculture equally struggle in more adverse climate conditions, causing millions to flee rural areas towards urban centres.
The role of civic participation and solidarity
Civic participation and solidarity have been one of the most relevant responses to these challenges, and the region has seen many social innovation experiences tapping into the power of community organising to address social needs from the bottom-up. If rapid development, climate risks or disasters have outgrown the capacities of governments to provide social protection, community organisation can mobilise essential support to those in need.
As other parts of the world, Southeast Asia is also undergoing a shift in its political landscape which is putting human rights defenders, democratic institutions, and civic space under stress in many countries. COVID-19 undermined the capacities of local NGOs and shifted funding priorities, weakening the structure of many civil society groups and their advocacy work.
A myriad of associative experiences
The regional third sector ecosystem is particularly diverse. Many civil society groups are well organised while other social movements are less institutionalised and more reliant on direct participation by residents or grassroots communities. Out of those institutionalised organisations, a divide can be made by those entities that spawned from the country’s own social or public initiative and those that are more reliant on international funding. Local organisations have a good experience of network organising and forming coalitions.
One of the most relevant functions of these civil society networks remains public advocacy and influencing local and national policy priorities. The region has seen a good consolidation of CSO networks advocating for democracy and human rights, but also more specifically on disability rights, indigenous rights, gender equality, and youth activism. Besides advocacy work, one of the main functions of these networks is to provide better services to members, fostering the sharing of experiences and replicating social innovation patterns in areas like collective finances or slum upgrading.
The ASEAN-EU civil society forum was recently co-chaired by the Jakarta office of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute, and has brought together NGOs from both regions to establish a shared agenda of priorities for policy-making and international cooperation between the two regions. The group list of recommendations includes policy, participation, and governance guidance on: Pandemic & Post Recovery efforts; Militarism and Authoritarianism; and the Climate Crisis.
RWI’s Jakarta office promotes specific linkages between human rights, environment, gender equality, and SDGs through research, direct engagement, and capacity building activities. The Institute produces research and publications to increase discourse on these topics in the region, build capacities of governments and local stakeholders to build a better enabling environment for the realisation of human rights for all.
Priorities for cooperation between Southeast Asia, Catalonia, and the world
Identifying shared challenges and social innovation experiences can give rise to promising, two-way learning experiences between organisations across the region, Catalonia’s third sector and the rest of the world. The global context and rapid transformations are bringing our territories closer and turn third sector cooperation into a more meaningful choice. This is especially relevant for our civic space, characterised by values of solidarity and social function, and which faces rising authoritarianism and inequality as threats to both territories.
In developing relations between organisations, efforts need to made to promote equitable partnerships to make the most of existing capacities and resources to fulfil shared needs and goals and trying to address structural inequalities. A Catalan and Southeast Asia third sector bridge could channel social innovation initiatives led from the civic space to address emerging challenges linked to issues such as housing, gender inequality, care, or non-discrimination.
If you want to know more about RWI’s Asia Pacific Office, you can visit www.rwi.or.id and follow them on social media.