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Strengthening the Role of ASEAN in the Regional Governance of SDGs in Southeast Asia


Regional organizations matter in the global governance of SDGs. Even though the SDGs is globally driven and country-led in its implementation, our research demonstrates that regional organizations can constitute an important level of governance in the SDG framework through translating, supporting, coordinating, and monitoring roles. However, the manifestation and the extent to which each regional organization plays these roles may vary depending on its institutional design, its relations with the global institutions, member states’ preferences, the regional socio-cultural contexts, and the presence of other actors in the region.

In Southeast Asia, for example, our research found that ASEAN plays significant translating role as apparent in the Complementarity Initiative to map commonalities between the 2030 Agenda and the ASEAN Community Vision 2025. This initiative aims to help member states to achieve both visions at the same time. ASEAN’s increased partnership with the United Nations (UN) in the past two decades is a crucial factor that enables such initiative. In terms of the supporting role, ASEAN’s role in providing material and financial supports is rather limited and is constrained by its own institutional design as an intergovernmental organization with non-intervention and equality principles. To compensate this limitation, ASEAN so far uses a norm-setting strategy to provide policy supports for member states. ASEAN also capitalizes on its convening power to connect member states with its dialogue partners who potentially become sources of material and financial supports for member states’ development projects, such as the case with the ASEAN-China-UNDP Symposium and the ASEAN-EU Dialogue on Sustainable Development.

As for the coordinating role, ASEAN institutional development under the more integrated ASEAN Community has contributed to more coherent policies and actions including in the issues of SDGs. Internally, Poverty Eradication and Gender Division (PEGD) is the vocal point of coordination within ASEAN. Meanwhile externally, Thailand acts as the ASEAN Coordinator for Sustainable Development Cooperation. It was Thailand’s proposal which led to the Complementarity Initiative and it was also Thailand who initiated a Special Lunch on Sustainable Development as a discussion and coordination forum for ASEAN member states, dialogue partners, and the IMF. Finally, in the area of monitoring, ASEAN’s role is constrained by its limited resources and member states’ preferences to report directly to the High Level Political Forum (HLPF). However, ASEAN still maintains its monitoring role through its own mechanism at the ASEAN Secretariat despite its limitations and its nascent stage.

What does this finding tells us, then, about the role of ASEAN in the regional governance of SDGs in Southeast Asia? First, ASEAN does matter. Many criticized ASEAN as only ‘talk shop’ as it fails to deal with various regional issues due to its limited power and non-interference principle. But our research demonstrates that ASEAN has worked on its limitation and pursued innovative ways to maintain its role in the regional governance of SDGs. Second, the involvement of ASEAN seems to be uneven in the four roles identified in the research, implying that there are rooms for improvement to better position ASEAN in the regional governance of SDGs. Moreover, the UN ESCAP has indicated in 2019 that Southeast Asia is predicted to miss all goals by 2030 if there is no effort to correct the current trend. Our research, therefore, suggests two existing mechanisms that ASEAN may capitalize and develop to strengthen its role in the regional governance of SDGs in Southeast Asia.

The first is the High-Level Brainstorming Dialogue (HLBD) on Enhancing Complementarities between the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 and the United Nations 2030 Agenda. This annual forum was initially convened as a follow up of the Complementarity Initiative, but it is a potentially useful tool for ASEAN to strengthen its roles in the four areas identified in our research. In regard to the translating role, the HLBD clearly helps ASEAN maintain its centrality in safeguarding the complementarity between the global goals and its regional vision. At the same time, this forum has a large number of participants not only from the UN system but also from the ASEAN dialogue partners. In regard to the supporting role, therefore, this forum offers potential supports for ASEAN member states in the forms of policy dialogue, policy guidelines, and institutional supports through the various initiatives emerging from this forum. It also strengthens ASEAN’s coordinating role as it offers a venue for coordinating policies among key actors in the regional governance of SDGs in Southeast Asia. Given the participation of all ASEAN members, the forum could also be a venue for ASEAN to monitor the progress of its member states in implementing the SDGs. Beyond these roles, the HLBD is also a potential tool to answer main challenges of the SDGs governance in Southeast Asia that are related to data availability and funding. The HLBD could be a forum for data sharing and pooling resources to help financing the SDGs in the region. An immediate challenge from developing the HLBD to meet all these roles, however, is in managing the scope of the forum so that it is not becoming another talk shop for ASEAN.

The second existing mechanism that ASEAN can exploit is the ASEAN Forum on SDGs with National Development Planning Agencies ( AFSNDP). Different from the HLBD that represents ASEAN external-horizontal coordination mechanism with other actors in the region, the AFSNDP represents ASEAN internal-vertical coordination mechanism with its own member states. Both forums also differ in terms of the subject of discussion. The HLBD discusses the broad agenda of the SDGs governance in the region with key political actors, meanwhile the AFSNDP discusses the technical implementation of the SDGs with the implementing bodies in each individual states. The AFSNDP, therefore, is a complementing mechanism to the HLBD that could further strengthen ASEAN’s role in all key areas of the SDGs governance. More importantly, the AFSNDP helps ASEAN connect directly to the forefront of the SDGs implementation which is critical to improve ASEAN’s credibility as a regional actor which has long been undermined by its image as a talk shop and elitist organization. The AFSNDP has been only convened once in 2019. Given these potential advantages for ASEAN, AFSNDP should be a mechanism that ASEAN could capitalize and prioritize in its regional policies on the SDGs.

Authors: Charline Depoorter (KUL), Michiel Hoornick (KUL), Axel Marx (KUL), Tirta Nugraha Mursitama (BINUS), Kari Otteburn (KUL), Sukmawani Bela Pertiwi (BINUS), Lili Yulyadi (BINUS)

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