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Jobs, Technology and Multilateralism Hold the Key to ASEAN’s Future

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As the ASEAN region enters an era of accelerating, non-linear change, it must focus on creating jobs and unleashing the potential of technology to propel growth and spread it equitably, according to business leaders and policy-makers at the World Economic Forum on ASEAN.

The information and communications technology (ICT) sector is poised to add $1 trillion to ASEAN GDP by 2027, bringing with it positive spin-offs, such as a revolution in financial technology, e-commerce and improved governance. However, countries need to recalibrate how they regulate the sector, participants were told at a session on South-East Asia and the Big Picture. While some aspects such as data privacy and cyber security need more regulation, others such as fintech require a freer hand.

Jamaludin Ibrahim, Managing Director, President and Group Chief Executive Officer of Asiata Group Berhad, said ASEAN member countries must stop favouring domestic companies in the interest of region-wide development and integration, and called for region-wide removal of roaming charges. “Forty per cent of our population is millennials – their demographic behaviour is adaptable,” he said, adding that policy-makers in each country must reconsider regulation of spectrum, industry structure, incentives, funding, human capital formation and so on. “We can leapfrog if we get national agenda to accelerate change,” he said.

A key lesson for ASEAN from the pushback against globalization and regional integration, such as Brexit, would be to ensure that growth is inclusive and adequately addresses the social dimension. Greta Faremo, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS), said: “ASEAN must build inclusivity and sustainability into its infrastructure and institutions right from the start.” UNOPS is keen to work with governments, she added, as well as the private sector in affordable housing and green energy, where blended finance can be leveraged in areas where banks have traditionally been reluctant to lend.

John Rice, Vice-chairman of GE, said that ASEAN, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has made a success out of a model where borders are points of connection and not barriers to trade, although more work is needed in levelling the playing field for the free flow of capital, including human capital, as well as finance. He pointed out that as the region enters the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it must also prepare its young population for the future: “Every job is going to change. ASEAN must train people to be ready to be flexible, adaptable, and ready for lifelong learning, ready to change as the nature of work and jobs change.”

The need to educate young people for the jobs of the future was echoed by George Yeo, Visiting Scholar at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. “All of ASEAN has a young population who can, with the right education, take to technology like fish to water,” he said. He added that not only is there great scope in high-end sectors such as big data analytics, but at a smaller level, just basic digital literacy can help citizens, societies and economies – through cutting out middle-men to benefit farmers.

Yeo said that technology also can play a key role in improving governance, law and order, as well as health outcomes. He highlighted Cambodia’s Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen’s efforts in improving governance by receiving citizens’ complaints on Facebook. “I checked today and he has crossed 7.7 million followers,” Yeo said, “What it does is, it penetrates through layers of bureaucracy.”

ASEAN’s reluctance to align itself with any one great power is both practical and beneficial. Yeo told participants that the region’s historical memory of its relationship with China has taught it to be multilateral in its approach. He added that between China, the United States and India, ASEAN must remain friendly to everyone and benefit from big economies’ interest in the region’s wellbeing.

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World Bank Launches Stakeholders Consultations to Support Peace in Afghanistan

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The World Bank today launched a stakeholder’s consultation to identify economic initiatives to support and sustain peace in Afghanistan once a potential political settlement is reached with the Taliban.

After completing several consultations with international and Afghan stakeholders, the World Bank is now seeking broader input from all stakeholders and made public several draft documents on its website to facilitate the process.  

At the 2018 Geneva Ministerial Conference on Afghanistan, the World Bank was tasked to support planning for post-settlement economic development projects and programming following discussions.

According to Henry Kerali, the World Bank Country Director for Afghanistan, the consultations will serve several purposes. “First, we want to show that a peace agreement can bring substantial economic benefits to all Afghans and is in the interest of all parties involved in the ongoing conflict. Second, we want to identify potential principles and themes to guide programming decisions following a settlement. Finally, we want to provide some concrete ideas about the kind of programs that could be scaled up or initiated to maintain peace and realize new economic opportunities in Afghanistan.”  

Kerali also noted that the consultations come at a critical time for Afghanistan. “The World Bank is merely providing technical analysis and is not involved in any negotiations; our priority is to plan for the future of Afghanistan. Peace prospects can improve if the right economic conditions are in place and create job opportunities for those who might otherwise take up arms.” Kerali also noted that public input would be vital to ensure effective planning.

The World Bank is inviting comment on three documents now published on its Afghanistan website:

  1. A two-page consultation note;
  2. A short consultation presentation; and
  3. A full technical report.

Consultations are expected to continue until a peace agreement is reached and new programming decisions are made. The public is invited to share comments and questions throughout the process via email or through comments on the relevant website.

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Microplastic pollution is everywhere, but not necessarily a risk to human health

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A woman fetches water in Pakistan. Photo: UNDP Pakistan

Tiny plastic particles known as microplastics are “everywhere – including in our drinking-water”, but they are not necessarily a risk to human health, UN experts said on Thursday.

In its first summary of the latest research into the impact of the tiny plastic pollutants on humans, the World Health Organization (WHO) said that they have been found in marine settings, waste and fresh water, food, the air and drinking-water, both bottled and from a tap.

Frequently, microplastics are defined as less than five millimetres long, according to WHO.

Its report notes that the particles most commonly found in drinking-water are plastic bottle fragments.

“Based on the limited information we have, microplastics in drinking water don’t appear to pose a health risk at current levels. But we need to find out more,” said Dr Maria Neira, WHO’s Director, Department of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health. “We urgently need to know more about the health impact of microplastics because they are everywhere – including in our drinking-water.”

According to WHO’s findings, microplastics larger than 150 micrometres (a micrometre is a millionth of a metre) are unlikely to be absorbed in the human body, while the uptake of smaller particles is likely to be limited. 

Absorption of microplastic particles “including in the nano-size range may, however, be higher”, the WHO report continues, before cautioning that available data in this “emerging area” is extremely limited.

Asked by journalists about how levels of plastic pollutants differ between tap water and bottled water, WHO’s Jennifer de France from WHO’s Department of Public Health, replied that bottled water “in general did contain higher particle numbers”.

Nonetheless, Ms. France also cautioned against jumping to conclusions, owing to the lack of available data.

“In drinking water in general, often the two polymers that were most frequently detected were polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polypropylene,” she said. “Now these polymers – the polyethylene terephthalate – is often used in producing bottled water bottles, and polypropylene, is often used in producing caps. However, there were other polymers detected as well, so more studies are needed to really make a firm conclusion about where the sources are coming from.”

While citing the handful of available studies into the absorption of microplastics and nanoplastics in rats and mice, which showed symptoms including inflammation of the liver, WHO’s report insists that people are unlikely to be exposed to such high levels of pollutants.

Drinking-water contamination: a million lives lost each year

A much more clearly understood potential threat than microplastics is exposure to drinking-water contaminated by human or animal waste, said Bruce Gordon, from WHO’s Department of Public Health, highlighting a problem that affects two billion people and claims one million lives a year.

One way that Governments can tackle this problem is by putting in place better waste-water filtration systems.

The move would reduce microplastic pollution by around 90 per cent, the WHO official explained, before noting that the report had touched on people’s wider concerns about how to live more sustainably and waste less.

“Consumers shouldn’t be too worried,” Mr. Gordon said. “There’s many dimensions to this story that are beyond health. What I mean by that is, if you are a concerned citizen worried about plastic pollution and you have access to a well-managed piped supply – a water supply – why not drink from that? Why not reduce pollution. Of course, there are times when you need a water bottle when you’re walking around, but please reuse it”, he emphasized.

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Brazilian stakeholders of UNIDO-GEF project trained on biogas

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The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovations and Communications (MCTIC), and the International Center of Renewable Energy (CIBiogás) trained members and partners of the Steering Committee of its GEF Biogas project on the biogas value chain in Brazil – a renewable source of energy produced from the decomposition of organic waste generated by various enterprises, such as farms and restaurants.

“The potential use of biogas arises from the need to pursue sustainability in agribusiness; at the same time, it represents an opportunity for local economic development”, said UNIDO Project Management Specialist Bruno Neves. “Organic waste generated by the Brazilian agricultural production can result in economic, social and environmental gains as the benefits of biogas production can both be internalized by producers and be made available in the form of thermal energy, fuel and electricity”.

Representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply (MAPA); the Ministry of Environment (MMA); the Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME); the Ministry of Planning, Development and Management (MP); the Brazilian Micro and Small Business Support Service (SEBRAE); the Energy Research Company (EPE); the Brazilian Cooperation Agency (ABC); the National Agency of Petroleum, Natural Gas and Biofuels (ANP); Itaipu Binacional and the German cooperation agency (GIZ) participated in the training.

“The main objective of the training was to raise the awareness of ministries and important institutional agents about the need to make rules around renewable energy generation more flexible”, said CIBiogas CEO Rodrigo Regis. “Today, Brazil is very dependent on diesel and we have a growing demand for energy, which biogas can partly supply in a decentralized way, and can develop a new economy for the country, thereby generating jobs, income, development and progress”.

The training included a visit to the Itaipu hydroelectric dam and to a demonstration unit supported by CIBiogas: with a breeding of five thousand pigs, the farm is capable of generating 770 cubic meters of biogas per day, resulting in savings of over US$1,000 per month in energy costs.

“The development of biogas is one of MCTIC’s strategic priorities”, said Rafael Menezes, Coordinator of Innovation at the Ministry’s Secretariat for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. “The Brazilian potential for biogas and biomethane production is underexplored; we have to create public policies and a favorable environment so that we can increasingly tap into this potential”.

The GEF Biogas project “Biogas Applications in Brazilian Agroindustry” foresees local and federal actions to stimulate the sustainable integration of biogas in the national production chain. It is financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and aims to expand the production of renewable energy and strengthen national technology supply chains in the sector.

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