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ASEAN in the Emerging Indo-Pacific

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In 2017, the concept of the Indo-Pacific, after it was included in the discourse of regional issues by US representatives, was unofficially framed as the region’s main discussion issue for the coming years. Having appeared in the Indian analytical magazine in 2007, the term “Indo-Pacific” for a long time only remained the subject of scientific discussions and entered the political vocabulary of only a couple of countries of the future region: India, Japan and Australia. At the initial stage of the emergence of the concept, ASEAN countries experienced serious problems of internal contradictions and really could not join the formation of the concept among the first. In 2013, Indonesia, as a country – one of the leaders in the region, presented an “aseanocentric” vision of the concept of “Indo-Pacific.” The proposal was to create a regional organization that includes all the basic principles of ASEAN (“integration”, “mutual understanding”), based on a symbiosis of two existing institutions: the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in Southeast Asia and the Association of East Asian Summit Members. It is not surprising that the proposed construct retained the leading role for ASEAN countries in future decisions of the organization, since it was actually proposed to “bring to a common denominator the heterogeneous and diverse ASEAN external partners» [2]. At the stage of presentation, the path of the “aseanocentric” concept stopped. The main ideas, agendas presented by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Indonesia, Marty Metalegawa, were not included in the discourse-discussion of the concept in the coming years.

If we give an analytical assessment of the approach proposed by Indonesia, on behalf of ASEAN, we can note its all-inclusive nature, where there were no restrictions on the entry of actors (the most striking example is the dualism of the China-USA pair), which at the time of the promotion of the initiative, which of course was perceived by most countries as anti-Chinese, the idea of forming a future concept fell somewhat out of the general trend of the movement of thought. Considering that in the years following the presentation of the concept by Indonesia, the confrontation between the USA and China only increased, it is not surprising that the «aseanocentric» version of Indo-Pacific seemed inappropriate to potential participants in the future concept. At the same time, the lack of economic opportunities for ASEAN countries to advance the initiative was superimposed on this.

Difficulties in embedding discourse

It is obvious that after the rejection of the “aseanocentric” initiative, the ASEAN countries found themselves in a dependent position on the will of other participants in the dialogue on the formation of a future concept. The absence of the agenda of the Southeast Asian countries in the formation of the future Indo-Pacific concept on the following provisions, which will negatively affect the position of ASEAN countries in the creation of Indo-Pacific.

As early as 2017, ASEAN countries were turned off from a direct discussion of the concept of “Indo-Pacific.” So during the four-way dialogue on the security of the region, among whose participants were the USA, Japan, Australia, India, not a single Southeast Asian country was invited. The lines on the application of the principle of “ASEAN centrality” in shaping the future concept in the final communiqué following the discussion looked all the more ironic [3]. The very format of the meeting, where in the presence of a significant number of regional, time-tested institutions, including ASEAN, this institution was chosen as the venue for the meeting (the four-way dialogue on security cannot be considered one of the main regional venues in the region), which did not include Southeast Asian countries, ASEAN’s potential reduced role in Indo-Pacific.

However, when discussing the non-inclusion of ASEAN countries in the process of adopting the concept of future Indo-Pacific, it is worthwhile to dwell in detail on the chronic internal problems of the organization, especially with regard to the process of developing a unified, consolidated position on any issue. The decision-making problem has already led to the “informality” being proclaimed as the main principle of ASEAN organization, since there are few official situations where the parties could agree on problematic issues (from unsuccessful examples: ASEAN position on SCS, standardization of tariff restrictions) [4]. As part of the ASEAN internal affairs, this lack of maturity is explained not only by the system of consensus decision-making established in the organization (when one abstaining is enough for the decision not to be made), but also by the constant desire for political diversification of previous agreements (example: despite the fact that ASEAN has been a long time trying to build a common market, most of the organization’s states are openly oriented to third markets, which diverges from official political statements and blocks promotion proposed “aseanocentric” initiatives) [5].

A very sensitive internal moment for the ASEAN countries in building the concept of Indo-Pacific is the orientation of the initiating countries to the principles of “freedom” and “democracy” in internal political life, which share the concept of countries. This is a very well-founded fear, since most of the ASEAN countries can be classified as hybrid regimes that combine the practice of democracy and authoritarianism. ASEAN countries that are historically sensitive (“postcolonial syndrome”) to any attempt to influence sovereignty (which at one time even made them completely abandon the idea of creating supranational political institutions) are absolutely reasonably alarmed by the potential changes in the internal political structure that the design of the Indo-Pacific concept can bring.

The main foreign policy concern of the ASEAN countries, in connection with their participation in the development of the Indo-Pacific concept, is the potential possibility of losing China, which is the region’s main economic partner. In the presentation of the main initiators of the USA and Australia, carries a clear anti-Chinese message, which automatically puts all countries that have joined this interpretation of the concept into a situation of potential deterioration in relations with Beijing in the event of a diplomatic dialogue-explanation.

Second ASEAN Vision of Indo-Pacific

Obviously, realizing the danger of developing the final concept of Indo-Pacific without them, ASEAN in 2018-2019 stepped up in terms of developing a unified position of the organization on this issue.

The first attempt to present the “aseanocentric” vision of Indo-Pacific took place at the 13th EAC Summit in Singapore in November 2018. Recognizing the vacuum created by ASEAN’s almost 5-year-old lack of work on the Indo-Pacific concept, the proposal put forward was the most general and included some points that the concept initiators had already tuned for in 2017, namely: “mutual trust and respect”, “centrality ASEAN”,“inclusiveness”,“transparency” [6]. Thus, ASEAN tried to competently enter into the discourse of the formation of the concept by stating some statements that would not cause disagreement between the initiators of the concept. However, in making such a vague proposal, the ASEAN countries once again demonstrated their inability to declare their own position and draw up the boundaries of problematic issues. In the academic community, such an ASEAN speech raised many questions and led to the formation of a public conviction about the transformation of the Southeast Asian region into an arena of rivalry between the great powers [7].

Understanding that specifics cannot be avoided, ASEAN countries at a meeting of senior officials in Thailand in March 2019 announced the creation of a preliminary document of the ASEAN common position regarding the concept of Indo-Pacific. On June 23, 2019, this vision was published.

In its understanding of a future initiative, ASEAN builds on the geographical side of the issue. According to this approach, the region of Southeast Asia is the central place in concept, therefore it is he who should play a key place in the economic and political processes of the future concept. The attempt to declare precisely the message of the “centrality of the region” is expressed by unfounded fears of the potential fragmentation of the region on the issue of Indo-Pacific (which the USA has been actively claiming with the intensification of relations with Vietnam since 2010). It is worthwhile to understand that if ASEAN is fragmented for many years, it will lose political sovereignty as an organization, and for many years it will be in a political crisis. Therefore, the question of finding a common foundation for the Southeast Asian countries is one of the key issues in presenting their vision of the Indo-Pacific initiative.

Another distinguishing feature of ASEAN, which can be seen in the presentation of the initiative, is the absence of a statement on the creation of new institutions. According to the organization, the existing institutions of the region can cope with this: the East Asian Summit (EAC), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the ASEAN +8 Ministerial Conference of Defense (ASEAN CMO + 8). Reliance on the EAC Institute can be explained from the standpoint of ASEAN’s reluctance to oppose China and Russia (to a lesser extent) to the organization’s desire to take part in the Indo-Pacific concept. Given ASEAN’s position on the “inclusive nature” of their vision, the inclusion of this countries in the list of potential foundations of the future concept does not look directly hostile to the countries initiating the anti-Chinese concept format (USA, Australia).

The main benefits for ASEAN, according to their presentation, are the region’s entry into a more intensive economic flow by participating in programs to attract foreign investment, intensifying existing projects and increasing the level of integration with world economic organizations [8] (which sometimes bypass Southeast Asia due to the region’s poor reputation in banking and opaque cash flow).

It is logical that the document does not actually contain any political statements about the future ending, including comparisons with the concept of APR, a vision of political interaction in the future of Indo-Pacific (ASEAN has historically very carefully expressed its political preferences).

Conclusion

After ASEAN’s attempts to intensify the advancement of its vision of the Indo-Pacific initiative, there was a situation where the positions of all actors with a potential concept were announced. It is obvious that the position of ASEAN, due to 5 years of silence and internal difficulties in the framework of decision-making in the organization, looks the most vulnerable. At the moment, ASEAN faces 2 conceptually important tasks:

  1. To convince the main actors of the future concept of Indo-Pacific (USA, Australia, Japan, India) that the «aseanocentric» vision is most appropriate to the current regional situation.
  2. Consolidate the organizations position on the issue of attracting (the principle of «inclusiveness» promoted since 2013) «controversial» players: China and Russia.

It is worth noting that the decision-making center for the prototype of the future Indo-Pacific concept and its potential similarity with the ideas proposed by ASEAN are now completely outside the control of ASEAN. The countries of Southeast Asia by incorrect decisions of previous years brought the region into a state of uncertainty and absolute lack of independence in building a future image of the region. This future is completely dependent on the desires of the countries initiating the concept of Indo-Pacific in 2017, primarily the United States.

The greatest that ASEAN can do now, as a single organization, is through diplomatic negotiations to achieve the greatest possible inclusion of the proposals put forward by them for the future region in the final version of the concept. It is excluded that the ASEAN option will be adopted as the basic prototype of the Indo-Pacific.

Understanding that to accomplish task No. 1, ASEAN will need some negotiation flexibility. It is expected that the organization will not raise uncomfortable issues, in the form of involving China and Russia in the Indo-Pacific.

Thus, it is worth noting that the question of ASEAN in Indo-Pacific initially looked like some kind of test for the political suitability of an organization that it did not pass successfully. The organization’s position was twice late on the impulses of the discussion: first in 2007, then in 2017. The situation with the future of ASEAN in Indo-Pacific was significantly complicated by chronic internal problems in the organization, which ultimately led to the loss of the ability to influence the potential decision on the concept in 2019. The future of the concept of the Indo-Pacific almost entirely depends on the will of more successful countries to push forward.

1. Колдунова Е. (2019) Юго-Восточная Азия перед вызовами Индо-Тихоокеанских концепций. Юго-Восточная Азия: актуальные проблемы развития. Том 1, №2 (43), Стр.42

2. Ibid.

3. Acharya A. (2017) The Myth of ASEAN Centrality?. Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Studies. Vol 39, N.2.

4. Костюнина Г.М. (2017). Интеграционная модель асеан+1: основные положения соглашений и влияние на внешнеэкономические связи. Вестник Российского университета дружбы народов. Серия: Международные отношения, 17 (3), 441-457.

5. Дёмина В. (2018). Экономическая интеграция стран Восточной Азии. Вестник Института экономики РАН, (6), 181-194. URL: 10.24411/2073-6487-2018-00082 (Date of the application 08.05.2020)

6. Колдунова Е. (2019) Юго-Восточная Азия перед вызовами Индо-Тихоокеанских концепций. Юго-Восточная Азия: актуальные проблемы развития. Том 1, №2 (43), Стр.42

7. The State of Southeast Asia: 2019 Survey Report. (2019) Singapore: ISEAS, 2019. P.12, 25.

8. Ibid.

From our partner RIAC

Southeast Asia

Transforming Social Protection Delivery in the Philippines through PhilSys

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Social protection helps the poor and vulnerable in a country, especially in times of crises and shocks that may threaten the well-being of families. When COVID-19 hit and quarantines began, the Philippines needed a massive expansion of social protection coverage to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. Countries that already had good and inclusive digital infrastructure (including internet connectivity, digital identification, digital payments and integrated data ecosystems) were better equipped to quickly adapt their social protection programs to meet urgent needs. They also fared better in maintaining continuity of services when in-person interactions could be moved online.

For the Philippines, it presented a challenge, and strain was felt in the delivery of social assistance under the Bayanihan acts.

Fortunately, the country is moving to address digital infrastructure gaps, including through the development of the Philippine Identification System (PhilSys). PhilSys is one of the most complex – but also game-changing – projects undertaken in the country.

The Philippines is one of only 23 countries without a national ID system. As a result, Filipinos need to present multiple IDs (and often specific IDs that many do not have) when transacting, including with government, creating barriers to services for the most vulnerable among the population. Information across government databases is often inconsistent. These undermine the Philippines’ transition to a digital economy, society and government. The PhilSys will help address this by providing all Filipinos with a unique and verifiable digital ID (and not just a card), while also adopting innovative and practical data protection and privacy-by-design measures.

The new partnership agreement between the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) for DSWD’s adoption of the PhilSys is a milestone for the Philippines’ social protection and digital transformation journeys. DSWD will be the first agency to utilize the secure biometric and SMS-based identity authentication offered by the PhilSys to uniquely identify and verify its beneficiaries. Pilots with the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) and Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situations (AICS) program will begin within the next few months, before PhilSys is used by all DSWD programs.

Adopting PhilSys will enable DSWD to further accelerate its digital transformation. By automating verification and business processes for its programs and services, DSWD will be able to improve the impact while reducing the costs of social protection programs. PhilSys will assist with identifying and removing ghost, duplicate and deceased beneficiaries to address leakages, fraud and corruption, and thus boost transparency and public trust. The unified beneficiary database that DSWD is developing with the help of PhilSys will contain up-to-date and consistent beneficiary information across all programs.

The World Bank is supporting these DSWD initiatives through the Beneficiary FIRST (standing for Fast, Innovative and Responsive Service Transformation) social protection project.

Importantly, these changes will translate to benefits for Filipinos.

Those who interact with the DSWD will face less paperwork, queues, hassle, costs and time. With their PhilSys ID, they will also have better access to a bank or e-money account where they can potentially receive payments directly in the future, promoting financial inclusion. Indeed, more than 5 million low-income Filipinos have already opened bank accounts during PhilSys registration. And the resources that DSWD saves can be redirected to addressing the needs of beneficiaries who live in remote areas without easy access to internet and social protection programs.

Beyond the advantages for social protection, the digital transformation PhilSys will catalyze in the public and private sectors can be fundamental to the Philippines’ pivot to reviving the economy and getting poverty eradication back on track. Success in utilizing PhilSys for social protection will have a significant demonstration effect in accelerating digital transformation by other government agencies as well as the private sector.

But digital transformation is not easy. It is not about simply digitizing things. It is about re-imagining how things can be done for the better, with technology as an enabler. Digitizing bad systems or processes just leads to bad systems or processes digitalized. Digital transformation therefore depends on and can only be as fast as process re-engineering and institutional and bureaucratic changes to overcome inertia.

Digital transformation must also be inclusive to avoid exacerbating digital divides or creating new ones.

The effort will be worth it. And the World Bank is firmly committed to scale up our support to the Philippines’ digital transformation agenda. A digital Philippines will not only be more resilient to future shocks – whether they are natural disasters or pandemics – but also be poised to take advantage of the opportunities brought by COVID-19 (shift of activities online) and those that lie ahead in the post COVID-19 world.
 first published in The Philippine Star, via World Bank

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Bringing “the people” back in: Forest Resources Conservation with Dr. Apichart Pattaratuma

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With a lifetime dedicated to forest conservation, Dr. Apichart Pattaratuma reflected back on his career and what forest management means to Thailand. In the year 1978, he received the prestigious United Nations and Ananda Mahidol Foundation Scholarship to attain higher education at the College of Forest Resources, University of Washington, Seattle, USA. After graduating in the year 1985, he returned to Thailand with a commitment to teach and research at the Department of Forest Management, Faculty of Forestry, Kasetsart University until his retirement with full professor position. The excerpts below encapsulated a conversation between Dr. Pattaratuma and Dr. Rattana Lao on forest conservation.

Beyond the classroom: An anthropological perspective

I dedicated my life to study the anthropological aspect of forest management to His Majesty King Bhumibol Aduyadej of Thailand. I studied cultural dimensions of forest management in many areas of Thailand. I began with Huay Hin Dam with Karen hill tribe (Pra-ka-ker -yor) Suphanburi Province. I tried to review the international literature on land use and combine it with in-depth interviews with the hill tribes to understand the cultural dimensions of their livelihoods. I observed how they built their houses and how their managed their forest. There are three characteristics of the Karen tribe. Firstly, they lived on small plots of lands and their houses are very small. Secondly, they conserve their forest land with water resources. Thirdly, they refrain from using pesticides. Culturally, there is a clear division of labor amongst men and women. While men will clear the lands, women will cultivate agricultural goods such as papaya, guava and banana. There is limited drugs use.

It’s liberating to do research beyond the classrooms. To observe real live, real changes. I learnt more than I set out to do and they are all interrelated to a bigger picture.

Intersectionality between culture, migration and forest management

Karen hill tribes migrate in a cluster. There are more than 3 families migrating together to the new fertile forest land. They will migrate together when land is exhausted. This is most evident in the borderland between Thailand and Myanmar. Back then they did not have official documentation but slowly they do. There has been an influx of hill tribes from Myanmar to Thailand due to political conflicts from Myanmar. From my observation, they are very conscious about forest conservation and resources management. They said: “no forest, no water”. They are compelled to protect the forest from pesticides in order to keep the water clean and their health well. They are very logical. Although they grow rice, it’s very subsistent and only for household consumption. They don’t grow rice for commercial purpose. This is the land use for Karen hill tribe.

I also studied in Kampeangpetch, Nan, Chiang Rai, Phrae and Lumphun. Each place is diverse and the situation is really different. Some local tribes are preserving of the forests, others are more detrimental. We need an in-depth study to understand the cultural dimension of land use for each tribe.

The heart of forest management

People. It’s the people. People must particulate in the forest management. Otherwise, it is very difficult. When we go into each location, we must approach people and bring them into the conversation. I have tried to do all my life. Civil servants must approach people, not other way around. People are looking up to our action. They look into our sincerity and commitment. If they see that we are committed to study about their livelihood, they will share the right information and they will help.

Indonesia is a good example of successful forest management. The state get people involved. In every kilometer, there are four actors involved in protecting the forest: soldiers, policemen, villager and forester. They help each other protecting the wildlife and forest resources.

Can legal change help the people?

Legal relaxation can help lessen the pressure between man and forest. Before the legal requirement was very strict. Any kind of forest intrusion would be caught including small hunters gatherers. I think that is too strict. That put people against the law. People should be able to go into the forest and pick up some mushroom and bamboo and some wild products to lessen their poverty and hunger.

As long as people are still hungry, it’s very hard to manage the forest. There must be a way to balance the two: people livelihood and forest management.

Capitalists invasion

Much of the legal attention is paid to small farmers use of the forests. However, the real issue is big corporations invade the forest. This is very significant. Deforestation happens mostly from large scale corporation rather than small scale farmers. There are many loopholes in the system that lead to systemic corruption and mismanagement of land use. Many wealthy houses are built on large scale timber to exemplify wealth and status. It saddens me.

Would the next generation get to see large tree in the forest?

Less likely.

What can we do to protect the forest?

There are many organizations that responsible for the forest protection such as Royal Forest Department, Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation and Department of Marine and Coastal Resources. But the manpower are not sufficient to cover the large area of forest in Thailand. There are not enough permanent manpower to go on the ground and protect forest resources, while the intruders to National Parks are equipped with more advanced weaponry.

To protect the forest, the state must be committed and the people must participate in the process.

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Possibilities for a Multilateral Initiative between ASEAN-Bangladesh-India-Japan in the Indo-Pacific

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In the Indo-Pacific context, there are multiple partners all aiming for economic fulfillment along with maritime security and safety. Countries ranging from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea seem to be more worried about the freedom of navigation and overflight as Chinese aggressiveness is rampant and expansionist is a scary idea. The region from India to Bangladesh has a huge potential of interconnectedness and if connected to the Southeast Asian countries, it would also help in India’s Act East Policy and India’s neighbourhood first policy and further help out in strengthening relations to the far East as in Japan. All these countries combined can create an interconnected chain of mutual and common interests with balanced ideas of economic, military, social, political and people to people exchanges which would in turn help develop a multilateral.

Who can lead this Multilateral Initiative and Why?

Japan can be the prime crusader for this multilateral as it has excellent relations with all the parties and is the pioneer of the free and open Indo-Pacific. Japan has excellent diplomatic, economic and infrastructural relations with all the possible partners as it provides ODA loans, aid and assistance. Japan being the pioneer of Free and Open Indo-Pacific can be guiding force for this multilateral in the maritime domain which would help create a new regional grouping consisting of South Asia and Southeast Asia primarily based on maritime. Japan is the only developed country among all the other players and with its expertise, it can surely guide, help, support and take along all the countries. Japan most importantly is a non-aggressive nation and believes in mutual respect unlike China. Japan has no dept trap issue unlike China. Japan is known for quality in infrastructural development and with their expertise in science, technology and innovation can well lead these countries. Japan’s reputation of honesty, no corruption and extreme detailed paper work is commendable.

What are the benefits from this Multilateral Initiative?

This multilateral would help connect the Indian Ocean (India) to Bay of Bengal (Bangladesh) to the South China Sea (ASEAN) and the East China Sea (Japan)- would help in the creation of water interconnected network from South Asia to Southeast Asia. This could be the first regional maritime grouping covering South Asia to Southeast Asia. This maritime grouping can create a network of ports which could also become an economic hub and intersecting points of investment and infrastructural development (already Japan is investing in a big way in all these countries). India’s Northeast would get a greater economic, infrastructural and people-to-people exchange as it would connect India to Bangladesh and Myanmar. Mekong Ganga Economic Corridor already exists and could pave the way for Bangladesh and Kolkata greater port exchange which could be developed as nodal points in Bay of Bengal and would help in easy and cheaper freight. These countries can also aim for the strengthening of defence and security relations in the domain of maritime and can also aim for a logistics support agreement and a network from Indian Ocean to Bay of Bengal to South China Sea to East China Sea and would help tackle Chinese aggressiveness and China has been mapping the waters in all these waters and so, to protect one’s territorial sovereignty and integrity, defence relations must be build.

An ecosystem based on Digitalization, Science, technology and Innovation can be formed which would help create a united cyber security law and all this could ultimately lead to the 4th Industrial Revolution. South Asia and Southeast Asia would be lucrative markets and labour distribution and generation of employment can be done through the ports, logistics network, economic and trade exchanges and interactions. This multilateral would form a resilient supply chain in the region of South Asia and Southeast Asia in the domain of Indo-Pacific. Marine economy can be a major factor of this multilateral initiative as it would be a major success in the maritime domain. This multilateral can also work on vaccine diplomacy and work on future health hazards mechanisms.

Why Bangladesh must think of adopting the Indo-Pacific Strategy?

Bangladesh must adopt the Indo-Pacific strategy and create its own objects and call it the SAMODHRO NITI. Bangladesh has the capability of being an excellent maritime power and it is a major leader in the Bay of Bengal and to be an effective part of this multilateral. The Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B) would be a key binder. Bangladesh must realise that China by building dams on the Brahmaputra River would actually create issues for Bangladesh’s fishery catchment areas as it would get inundated with salt water and to stop that Bangladesh must work to strengthen its position to tackle China. Also, China could also create water issues for Bangladesh and Bangladesh must look at ways to safe guard its water resources. Thereby, Bangladesh must work towards countries who face similar issues with China. The Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor is an excellent example of cooperation but this Multilateral if formed can be a stronger initiative and Bangladesh benefits from it as being a hub of textile, leather and pharmaceuticals and this Multilateral has all the efficiency of becoming an economic hub which would benefit Bangladesh too. If Bangladesh adopts an Indo-Pacific Policy, then its market in Japan, the US and Europe would become stronger due to shared interests and can also sign a Free Trade Agreement with EU like Vietnam did.

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