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Visit of Vietnamese President to Cuba

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President Nguyen Xuan Phuc (L) meets with Cuban Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz. (Photo: VNA)

Following the outbreak of the Corona pandemic in Vietnam, the government has decided to procure 10 million doses of Abdala vaccines from Cuba. Abdala vaccine is one of the two vaccines produced locally in Cuba. The situation in Vietnam is compelling because Vietnam has seen more than 16,637 deaths because of the Delta warrant outbreak in the country since April of this year. The casualty rate is still low in terms of global average.  The severity of the crisis has been so profound that before the visit of Vietnam’s president to Havana an order of 10 million vaccine doses of Cuba’s vaccine has already been placed. Abdala vaccine is the eighth vaccine approved for inoculating Vietnamese adult population.

During the visit of President Nguyen Xuan Phuc (18-20 September) and his meeting with President of Cuba Miguel Diaz Canel issues of common interest were discussed at length. The two countries have been ideal logically aligned and there has been comprehensive cooperation between the two communist parties. In terms of bilateral corporation the two countries have been working with regard to trading in consumer goods, manufacturing, renewable energy and aquatic products. Cuba has appreciated Vietnam’s Doi Moi reforms and has expressed interest in drawing lessons from the initiative.

In fact the two countries have been adverse to the US capitalist approach in the past, and have been collaborating to sending off their party cadres to each other’s countries for training and also collaboration between the party schools. The relationship between Cuba and US is dotted with tensions and sanctions. The two countries are keen to collaborate with the US. There is increasing trade ties between Vietnam and US following the Permanent Normalization of Trade Relations (PNTR) between the two countries.

The leaders of the two countries are on the same page for betterment of their population and providing better living standards to the people. During the time of Obama constructive engagement with Cuba was foreseen. However, during the period of Trump administration, the congenial ties between Cuba and US went on a cold freeze. Cuba has appreciative of Vietnam’s support since the Cold War period and there has been exchange of knowledge and information with regard to socialist welfare model and economic liberalization  measures that Vietnam has undertaken in the past few decades.

In terms of comprehensive partnership the two countries have focused primarily in areas such as agriculture, rice, coffee, aquatic culture, fisheries sector, maize and agrarian sectors. During the meeting between the two leaders it was agreed that the two countries will work together on developing the theoretical framework of Communist movement and better coordination between the foreign ministries of the two countries. In terms of defence and security aspects also there has been collaboration between the two sides and it is expressed that the collaboration should be further expanded.

It has been also seen that collaboration with regard to production of Abdala COVID-19 vaccine in Vietnam would work in enhancing ties between the two countries in health and medicine sector. Given scourge of the Corona pandemic in Vietnam it is expected that the medical and health clearances for the vaccine will be expedited quickly.

This Cuba visit happened before Vietnam president and the delegation attending the general debate in UN General Assembly in the last week of September. It is expected that the Vietnam president will also attend bilateral activities in the United States. As the Cuban visit precedes the UN meeting, it clearly exposes the strong solidarity and understanding that the two countries have.

Vietnam is also going to make a strong pitch in favour of its role as the non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and also put up its candidature for the UN human Rights Council for the period 2023-2025. It is also expected that Vietnam President will hold discussion with other heads of states and important countries related to pandemic prevention and economic recovery in the post pandemic phase.

India has also expressed strong desire with regard to intellectual property rights waiver for the vaccine development and also support to the third world countries in the production of vaccines. Vietnam has been looking for international producers of vaccines to expedite quick delivery of vaccine doses, critical medical equipment and medical supplies to the country. Following the permanent normalisation of relations between US and Vietnam, and the existence of comprehensive partnership between the two countries it is expected that better trade relations between the US and Vietnam would help Vietnam to recover from the pandemic enforced economic stress. The US has so far provided more than 6 million doses of vaccine to Vietnam through the global vaccine mechanism which is known as COVAX. Vietnam is also looking for procuring 20 million doses of Pfizer vaccine for citizens aged 12 to 18.

Vietnam has also started administrating mixture doses of Astra Zeneca and Pfizer vaccines to its population acknowledging the fact that the best way to protect the citizens from the coronavirus is through extensive vaccination programmes. Despite certain bottlenecks Vietnam has inoculated nearly 30.4 million doses of vaccines to its population. The third wave of the coronavirus is expected to be more devastating and it is compelling for a country like Vietnam to provide vaccines to its population.

With Cuba the interesting aspect is that the country will transfer the production technology to Vietnam by the end of this year. Vietnam has been a very instrumental in urging the United States to drop the hostile policy towards Cuba. In terms of trade embargo that the US has imposed on Cuba, it is anticipated that US is going to tone down the restrictions and promote trade facilitation between the two countries. Cuba is also planning to export and commercialize its two indigenous vaccines after the World Health Organization (WHO) gives approval. In terms of effectiveness Abdala vaccine is stated to be 92.28 per cent effective against COVID-19 when a person is administered three doses of the vaccine.

Given the closer relationship between the two countries which started with the recognition of Vietnam by Cuba in 1960 the ties between the two countries have grown multifold. Cuba had also supported Vietnam during its fight against the US forces in southern Vietnam and in order to show solidarity Cuba has established mission of Permanent representative in July 1962 and it appointed an Ambassador subsequently in March 1969. Also during the war of aggression undertaken by the US against Vietnam, US imposed trade embargo against Cuba and snapped all diplomatic relations with the island country. Cuba raised a nationwide movement with the slogan of ‘All for Vietnam’. Interestingly, Cuba has also named manufactories schools and neighbourhood after the anti-US heroes of Vietnam. Fidel Castro during his various visits to different countries has also urged these countries to support Vietnam against the US invasion. Cuban sailors had supported Vietnamese people during the bombing at Hai Phong port.

The history of relationship between the two countries is replete with examples of cooperation, construction and support for each other’s revolutionary causes. Vietnam and Cuba had signed a new trade agreement in November 2018 and have outlined the new agenda for the 2020–20 25 period. Vietnam has grown to be the second largest trading partner for Cuba in Asia. Vietnam has also supported Cuba in terms of developing rice production techniques and ensuring food security. The two countries celebrated their 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations and are entering a new phase of unity, partnership and better economic relations.

Pankaj Jha is faculty with Jindal School of International Affairs, O P Jindal Global University, Sonepat. He can be reached at pankajstrategic[at]gmail.com

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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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Southeast Asia

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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Southeast Asia

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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