Mekong Institute aims to foster partnership in evolving subregion

How do you keep an entire subregion's development vision aligned while ensuring no one gets left behind? Photo by: Lean Santos / Devex

The Mekong Institute is expanding its role as a platform for dialogue and diplomacy in the rapidly developing Greater Mekong Subregion. To do so, the Institute is pivoting its focus from training and capacity building to trade and innovation. The goal, officials told Devex, is to turn the region’s gaze outward toward global commercial opportunities.

“It’s not the old GMS anymore where the farmers and manufacturers produce for domestic consumption,” Mekong Institute executive director Wacharas Leelawath told Devex in an interview. “Now, it’s becoming more commercialized and modernized.”

Taking advantage of trade and other international business opportunities will require a shared regional vision from the subregion’s governments, he said.

“We need to talk to each other and create a vision aligned in the same direction,” he said on the sidelines of the Mekong Forum in the institute’s headquarters in Khon Kaen, Thailand. “If you want to maintain sustainability, we have to have genuine partnership.”

Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and two provinces in southern China (Yunnan and Guangxi) sit along the Mekong River. The GMS is home to more than 330 million people whose average income per capita have also almost doubled from $1,492 to more than $3,000 since 2010, according to figures from the Asian Development Bank.

As these countries develop, the institute can serve as a platform to exchange ideas, experiences, lessons learned, and innovations, he told Devex. Established in 1996, the institute is an intergovernmental organization administered by the six GMS countries. It focuses on integrated human resource development, capacity building programs, and development projects related to regional cooperation and integration.

Cooperation is particularly important for countries lagging behind in economic development. Myanmar, for instance, has only just reopened itself to the world, following an openly democratic election in November last year. In a panel session during the Mekong Forum, Myanmar’s permanent secretary for its planning and finance ministry Tun Tun Naing said regional cooperation is important for his nation’s development moving forward.

“How do we share responsibility to create prosperity across the globe? No one can do it alone,” James Bolger, former prime minister of New Zealand and the main proponent for the establishment of the Mekong Institute, said in his keynote speech at the event. “We all have an interest in reducing poverty and making positive change.”

Changing times

The evolution of the Mekong Institute in its 20 years of existence reflects broader changes in the region.

“At the beginning, [MI] was only a training institute … to build capacity of government officials in the subregion and foster the network between them,” Leelawath explained. “We have consistently adapted and altered the institute’s focus in development areas in response to … global dynamics.”

The institute head explained that part of their current mandate is to link their research to policy makers. “There were a lot of studies that come up with recommendations, but [they] were not utilized. So we try to link it to policymakers [because] they have the power to make the real change.”

This transition is also evident in the way the institute’s evolving pillars, focus areas that serve as guiding principles and targets for MI. Over the last five years, the mandates have included a focus on rural development, trade and investment, and human migration. For the next five years until 2020, Leelawath called for a more global perspective for the region, in order to maximize the benefits of free trade agreements to develop rural areas.

The institute’s three new pillars until 2020 are: agricultural development and commercialization; trade and investment facilitation particularly in utilizing free trade agreements including that of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the ASEAN-China FTA; and innovation and technological connectivity.

Among MI’s related projects are commercial support for farmers in terms of food safety standards and good agricultural practices; improvement of agricultural policy development and restructuring; strengthening of local chambers of commerce and business associations; integration of GMS enterprises to regional and global value chains; foreign direct investment promotion; and capacity development for innovation and technology promotion policy.

Pressing issues

Despite regional development progress over the last two decades, pressing challenges remain. Leelawath urged governments to prioritize impact evaluations and environmental and community safeguards.

The broader Asia-Pacific region is pivoting toward more effective monitoring and evaluation throughout a development project’s life cycle — not just at its conclusion. This includes a more engaged consultation system between stakeholders in the region to avoid duplicated efforts and conserve resources.

Social and environmental safeguards could also be improved to help address the concerns of communities directly impacted by projects. Some advocacy groups argue that development initiatives can at times leave people worse off because of environmental externalities.

“If you do a project, it will be good to one group of people, [and] sometimes it has some unbearable impact to others,” the MI chief explained. “So before we implement any project, we should have a stakeholder meeting” to address concerns and find a win-win solution.

Conversations about safeguards could also apply to trade. Mia Mikic, trade policy and analysis specialist at the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific in Thailand, said she hoped regional trade would be “an activity that takes care of social equity and environmental responsibility”.

Adding sustainable development to conversations about growth will help ensure no countries in the region are “left behind” by what Leelawath called GMS’s “bright future” ahead.

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.