The work of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Asia
Over the past decades Asia has been treated as the “Continent of the 21st Century”. Until today the hopes that are pinned to the economic, political and social development of Asia have been shaped by over-joyous exaggerations, on one side, and a certain kind of ambivalence, on the other. Asia’s intellectual, cultural and scientific spheres are also playing an ever greater role on the world stage.
The Asian economic miracle and its consequences
The continent’s economic potential for growth needs to be viewed from a variety of perspectives. In so speaking China’s role in Asia’s economic drive has become increasingly important. Even by the time China joined the World Trade Organisation in December 2001, the country had emerged as an important regional growth generator. In comparison, the economies of South Asian countries, India aside, are growing at a much slower rate. In East and South-East Asia a rapid economic growth has developed over the past decades, which, in the West, is often known as the “Asian economic miracle”. This seemingly unstoppable economic boom of the so-called “Tiger states” was halted by the financial crisis of 1997/98. Up until the crisis the economic development was being pushed by a neo-liberal agenda. Since the crisis, however, this model is being critically challenged and a more sustainable, ecological and socially responsible development model is being offered in its place. Whilst searching for an adequate model the world markets have been shaken by the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The crisis peaked towards the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009, where countries came together to bail out banks and save their economies with a range of stimulus measures. Although China and India, alongside the so-called “Tiger States,” did not fall into recession, they did see their economies shrink, causing drastic measures to be taken by their governments to keep their economic growth afloat.
The differences in development and the social disparities associated with the economic boom and the crisis not only separate each region from one another, but also permeate the countries themselves. Poverty is still one of Asia’s main problems. Around 900 million people, among them a large number of women, are directly affected by it. Since the “trickle-down-effect” seems not to have surfaced, the countries with “booming” economies are equally affected by poverty.
An indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources and the destruction of the environment go hand-in-hand with economic development. Ever increasing CO2 emissions alongside vast amounts of forest clearance add to global climate change. In the past thirty years Asia has lost 50% of its forests. Many areas of Asia are threatened by long periods of drought and desertification. Constant floods in Southern China, Bangladesh and North India are direct consequences of this trend. The devastating cyclone Nargis which hit Burma in mid-2008 highlighted the military junta’s inefficiency at dealing with such destructive natural catastrophes.
Climate change, the financial crisis and a global food crisis have forced India and China, both “booming” economies, to re-evaluate their position in the world and the role they play in tackling such vital issues.
In recent years, alongside the financial and ecological crises, an array of political conflicts have developed in different parts of Asia. Even in countries that have long been considered stable, outbreaks of violent conflict cannot be ruled out. Economic and social tension, a lack of the rule of law, poor governance as well as explicit discrimination of social groups abet this instability.
The past few years have seen a wide array of political conflicts arise in the Asian continent. The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. With an increase in US troops alongside, other NATO countries have begun to revise the role they play within the conflict. Increasingly, a regional solution has become a more vital perspective. India and China, as well as Iran, play an important role in Afghanistan’s future. With Taliban activity spilling over the border into its territory, Pakistan has also begun to play a more crucial role in tackling extremism in the region and helping to create a sustainable peace in Afghanistan.
After a series of bomb blasts in Mumbai, late 2008, orchestrated by a terrorist group with roots in Pakistan, the hostilities between India and Pakistan escalated. Peace talks are only slowly regaining shape. However, with both countries possessing nuclear weapons, there is more at stake if the bilateral relationship breaks down completely. This historic conflict is only one of several lines of tension running through India such as the increased Maoist activity in North-West India and India’s budding rivalry with China, which remain a political reality.
The instable and volatile nature of democracy in Thailand increases the potential for another conflict in the region. The continuous political struggle between the polarised fractions – the “Red Shirts” and the “Yellow Shirts” – undermines the democratic structures that were established since the 1980s and threatens political and social stability.
The Foundation’s projects
The challenges that face Asia in the future are immense. Terrible, open conflicts, growing poverty, and indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources are all problem areas which have a direct impact on peace, security and democracy.
The aim of our projects in Asia is to support the democratisation of the region and promote the recognition of human rights. Our work also focuses on promoting environmental sustainability and social justice.
The continent, containing over 40 countries, does not only surface with regards to political or economic issues. The different regions of Asia also vary greatly in culture, ethnicity and religion. A good understanding of Asian culture is therefore a necessary requirement for approaches to sustainable development. By strengthening cultural identity we wish to contrast the emerging fundamentalism and promote alternative models of development.
Keeping regional differences in mind, democratic structures should be strengthened. These structures would then provide the people with the opportunity to participate actively in politics. A fundamental aspect of our work involves helping women improve their own living conditions, since they tend to suffer more from the negative effects of poverty.
Our six regional and country-based offices are situated in South-East Asia as well as in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China. In Germany we organise expert discussions, public debates and exhibitions, which help to make people aware of the specific problems in Asia and the projects of our team.