Being young and Asean

Social entrepreneurship among the region’s youth can play an important role in promoting Asean integration. — AP

I still believe that the idea of promoting a spirit of unity and belonging in South-East Asia, especially with the youth in mind, cannot be outsourced to a foundation as the Asean Secretariat is doing with the Asean Foundation.

There is nothing wrong with having a philanthropic foundation at the core of regional action to promote youth empowerment and the overarching idea of a more youth-tuned and inspired Asean identity.

I personally love the motto being promoted by the Asean Foundation: “Think, Feel and #BeASEAN”. It is smart, cool and catchy, and I wish it could be embraced and adopted by all primary, secondary and higher-level institutions across the 11 member countries of this community.

If you are well read in Asean matters, you will have noticed that, actually, the members of the bloc are 10, but I have not lost hope that someday soon Timor Leste will also be finally welcomed into the family, because it deserves it.

Certainly, there is a case for further expanding the work of the Asean Foundation so that it can become a recognised and visible “engine” for the promotion of a sense of common belonging, especially among the youth.

For example, look at its work in the field of education. There is no doubt that it is important work, but in order to make it even more relevant, it has to be expanded significantly.

The foundation runs, among other initiatives in this area, a scholarship programme, the Chulabhorn – Asean Foundation Scholarship, the result of a partnership with the Chulabhorn Graduate Institute based in Bangkok. This could become a flagship initiative, no matter how tiny it is, with its 10 seats available for citizens of Asean countries, with the exception of Thailand.

There is no doubt that Asean can and should be more ambitious here. With the European Union supporting the idea of a common regional educational space, potentially a true game changer if you imagine future exchange programmes modelled on the Erasmus Plus programme implemented at EU level, then the Asean Foundation could have a much bigger role, perhaps by working out a strong partnership with the Asia-Europe Foundation.

Think about the area of social entrepreneurship. In South-East Asia this specific sector is becoming more and more change-making – and in a positive way. It is not only the incredible level of expertise and know-how stemming out of Singapore.

There is also an entire ecosystem getting in shape and getting stronger and stronger. The British Council, in partnership with UN-ESCAP, Social Enterprise UK and with the support of HSBC, came up with the State of Social Enterprise in South-East Asia report in February.

We have discovered that Thailand has one of the most comprehensive sets of legislation to promote social entrepreneurship across the region.

“The support ecosystem – of policymakers, enablers and capacity builders, networks, platforms and facilitators, membership bodies, funders and financers and higher education – is relatively mature, while often dynamic, complex and growing,” the research found.

The overall picture is positive, and many of these social enterprises have proven to be extremely effective and useful in helping tackle Covid-19 and its multiple crises.

Yet is there any added value in strengthening the regional dimension so that it is possible do more to scale up the work of social entrepreneurs in South-East Asia?

In the past, there was certainly an interest. Singapore organised an Asean Forum on Social Entrepreneurship in 2014, and then – again with the support of the Asean Foundation through the Japan – Asean Solidarity Fund – UnLtd Indonesia and the Singapore International Foundation organised the Asean Conference on Social Entrepreneurship in July 2016.

In 2015, the Asia Foundation even wrote a piece about the role of social entrepreneurship could have in promoting Asean integration.

The Asean Foundation took some action this year with the Asean Social Enterprise Development Program, to which teams from Asean nations could apply.

Should we be satisfied with this, or should we expect more? We cannot just rely on a foundation, no matter how innovative and effective if we want youth-focused policy making to become more central at the level of Asean policy making.

In very practical ways, this means more resources for the Asean Foundation, which should become a truly regional enabler and facilitator of youth engagement across multiple areas. This means not only relying on the international community but also being able to count on more “internal” resources from the Asean Secretariat and from its member states.

This means, on the one hand, cementing more innovative partnerships with groups like the Asean Youth Forum, the Asean Youth Organisation or the Young SEAkers and many other likeminded initiatives.

On the other hand – and this is the hard part – it implies having regional leaders ready to embrace youth-focused policy making.

The fact that Asean is moving forward with work related to the Asean Youth Development Index Phase II Survey is praiseworthy, as the next index will reveal even more information about the status of the youth in Southeast Asia, precious data that should be useful to the Asean heads of state.

Still, I have a doubt: Will the outcomes and findings of this key piece of research truly matter?

In a recent online workshop on Asean awareness, values and identity, Dr Eric C. Thompson, principal investigator of the Asean Youth Development Index Phase II Survey, said, “Awareness [of Asean alone does not necessarily correlate with sharing the values and identity of the Asean Community.

“Thus, to better reach out to the youth, it is important to promote the values of Asean people, benefits of ASEAN and a positive understanding of the Asean Identity.”

If I am not wrong, this is exactly the mandate of the Asean Foundation, but can it really fulfill its goals? Shouldn’t this also be the mandate of the Asean heads of state?

Some real strategic thinking and some real money are needed if we want to ensure that the youth will be at the center of Asean policy making rather than on its peripheries.

Will Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the current chair of Asean, pay any attention? Perhaps a real effort in this potentially very easy and uncontroversial goal could create some positive legacy of his leadership, even though no effort here could make up for his failure in dealing effectively with the Myanmar crisis. —The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network

Simone Galimberti writes on social inclusion, youth development, regional integration and the SDGs in the context of Asia-Pacific.

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