Wednesday, November 27, 2013

ASEAN's (Limited?!) Role in Typhoon Haiyan Relief

In the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, there have a been a few articles lamenting the slow pace of ASEAN’s response to the disaster recovery, in the Bangkok Post and elsewhere.  Although I agree that the disaster recovery efforts in the Philippines may appear to be relatively slow and ineffective, much of the problems are related to domestic obstacles in the Philippines, and too much “blame” in my opinion is being placed on the ASEAN institutions.

Those comparing ASEAN’s reaction in Typhoon Haiyan with that of the US federal government in the Katrina hurricane disaster aftermath do not properly acknowledge the key difference between the two situations.  The US federal government had full authority to nationalize the situation but did not do so immediately, for whatever reasons.  ASEAN, on the other hand, has no such authority to intervene directly in the Philippines.  

The core principle of non-interference in domestic affairs, and the fact that ASEAN as a regional bloc operates mostly as a club of national governments, mean that ASEAN as an institution is relatively limited in what it can and cannot do in the current situation.  When dealing with the national leadership of an ASEAN member, ASEAN institutions have been effective in dealing with disaster relief and disaster planning.

For example, after Cyclone Nargis, the Myanmar regime initially refused to accept foreign relief aid.  Only after peer pressure from the other ASEAN members did the regime accept such aid.  The reversal of the Myanmar military regime’s decision may even have helped trigger the political and economic reforms now going on in the country.

In another example, during the avian flu scare, multinational drug companies offered to donate vaccines and medicines to ASEAN.  Singapore had sufficient facilities to store the medicine, and was centrally located as a transportation hub to distribute the medicine should the occasion arise.  However, for its own reasons Malaysia objected to Singapore as the base country, causing an impasse where neither country could accept the medicine, since neither country could act on behalf of ASEAN.  The ASEAN Secretary General then acted to break the impasse and accepted the medicines on his own authority  as ASEAN Secretary General.  This is a rarely reported, and frankly, commendable act by the ASEAN Secretary General.

Thus, the ASEAN institutions can be effective, particularly when dealing with the national level governments in disaster relief.  This is what ASEAN offered before and after Typhoon Haiyan, and the Philippine government has been cooperating with ASEAN and other foreign donors.  The more difficult task for ASEAN institutions is what to do when peer pressure does not seem to work or an ASEAN member may be willing to comply, but lacks the capability or competency to implement its ASEAN commitments.  The annual haze is an example of both types of situations, whereas the Typhoon Haiyan situation may be an example of the latter type.  All of the aid money in the world is not going to help the victims in the Philippines if the funds are not spent well by those on the ground.

The criticism of ASEAN should therefore be viewed with these institutional limitations in mind.   That is not to say that more aid funding should not be forthcoming from ASEAN; the other ASEAN member states need to step up their funding to another member of ASEAN.  However, it is off the mark to criticize ASEAN for other aspects of the recovery effort which are not really in its remit but are under that of the Philippine government.   

In any event, there will be more disasters for ASEAN to face. Some will be dramatic like Typhoon Haiyan, some will be continuing, like AIDS and other public health issues, and others will be both visible and continuing, like the haze.  The cross-border nature of these disasters means that ASEAN is well placed to deal with these disasters – if the ASEAN institutions are properly supported and augmented.  That needs to be done before the next disaster springs upon the region.