On Sunday 22 November 2015, leaders of the 10 member countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) established a formal community that attempts to create freer movement of trade and capital in an area of 625 million people with a combined economic output of US$2.6 trillion.
The Asean community has been 12 years in the making. The combined GDP of the Asean economies is expected to grow from US$2.6 trillion to US$4.7 trillion by 2020 and predictions indicate it could become the world’s fourth-largest economy as a bloc by 2030. The members are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Undoubtedly, there are opportunities for business operating in an economic community that enables greater cooperation and fewer barriers to trade, effectively becoming a single market. In theory, the Asean community should now be closer to uninhibited movement of goods, services, investment, skilled labour and freer flow of capital.
The reality is sometimes different: it is reported that existing national legislation and regulations run counter to regional commitments for labour mobility and discourage the cross-border movements of professionals. So whilst agreements are made at a top level, ironing out the details locally can translate to limited changes.
There are also clear challenges for business operating in such a diverse region; poverty, corruption and climate change risks feature high on the Asean agenda.
Does CSR feature in the Asean community?
There are three pillars to Asean:
1. The Asean Political-Security Community (APSC)
2. The Asean Economic Community (AEC) and
3. The Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC).
Last week, a new vision was launched, the ‘Kuala Lumpur Declaration on Asean 2025: Forging Ahead Together’. This document covers all three pillars of the Asean Community and works as an overall guide and vision for the Asean community to 2025.
A specific blueprint has been developed for each pillar detailing the outcomes to achieve in the next ten years. The blueprints are part of the overall vision for 2025 and contain ‘realisable proposals and aspirations for each pillar’.
Underlined in the opening page of the Kuala Lumpur Declaration or the Asean Vision 2025 is a statement that that the “Community Vision for 2025 is complementarity of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with Asean community building efforts to uplift the standards of living of our peoples.” It is noticeable that the Asean Vision 2025 is more aligned with global development goals than previous iterations.
For companies looking to understand the goals of the community and for targets to measure performance against, the goal posts are clearly marked. It would, however, be wrong to think that the Asean sustainability goals are only ‘bookmarked’ in the ASCC.
It is clear that the economic community (AEC) is also directed towards a more transparent, inclusive future with a focus on a sustainable development. The AEC Blueprint does make it clear that engagement with the private sector is key to achieve a sustainable economic community. The Blueprints should not be reviewed in isolation.
The most clarity around Asean aspirations for sustainable development are highlighted in the Asean Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint. Whilst the previous version of the ASSC Blueprint (2009) contained specific provisions to promote ‘CSR’ this has changed in the 2015 ASSC Blueprint.
The focus now is the practice of CSR as a tool to achieve broader Asean goals, with social responsibility as an objective of the community.
How has civil society responded?
It is interesting to note the response from civil society to the Asean Vision 2025. Whilst ministers were meeting in Kuala Lumpur, civil society also met in a parallel conference. As the Asean community signed off on the Vision 2025, civil society responded with their concerns.
In a public statement, they stressed that “development justice; democratic processes, governance and fundamental human rights and freedoms; peace and security; and discrimination and inequality remain serious priorities for the region”.
They also requested that Asean has a more structured dialogue with civil society, engaging a broader range of representation, making up the diversity of civil society voices, not just those officially funded by government (GONGOs). Human rights remains a key focus for civil society with the request that human rights should be a consideration across all Asean pillars, with the adoption of universally recognised human rights.
Five steps for companies around the Asean 2025 Vision:
- Review the Asean 2025 Vision to understand the material sustainability issues for the Asean community. Map those against the sustainability aspects you are managing.
- Engage on the topics set out in the ASCC Blueprint. Understand the challenges and be part of the Strategic Measures set out in the blueprints. The blueprints promote dialogue on key challenges. Solutions are not possible without the involvement of the private sector. Get involved.
- Engage with local government on the meaningful contribution of the private sector to meet the Asean community 2025 vision. A number of Asean governments are exploring the use of ‘CSR contributions’ – effectively a CSR tax. Without private sector engagement with Asean on how companies can engage with a broader development agenda, there is a risk that government will implement ‘CSR’ legislation to mandate spending.
- Report against the Blueprint– demonstrate how the private sector is engaging with the Vision 2025 for Asean.
- Use the Vision 2025 to engage on an organisation level – use the documentation to engage staff on what it means to operate sustainably in the Asean context.
Erin Lyon is an executive director of CSR Asia based in Singapore. Erin is a qualified solicitor in England and Wales, having trained with and worked for the international law firm, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer both in Europe and Asia. As well as advising companies and other organizations, Erin is an adjunct lecturer at the Singapore Management University School of Law, lecturing in ethics and social responsibility. This article was first published on CSR Asia’s website.