Thursday, May 10, 2007

CSR on the (Elite) Mind in East Asia

I am in the Singapore airport bound for Shanghai, reflecting on my visits to Manila, Jakarta, and Singapore. Three policemen armed with automatic weapons just walked by the free Internet stall to take the escalator downstairs.

I don't want to get carried away, but I am happy to say that issues such as the environment, human rights, and good governance are not confined to conversations in California, Washington DC, New York, Europe, and Japan. Every day, the local newspapers ran at least one article about the environment, climate change, and their popularization in ASEAN.

I read about an eco beauty pageant in Manila and about how Bangkok shut off its lights a couple of days ago to promote eco awareness. On the TV, I saw an ad in Manila (sponsored by the UNDP) against corruption and a music video in Jakarta promoting energy efficient light bulbs. In the cab ride the the airport this morning, the driver spoke about the environmental problems in Southeast Asia broadly, and said that he has never seen such bizarre weather in Singapore. Every businessman, scholar, and government official we interviewed acknowledged the importance of eco and human rights leadership in the world economy.

Now, I don't want to overstate the case. Clearly, the biggest problems facing many countries in ASEAN are poverty and political stability. I understand that I was reading newspapers in English, the TV was in English, our interviewees were elite, and the taxi driver was in fact from a highly educated family. But we should not forget how human rights abuses and environmental degradation can conflate with terrorism, corruption, and instability. The perfect storm could go something like this:

Imagine an area saturated with corruption (which is seen by investors as the number one problem in the Philippines). Officials take bribes from criminals, and gangs are allowed to arm undisturbed by law enforcement. They are able to prosper by engaging in illegal activities such as piracy or smuggling. Lack of equity creates resentment toward more successful groups in the society. An environmental disaster, such as a flood, destroys homes and makes people more receptive or vulnerable to a strongman. Gangs seize the opportunity to overthrow the local government. Martial law is declared, rights are curtailed, foreign direct investment flees, and a downward spiral of poverty and violence ensues.

It isn't that far fetched. All these issues are related.

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