Advancing Regional Collaboration — IDRC Supporting Asia's Development

Richard Fuchs believes that people who want to understand how the world is changing should look to the wave of transformation that is sweeping across Asia.

“This region is the future,” says Fuchs, who became IDRC’s Singapore-based Regional Director for Southeast and East Asia late in 2006. “The next economy will be an Asian economy. There’s a revolution here in the way that wealth gets produced and distributed, and it’s interesting to be inside it, to try to understand it, and to advocate for the kind of equitable and sustainable economic and social development that IDRC tries to support through research.”

The positive aspects of the current transformation are often stunning. Singapore, which 40 years ago was a mostly unnoticed developing country, now has the lowest infant mortality rate and the highest test scores in math and science in the world. Although they are often in the shadow of China’s economic dynamo, even more remarkable is the explosive growth being experienced by countries such as Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, which were mired in war as recently as 25 years ago.

Economic renaissance, environmental degradation

The pace of change in the region, however, has also increased environmental threats and widened the gap separating rich and poor — both between countries and within them. Attempts by IDRC and its local research partners to address this inequality often take a very different form within this context of dynamic (but uneven) growth than they would on other landscapes where the economic outlook is uniform.

For instance, several innovative projects use access to information, and to information and communication technologies (ICTs), to ensure that marginalized people have opportunities to enjoy the fruits of the region’s economic boom. An IDRC collaboration with Consumers International, for example, seeks to increase access to educational materials by examining the extent to which national copyright laws in 11 developing countries incorporate the maximum limitations and exceptions allowable.

Another program is developing applications software, strengthening human resource capacity, and encouraging policy action in the area of multilingual computing so that digitized information can be conveyed in the region’s many languages.

“If the local languages poor people use are not available in digital form,” Fuchs explains, “it is difficult for them to benefit from the technology. But if their language is on the Internet and on computers, they are much more able to use technology to access health information and education, government services, and economic opportunities.”

A joint effort with Canada’s Athabasca University similarly envisions knowledge as the key to development. The project involves sharing good practices and developing standards for the region’s expanding use of distance learning technologies by open institutions that provide higher education at much lower cost than traditional universities, thereby allowing wider access.

Global concerns and action

Many pressing social and environmental concerns in this region have a potentially global impact. Perhaps no issue has broader transnational implications than the containment of avian flu. On this front, IDRC is employing its networkbuilding expertise to encourage an effective, coordinated response to a problem that can move quickly from the local to the international stage.

“Obviously avian influenza doesn’t respect national boundaries,” comments Fuchs.

IDRC played an active role in bringing together researchers and other interested parties from five Asian countries, as well as Canada, to develop collaborative research in pandemic influenza control.

“The goal is for the Asian Partnership for Avian Influenza Research to increase researchers’ understanding of interlinked social, economic, and environmental factors that influence the spread of avian flu to help formulate better policies and approaches to controlling the disease.”

Avian flu is just one example of a development problem brought about by the complex links between globalization, natural resource use, environmental degradation, and human well-being. Others include climate change and environmental degradation in both rural and urban areas, problems on which IDRC is also focusing its attention.

In Southeast Asia, for example, the practice of clearing land by burning forests blanketed the entire region in haze in 1997, jeopardizing the lives and health of 70 million people. IDRC-supported research on the costs of these fires led to policy changes and concerted action to prevent these occurrences.

Other research in the area focuses on collaborative management of natural resources — forests, fisheries, pasture lands, etc. — to ensure that local people, especially the poor, benefit and that resource use is sustainable. In the teeming city of Jakarta, Indonesia, a project draws together local officials, non-governmental organizations, and marginalized citizens to deal with water, sanitation, and waste management issues in a way that will increase incomes for the poor.

Fuchs believes that IDRC is well placed to support the region’s development and transformation.

“The Singapore office has been here for 36 years, so we have footprints in the region that are pretty deep,” he says. “I think that bodes well for our work in the future.”

Published: 06 Dec 2007

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