11 May 2013 | Article
Robert Mather, Head of IUCN Southeast Asia Group, was in Washington, DC for the U.S. debut of the film “MEKONG”, which examines the issues of hydropower development and its impact on Mekong citizens' lives. IUCN, Institute for Global Sustainable Development (IGSD), Challenge Programme for Food and Water (CPWF), and the Goethe Institute set up the debut of the film during the DC Environmental Film Fest, and also planned related “Mekong Days” -- several days of events held over 22-27th March 2013, highlighting issues related to the Mekong, including panels at the Goethe Institute and the Woodrow Wilson Center in which Robert participated.
Robert also gave a well-attended Brown Bag at the State Department. This exposure of Mekong issues in Washington received significant interest and was considered extremely timely given the increasing US Diplomatic focus on Southeast Asia
During the “Mekong Days” a number of interviews were given to Voice of America, Thailand Service (check news report in Thai, and in English) subsequently broadcast on TNN channel in Thailand and on Chulalongkorn Radio Network; and to Voice of America Cambodia Service. In addition Robert spoke at a very well attended “brown bag lunch” at the US State Department.
Moving beyond the ideas and messages portrayed in the film, some of the additional topics of discussion throughout these “Mekong Days” included:
What kind of innovations can strengthen communities’ and NGOs engagement in hydropower development in the Mekong Region, and in other aspects of national economic and social development including working with governments (national and local) and the private sector?
Multi-stakeholder platforms that bring government, NGOs and the private sector together for exchange, learning and dialogue, have an increasingly important role to play. IUCN has significant experience in this regard – including right now in three main ongoing initiatives – Mangroves for the Future (MFF) (operating in 10 countries); Mekong Water Dialogues (MWD) (4 countries - Lao PDR, Cambodia, Viet Nam and Thailand) and Ecosystems for Life (E4L) in India and Bangladesh.
In each case the model:
- Involves Government, NGOs and the private sector on national Coordinating Bodies (NCBs) or National Working Groups (NWGs);
- Provides grants to local NGOs, and community groups;
- Provides training in e.g. project development and Project Cycle Management (PCM) as well as a range of technical subjects appropriate to each of the different initiatives
The “Wetlands Alliance” model supported by Sida is also an interesting innovation, bringing together 4 regional organizations (Asian Institute of Technology, WWF, Asian Coastal Resources Institute Foundation and WorldFish Center) to provide technical expertise to “back-stop” a huge range of local initiatives involving both local government and local NGOs in Thailand, Lao PDR, Cambodia, Viet Nam and Myanmar.
What are the biggest constraints to strong civil society in the Mekong Region, and what are the key opportunities for overcoming those constraints?
Key constraints include lack of enabling environments (policies, laws, financial incentives) and insufficient capacity within civil society organisations. There is often a need for quite basic capacity development in areas such as fundraising, communications, project preparation and management, etc. The PCM training offered by MFF appears to have been particularly well-received; during internal review, several people commented that this had made MFF different from many other programmes and projects.
Above all, local NGOs in many countries need help with policy analysis. Developing these skills takes time. One option would be to twin local NGOs with environmental think tanks such as World Resources Institute, Environmental Defense Fund, International Institute for Environment and Development, etc. that not only do excellent analytical work but work closely with the media, politicians, business, and other “non-traditional” partners. Incidentally, as Myanmar liberalizes politically and economically, the need for such capacity will become increasingly important if the country wants to avoid some of the mistakes of Thailand, Viet Nam, etc.
How can civil society engage better with regional institutions?
Regional platforms like ASEAN are convenient for raising awareness of political issues such as land reform, but CSOs need a seat at the table to influence regional policy on these key issues. In addition, few NGOs/CSOs really understand the policy making process – where are the key points at which to intervene, and how to do so effectively. NGOs already work with ASEAN task forces on HIV/AIDS, migration, but less so on natural resources management and governance. As the ASEAN Economic Community emerges, we are seeing greater market, power, and infrastructure connectivity as we have with the Greater Mekong sub-region. This connectivity has trans-boundary effects: some will benefit, others will be hurt… this should prompt civil society in Asia to become more regionally connected on those issues. There is a lack of regional platforms and networks to discuss and address development issues and solve conflicts, but regional ASEAN agreements of conventions could complement strengthened civil society ability to work across-border.