Photo: Bangkok SDGs event. Credit: UNDP - Photo: 2016

SDGs in Asia Risk Hijacking by Western Activists

By Kalinga Seneviratne

BANGKOK (IDN) – Early December three UN agencies UNDP, UNESCO and UNFPA organized a three-day youth mobilizing program at the UNESCAP building here called ‘Case for Space’ (C4S) touted as a campaign led by over 60 partners in the region to raise awareness and advocate for the promotion of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the Asia-Pacific region.

Yet, it was dominated by mainly European and American speakers and consultants, with the project being led by a UK-based activist group Restless Development, which made many participants from the region to wonder whether the SDG agenda is being hijacked by westerner activists.

The C4S campaign is supposed to mobilise young people in the Asia-Pacific region to be engaged as “critical stakeholders” in the implementation of the SDGs. It should also allow “socially excluded” people to be engaged in the process, by creating space via social media and digital communications. It is supposed to build networks and capacities for the engagement of young people.

While all sounds good on paper, the way the project was initiated in Bangkok raises many questions about the involvement of Asians themselves in the process. Most of the speakers in plenary sessions who were trying to motivate Asian youth were from Europe or America and there was no noteworthy Asian expert in digital or social media among the speakers. Asia is not short of such talent, there are many around such as Steven Gan from Malaysiakini or Maria Reza from Rapplers in the Philippines.

The event was attended by over 200 youth from across the region, most of them with an activist slant. Even the youth newsroom that was organized and coordinated by four westerners had about 15 young journalists but not from any of the mainstream media. The focus of their stories were mainly based on ‘voices of dissent’ rather than looking at communication methodologies that could contribute towards a more cooperative and peaceful path towards achieving the SGDs.

A youth participant from Cambodia with rural roots explained to IDN that this type of open dissent based methodologies do not work in his country. “Our land is often taken over for so-called development and when we shout slogans and protest we are thrown in jail or bashed up by police,” he told IDN asking not to name him. “I would like to learn how to communicate with grassroots government authorities in a less confrontative manner,” he added.

“Empowered youth are the engine of the progress we all seek,” said Caitlin Wiesen, Chief of
UNDP’s Regional Policy and Programme Support for Asia and the Pacific, during her remarks at the opening ceremony. “Through our work, we are continuously reminded that young people today are more connected, more creative, more informed and more persuasive than any previous generation.”

The UNDP has devised a Youth Strategy 2014-2017 to identify strategic entry points to SDGs for youth with social media playing a leading role. There was much discussion on the wave of legislation in the region that is shrinking the space available in cyberspace where young people express themselves.

“Liking and sharing on social media – while it raises awareness on issues, is a first step leading to action that brings change,” said Samira Hassan, a youth organizer from Singapore who works with a community advocacy group for migrant rights at her school. “As young people, we need to start conversations about the social issues that we think are important,” she added.

There were many sessions during the two days of workshops on marginalized groups, online freedoms and training for young human rights defenders. But, one wonders that if this is the same recipe that mobilized young people in the Arab world which led to the “Arab Spring” uprising and accompanying social and political chaos?

Peddling of such recipes were in abundance during a plenary session on the final day when a panel moderated by Daniel Fieller, UK Ambassador to Thailand and including four westerners, an African and an Asian based in Canada talked about “concrete actions and partnerships” where they were mainly talking about how to pitch project ideas for funding by them.

“We invest in research work with youth … we play an advocacy role,” said Perry Maddox of Restless Development. Manfred Hornung of Heinrich Boll Foundation said “we fund on the ideas which young people bring to us not based on identity”. At one point Ambassador Fieller argued that countries which are democratic and allow freedom of speech for its people will find it easier to achieve the SDGs, conveniently forgetting that countries in this region which have achieved these goals already such as China, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea did not take that path to its success.

Thus, it was left to the African panelist, Layne Robinson, Head of Programs of the Youth Division of the Commonwealth Secretariat, to point out that governments are an important stakeholder in all this. “Lots of governments are trying to implement youth policies” he reminded the young participants, “you need to work with governments to get SDGs done, governments are critical to opening up space for young people”.

Speaking to IDN at the end of the event, Weipeng Wang, a youth participant from China said that translating information into local languages is crucial for communicating the SDGs. “We have a lot of experience in writing blogs. We can write and share information through Wechat,” he added.

Rejinel Valenua a youth from Philippines argued that it is not enough for only the youth to talk about these issues, lecturers at universities have to promote SDGs. “We need to dedicate a special day for C4S” he added.

The C4S has been an idea Restless Development brought to UNDP to be introduced to Asia, and UNDP has taken it up with UNESCO and UNFPA as well as another partner Forum-Asia to hold this event in Bangkok. Most of the funding came from the West.

UNDP’s Wiessen said in the closing remarks that 50 of their partners will be holding another meeting to plan a strategy to take the C4S forward in the region. “We want to expand this shrinking (civil society) space for young people (in Asia). We want to create space for young people. We stand with you to oppose restrictive practices,” she said.

After her closing remarks, one participant from an ASEAN (South East Asian) country who works with youth groups told IDN in disgust that the way the event was organized smacked of an European imperialistic initiative and it is not home driven. “This is a Restless Development project and they are pushing their agenda. This is not the way to do this in Asia,” she said asking not to use her name. [IDN-InDepthNews – 20 December 2016]

Photo: Bangkok SDGs event. Credit: UNDP

IDN is flagship of the International Press Syndicate.

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