It occurs to me that it might be tough to explain why a USAID senior representative would travel to one of the richest countries per capita in the world to talk about development issues. I mull this over as I prepare to meet Deputy Assistant Administrator for Asia, Greg Beck, in the “Abode of Peace,” the small sultanate of Brunei Darussalam on the North Coast of Borneo.
The explanation – which will become clearer in a moment – is that transnational development challenges require multilateral solutions. On July 1, Beck, along with Secretary of State John Kerry, made the journey to tiny Brunei for high-level meetings between the United States and the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). USAID’s presence with Secretary Kerry highlights the strong development and diplomacy partnership driving U.S. foreign policy in Asia.
While in Brunei, Beck and Kerry participated in the sixth Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) Ministerial Meeting. The LMI is a partnership between the United States and the five countries of the Lower Mekong River basin (Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam), which share common challenges and opportunities stemming from the river that connects them.
“If people do the wrong things upstream with this river, it can destroy the livelihood of the people downstream,” Secretary Kerry said during the meeting. “It sustains the lives of over 70 million people. …In order to meet these challenges, it is essential that we redouble our efforts to balance the demand for resources with sustainability and to develop cooperative approaches.” [Complete transcript available here.]
“We currently support a number of activities that can assist LMI partner countries in addressing shared water challenges,” Beck said. “For instance, our Water Links program facilitates partnerships among water service providers to expand clean water and sanitation and strengthen climate resilience, as well as address the anticipated impacts of climate change from private power infrastructure development.”
USAID engagement alongside State’s diplomatic presence in Southeast Asia is helping to support equitable growth in this dynamic region in the areas of agriculture and food security, connectivity, education, energy security, environment and water, and health. The way we’re doing this, as exemplified by Kerry and Beck’s participation in the Brunei meetings, is by helping to improve communication between countries and encourage regional solutions to the numerous development challenges that impact the entire region.
During the Brunei meetings, I was reminded of the power of regional forums to be catalysts for progress when the foreign minister of Burma – next year’s chair of ASEAN – formally invited the U.S., ASEAN and LMI delegates to next year’s meetings in the Burmese city of Nay Pyi Taw. A few years ago, no one expected that Burma would be in a position to host these annual meetings in 2014. Regional cooperation can be a powerful promoter of positive change.