CHIANG MAI, Thailand — A high-profile meeting of ministers, financiers and bankers at a venue known as the cultural capital of Thailand represented quite a change here last week. The 33rd annual meeting of the Asian Development Bank’s Board of Governors was not only a novelty for exotic Chiang Mai, but also one of the most remarkable in the bank’s history. The event attracted considerable interest on the part of both the media and nongovernmental organizations at a time when the whole region appears to be approaching the first stage of a timid recovery after Asia’s black year, 1997.

What are the main conclusions to be drawn about this meeting by a neutral observer who is not an economist?

First, the general public interest in the conference confirms people’s alertness to issues that particularly affect their everyday lives.

Second, the smooth conduct of the meeting was a tribute to the Thai police, who efficiently handled potential demonstrations and disturbances by disgruntled farmers, social activists and the like. Dissenting groups were allowed to voice their opposition to some of the bank’s policies but — barring some minor scuffles — peacefully, in a departure from the violent Seattle model that had loomed as a dangerous precedent here on the eve of the gathering.

Third, a common denominator emerged in the form of aspirations for better-coordinated Asian solutions to Asian problems. The idea of an Asian Monetary Fund was indirectly revived, and subsequent discussions led to a “Chiang Mai Initiative,” i.e., the proposed strengthening of the cooperative framework of the whole Association of Southeast Asian Nations and, eventually, China, Japan and South Korea. Predictably, the idea was received coolly by the West.

A general feeling also emerged that much is expected both now and in the future from Japan, not only as a prime pillar of the ADB, but also as an engine of growth in Asia. Tokyo should seriously ponder this trend and seize the momentum to expand on its previous substantial contributions under the Miyazawa plan and former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s commitments to Asia. The great interest shown by Thais in the views of former Vice Minister for International Financial Affairs Eisuke Sakakibara and the wide press coverage given to them are just one more indication of Southeast Asian expectations for economic leadership from Japan.

The general picture was not, of course, all rosy. Critics attacked the structure, functioning and of the ADB, while activists and NGOs raised important issues about projects failing to benefit the poor. Protests against “nontransparent, environmentally destructive and poverty-increasing projects” cast disturbing shadows. Another poignant protest came from a group of HIV/AIDS patients camping close to the ADB venue at a cemetery they had dubbed “the Cemetery of the Live.” Their grievance: that the ADB is imposing a loan condition that will have the effect of reducing government spending on public health.

These issues are complex and sensitive, leading to a variety of arguments and counterarguments. In the area of irrigation projects, for example, the arguments of the poor against special contributions were dismissed by those who insist on the principle that costs should be shared by users and beneficiaries.

Without entering into the details of the passionate debates that went on, an objective observer would urge more intense preliminary dialogue between the bank and grassroots organizations, in order to avoid broader crises and conflict later on. Both sides need to have a better understanding of their mutual aspirations as well as their limitations: Bank executives need to address the basic and legitimate concerns of the ordinary people affected by their projects, and the latter, in turn, must respect the legal frameworks within which the bank is required to operate.

A final comment is appropriate here on a series of valuable ADB reports on the general economic situation as it presently obtains in 10 East and Southeast Asian countries. Beyond the usual jargon of the economists, the layman feels the absence of two specific elements:

* more comparative insights, i.e. focusing on “horizontal” comparisons of economic performance in the above countries, instead of — or in addition to — the prevailing vertical, country-by-country analysis;

* more emphasis on education (one positive exception was the paper on Thailand.) In this extraordinary period of transition from the industrial to the information-technology era, studies on economic data become meaningless if they do not give equal weight to educational levels and trends that will determine overall economic performance in the future.

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