Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines

DEVELOPMENT: East Asia Reaches Out to Most Vulnerable Neighbours

Kunda Dixit

COLOMBO, Feb 20 1997 (IPS) - The Second World War was just over, Asian countries were emerging out of colonialism, and the Cold War was about to begin. It was 1950, and ministers of the British Commonwealth, meeting for the first time after the war decided that a major development effort was required for Asian countries.

They met in the capital of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and decided that Asia needed something like the Marshall Plan that had just helped rebuild Europe after the ravages of war.

Rather grandiosily, it was called The Colombo Plan for the Economic and Social Development of South and South-east Asia, and was the first international effort in foreign aid in Asia. The key movers were Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Britain and the United States and originally included Asian members of the Commonwealth like India, Ceylon, Pakistan and Burma.

For the next decade or so, the Colombo Plan helped Asian developing countries with thousands of development projects, skills training and scholarships to a staggering 350,000 Asian students. By the late 1950’s membership had expanded to include non-Commonwealth members like Thailand, Nepal, Indonesia, Laos, South Korea, Iran and Afghanistan.

But with the growth of the United Nations, the Colombo Plan’s role was soon eclipsed and duplicated by better-endowed agencies like the Bangkok-based Economic Commission for the Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), the Asian Development Bank (AsDB) and regional groupings like ASEAN and SAARC.

Britain, and Canada soon lost interest and pulled out in the 1980’s. Funding failed, and the Colombo Plan was in danger of becoming extinct. At a meeting in 1989, remaining donor members put it diplomatically, and said the organisation should consider “retiring graciously from the international scene”.

But, in a move that also symbolises the shift in the world’s economic centre in the past 50 years, the East Asians stepped in. Japan and Korea, which were once beneficiaries of the Plan are now putting in money to revitalise the organisation.

The strongest indication of the new East Asian interest in the Colombo Plan is the appointment in 1995 of South Korean economist, Hak Su Kim as the new secretary general of the Colombo Plan.

In his office in the Plan’s small secretariat in a sleepy side-street of Colombo, Hak points to a wall map of Asia and says: “We are in transition. We want to see how the industrialised countries of the Far East, the newly- industrialised South-East Asian countries with the South Asian region can learn from each other.”

Hak believes the Colombo Plan could be the right vehicle for this new pan-Asian cooperation in training, technological knowhow and information exchange and could cooperate with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other regional organisations.

The prime mover of the new Colombo Plan is Japan, and it would like to promote South-South cooperation within the Asia-Pacific and is prompting Korea, Thailand, Singapore and other East Asian member countries to be more active members.

“Japan was strongly behind the revitalisation, and it has a very strong attachment to the Colombo Plan,” adds Hak.

Tokyo appears to have sentimental reasons to return to the Colombo Plan. When it joined as a member in 1954, its post-war rehabilitation was in full swing back home. Japan became a donor nation for the first time when it provided small grants for technical assistance under the Colombo Plan to developing Asia.

The revitalisation plan approved at a meeting in Seoul in 1994 sought to make the Colombo Plan a primary agency for South-South cooperation within Asia for exchange of technical expertise.

Most East Asian members of the Colombo Plan have now become tiger economies themselves and need no more need aid. So the plan decided to focus on the most-vulnerable countries: the least developed, the landlocked, the transition economies of Indochina and tiny island states.

Japan’s support has gone to a programme to upgrade public administration skills in cooperation with the Tokyo-based Asian Productivity Organisation (APO). South Korea is helping with a campaign to develop the private sector in Asian developing countries — especially for small and medium scale enterprises.

The United States and Japan are continuing to support the Colombo Plan’s advisory programme for drugs to coordinate region-wide efforts to reduce supply and demand for narcotics in Asia.

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