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close this bookPromoting Sustainable Human Development in Cities of the South: A Southeast Asian Perspective (UNRISD, 2000, 56 p.)
close this folderIV. Focus on Southeast Asia
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View the documentThe Philippines
View the documentThailand
View the documentIndonesia


Southeast Asia comprises 10 countries. The largest, Indonesia (the fourth most populous country in the world, with around 200 million people), is a sprawling archipelago along the southern boundary of the region. The next largest country is Viet Nam - a long, thin strip of land along the eastern boundary of the main landmass with a population of just over 100 million. The Philippines, comprising an extension of the Indonesian archipelago up the eastern side of the region, matches Thailand, at the centre of the region, as the next most populous (around 70 and 60 million, respectively). Malaysia has a population of just 20 million, followed by five other small countries - which include the affluent micro states of Brunei and Singapore.

Concerning recent political development of the region, with the exception of Malaysia and Singapore, which have possessed democratic regimes over a longer period, the abandonment of authoritarianism has been slower than in other regions of the world. The Philippine dictatorship collapsed in 1986, followed in 1992 by Thailand (which has had a mixed history of quasi - democracy alternating with military dictatorships going back to the establishment in 1932 of a constitutional monarchy). The Suharto regime of Indonesia, although nominally democratic, was (as we shall see below) in practice a regime of strong social control that collapsed only in 1998 after 32 years in power. Several more or less authoritarian regimes remain in the region.

In terms of economic development, the region demonstrated throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s a very rapid rate of growth, albeit with great variations. Singapore was already a significant industrial and commercial centre and Malaysia and Thailand were transformed from predominantly primary producing countries to countries with a significant manufacturing base. Indonesia, starting from a lower level of economic output, also grew fast, with rapid development of manufacturing industries in the subregions of the two major Javanese cities of Jakarta and Surabaya. The Philippines was the only major country to miss out on the industrial development boom (Viet Nam, developing along its own path, was also growing rapidly).

All this changed dramatically in July 1997 with the collapse of the value of Southeast Asian currencies. There are clearly many dimensions to this collapse involving structural problems of the Southeast Asian economies and the way in which these had been developing (Evans, 1999). We can be fairly certain, however, that the mechanism most responsible for the dramatic nature of the collapse was the decision, emanating from the advance of liberalization, to float the exchange rates of the Southeast Asian currencies.

The currencies of all the countries of the region that participated in this action (and including the Republic of Korea) dropped more or less precipitately. A broad swathe of industries went directly into bankruptcy as a consequence of their inability to afford inputs or to service interest payments on capital borrowed in hard currencies. Unemployment, in a situation of inadequate or non - existent social security systems, coupled with sudden rises in the prices of even basic commodities, expunged within two months a decade or more of gains that had been made in reducing the numbers of people living in poverty.

By the end of 1997, the currencies had been stabilized and began to climb back towards their previous levels. On the whole they re - established themselves somewhat below their pre - July 1997 levels. Long - term damage had been done and the ordinary citizens of the East Asian countries were considerably worse off than before the onset of the crisis. And yet the remedies put forward remained those of neo - liberalism, underlain (particularly in Indonesia) by continuing ad hoc emergency "social safety net" measures.

No significant debate arose as to whether the form of the development path - especially the continuing liberalization of the economies - was a good thing for the countries and in particular the majority living in impoverished or modest circumstances. It was against this background that the discussion in the following pages, of the development of local attempts at sustainable development planning and management in the urban context, must be understood.

Following this brief overview of developments in South - East Asia as a whole, three major countries of the region are analysed in more detail, focusing attention on participatory approaches to urban development. The Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia are all countries that are undergoing significant political changes following the collapse of authoritarian regimes. There are some similarities but also many differences in recent social, economic and political evolution as they impact upon development of initiatives in local sustainable development planning and management that are interesting to compare. It is hoped that, together, they provide a significant general view into progress and problems in this respect that contain lessons that are very broadly applicable.