Event Review: Publication Launch at the Asia Foundation

The Asia Foundation's 
New Publication
Last night I ventured into a realm I'd never previously explored: improving local economic governance in Asia.  The Asia Foundation held a book launch for their most recent publication (seen at left and available for download on their site).  Three authors were on hand to discuss highlights of their work, including:  V. Bruce J. Tolentino (the Chief Economist of The Asia Foundation about to take a new post in Afghanistan- perhaps he's looking for a bit of a challenge?), Veronique Salze-Lozac'h (Regional Director for Economic Reform and Development Programs based in Cambodia with oodles of experience in Bangladesh and a heartfelt and amusing take on the challenges of negotiating with local politicians), and Nina Merchant-Vega (Assistant Director for Economic Reform and Development Programs and an absolute whiz-bang data analyst who I believe can create Economic Governance Indexes with her eyes closed).  I haven't yet had a chance to read the book, but I did learn some interesting things from the presentation last night.

Working as a non-profit in developing countries is always a tricky proposition.  The Asia Foundation has decided to focus their influence at the sub-national and local level, working to bring together business community leaders, local government officials, and a few national governmental players to tackle concrete, solvable problems that make it easier for small business owners to be successful.  Much of their recent work has been aimed at making the business license process more transparent, so entrepreneurs actually know what licenses they need to operate, or reducing licenses or licensing fees so it's easier and more profitable for small businesses to get started.  It seems small, but the Asia Foundation has found the best position to take as an organization is as a facilitator- they talk to the business community in a locality, help them choose three or four issues they'd like to discuss, gather data, and present their findings to local government officials while helping the business community negotiate toward their goals.  Here's a short video from the Asia Foundation website discussing their economic reform work in Bangladesh:

It all sounds highly reasonable and the flow charts in the PowerPoint presentation were beautifully linear.  But there were some hints that the real process is much messier and much more interesting.  Tolentino pointed out that policy reform is always political, and the Asia Foundation has a difficult line to walk between doing work that creates change but not overly irritating local governments so the Asia Foundation gets thrown out of the countries they're trying to work in.  Meanwhile, managing donors sounds like its own circus act.  How do you find flexible grants, contracts that can accommodate change, and donors not demanding immediately publishable results at the end of twelve months?  I suspect that rare breed of donor may be an endangered species.  And managing people during those negotiations between government officials and business leaders?  Salze-Lozac'h has some fabulous stories about the fine art of diplomacy that would make your hair curl.

Ah, the joys of economic reform in countries like Cambodia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka.  It turns out the single most important ingredient in persuading governments to reform their economic policies is (wait for it):  statistical analysis.  The reports the Asia Foundation creates (with all their surveys and research) is their main bargaining tool and the most important legitimizing factor they have.  And it works.  Local government leaders sit up and take notice when the Asia Foundation can present them with real data from formal and informal sectors of their economy, along with concrete suggestions about ways to improve.