The U.S. and Asia: Cultivating Common Ground for a “Social Foreign Policy”

Human Rights Dialogue 1.11 (Summer 1998) "Toward a "Social Foreign Policy" with Asia"

June 5, 1998

The U.S. government’s involvement in Asia has not been very positive for the people of Asia. Here I distinguish between Asian people and Asian governments, and between Americans and the U.S. government.

There is much common ground between the American people and the Asian people. On the issue of housing the barriers are similar: unaffordability of a decent place to live; insecurity of tenure; discrimination against minorities; lack of technical support and capacity-enhancing strategies; lack of financial institutions to support the poor; difficulty of access to land and credit; bureaucratic rigidity. There is often overregulation, and there is corruption. One barrier that appears to be distinctive to the United States is that of segregation, not only of races but of ages as well.

Yet despite these barriers, people are making headway in solving their problems. In Asia, the majority of poor people, owing to the lack of government support, find their own solutions to housing and create self-reliant communities. Without aid from governments or anybody else they acquire land, build their own houses, and develop employment opportunities. Often these processes are informal, and they can be inadequate. We have observed that poor people are planners and are capable of improving themselves given the opportunity to do so. It has been demonstrated both in the United States and in many Asian countries that when people are organized they can be part of the decision-making process that affects their lives. This contributes to the democratization of society.

On the other hand, we also see a small minority making decisions that affect all our lives. But ordinary people can change things. The American people had a significant impact on foreign policy at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, when they took to the streets and ended the Vietnam war. In order to develop a social foreign policy, U.S. development aid has to be separated from U.S. foreign policy and made an extension of the concerns of the American people as a whole, not just of a few people with vested interests. This will only happen if the American people are able to control and determine their international aid programs.

In concrete terms, funding does empower people, it does enhance their lives, and it is very much what is needed in Asia. We still have large numbers of people living in poverty, in desperate situations. But often, very little of the money that is allocated for development reaches the poor; there must be better mechanisms to ensure that allocated funds actually reach their targets.

In Asia there are many NGOs that have developed innovative programs to support community-based settlement programs. A strong linkage needs to be developed between groups in America and in Asia. This not only creates relationships between concerned people, but also produces first-hand information and sharing of experiences that can enrich both sides of the Pacific.

There is a need to develop an education and awareness program in the United States so that Americans can understand the issues non-Americans face. We need exchanges of policymakers and concerned individuals to examine Asian social problems and how Asians are resolving them. Too often, aid and development programs are determined by the donor agencies, who have an agenda of their own. The whole issue of aid, its tendency towards wastefulness and its use as a political tool, needs to be discussed. I believe that American NGOs and community organizations should have the dominant say in the USAID program. Only then can the United States develop a relevant and appropriate social foreign policy.

The fundamental point is for Americans to re-examine the concept of development, which is measured by levels of consumption, and the reigning notion of progress. Today, unfortunately, American society serves as a model for Asian countries. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund are restructuring our economies and our cities to suit corporate interests. The mass media are also playing a significant role: because television reaches the most remote village, we share in that great culture of consumerism. Can you imagine what it would be like if all of the five billion people in the world consumed like Americans and wasted like Americans? But that is exactly what is happening.

This perverted notion of progress is having a huge impact on our resources. Poor people are being pushed to the periphery of cities. In Asian cities more than two million were evicted in 1996 and 1997; nearly three million are threatened with eviction today. Land is made into a commodity. Scarce resources are channeled into nonproductive goods and services that do not benefit the poor in either the United States or Asia.

Globalization should not mean the imposition of a dominant Western culture on the rest of the world, but rather it should be about learning what is rich in our own cultures and our own ways of doing things. It will take some time to find a balance: what is needed is the space in which to find that balance.