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26 Jan, 2015

ASEAN secretariat under strain, overwhelmed by workload, inadequate resources, tourism ministers told

Nay Pyi Taw, Myammar – The 305-strong staff of the ASEAN secretariat are “stretched to capacity” handling the workload of over 1,200 meetings annually, and the entire ASEAN apparatus is badly in need of a thorough overhaul, the region’s tourism ministers were told on January 25.

Right at the opening of their annual meeting, the ministers were presented with a report that said ASEAN as a whole now has 800 organs, some of which are “increasingly working independently and in isolation” with “inadequate processes in place to ensure that decisions made at ASEAN meetings are effectively implemented.”

It said the staff at the Jakarta-based secretariat need a salary review and upgraded capabilities to manage I.T. requirements, improved research and coordination mechanisms, and documentation-management systems.

The report is the outcome of a High-Level Task Force (HTLF) on Strengthening the ASEAN Secretariat and Reviewing the ASEAN organs set up by the ASEAN leaders in 2013.

Presented initially to the 15th meeting of the ASEAN Coordinating Council, the report said the objective of setting up the HLTF was “to strengthen ASEAN by streamlining and improving its work processes and coordination among the ASEAN organs, enhancing the conduct of ASEAN’s external relations as well a strengthening of the ASEAN secretariat.”

Many of its recommendations have direct relevance to the activities of the Tourism unit, just one of numerous sectors in the overall ASEAN system and not a very high priority in the overall scheme of things.

The listing of the various factors indicating a strained internal system also explains why the entire tourism message has been poorly communicated both regionally and worldwide, as it has been more bogged down by meetings and process rather than outcomes.

Simply put, the absence of a proper ASEAN tourism leadership “voice” at the secretariat level and necessities of bureaucratic report-writing and documentation preparation have become primary reasons impacting the brand-image and profile of the 10-member grouping.

That, coupled with the closed-door, non-transparent nature of the meetings themselves, means that the taxpaying ASEAN tourism public, constituents and stakeholders industry-wide, region-wide and worldwide have poor knowledge of what is going on, how decisions benefit and impact them and how they can get involved, ask questions and provide feedback.

The report indicates that the administrative and secretariat status quo is no longer sustainable given the new tasks that will arise with the single integrated community to take effect at the end of 2015.

It says, “The challenges confronting ASEAN, and the opportunities presented, have increased in recent years. We have in our final phase of realising an ASEAN community by the end of 2015 and are formulating our post-2015 vision.

“We are strengthening our engagement with relevant stakeholders, while following developments with keen interest in high expectations. Our region is dynamic and our regional architecture is a rapidly evolving. Many partners have expressed great interest in deepening their engagement with ASEAN.

“These have stretched ASEAN capacity as issues and meetings have grown significantly. It is even more necessary for ASEAN to take steps to ensure that we remain united, relevant, forward-looking, and at the centre of the evolving regional architecture. It is also important that we improve ASEAN efficiency as resources and capacities are finite.”

Noting that that ASEAN’s integration agenda cuts across many cross-sectoral and cross-pillar issues, it adds, “ASEAN entities and meetings have grown significantly. Over 800 organs convene 1,200 meetings annually. This has strained the financial and human resource capacities of ASEAN member states and the ASEAN secretariat.

“Some organs are increasingly working independently and in isolation. There are also inadequate processes in place to ensure that decisions made at ASEAN meetings are effectively implemented. These are due to ASEAN organs not scrupulously observing the rules to be played by the coordinating mechanisms or lack clarity of their mandates. This has direct implications on how effectively ASEAN works at the regional and national levels.”

The HLTF then goes on to make a total of 88 short-, medium- and long-term recommendations, such as cutting back on the number of meetings, ensuring effective and timely follow-up and better communication of ASEAN summit decisions, dissolution of unnecessary mechanisms, utilising videoconferencing facilities, convening back-to-back meetings and hosting more of them at the ASEAN secretariat, reviewing the effectiveness and financial viability of existing ASEAN organs, and setting up a robust reporting system on the status of ratification of ASEAN agreements as well as their implementation.

Some of the most important recommendations are related to the strengthening of the ASEAN secretariat.

Says the report: “There are several challenges confronting the ASEAN secretariat, including financial constraints and uncompetitive salary structure, resulting in understaffing and lack of capacity building for the staff of ASEAN secretariat as well as unclear mandate or direction from different sectoral bodies.

“The secretariat also faces limited facilities and space constraints, particularly in the context of its expanded role, increased manpower requirements and the number of meetings convened at its premise.

“The absence of an Official Documentation System and the lack of an integrated Knowledge and Documentation Management System make it difficult for ASEAN member states to retrieve information and documentation and for the ASEAN secretariat to effectively perform its role as the custodian of all ASEAN related documentation.”

It says that a restructuring of the secretariat should aim at strengthening its cross-sectoral and cross-pillar coordination; strengthening its research capability, monitoring and implementation of ASEAN decisions; strengthening and restructuring the legal Services and Agreements division; creating a human rights division; strengthening the Information Communication and Technology Division; and rationalising the request for the large number of secretary posts.

It has been proposed that the ASEAN secretariat would have to increase its number of overall staff from 305 presently 469 by 2025, an increase of 54%. This will entail significant financial implications, which also have to be considered.