The global pandemic Covid-19 demonstrates a degradation of the global efforts in international development. Furthermore, it discloses threats with regards to various development issues, ranging from well-being to educational inclusiveness, equality among gender, economics, and climate change. To get an in-depth understanding of the phenomenon in ASEM countries, we interviewed three participants from ASEFYLS4 to discuss their views on how areas of international development have been impacted by Covid-19 as well as the role of youth involvement in helping to reshape and participate in better recovery after the global pandemic.

Ms. Seak Por is from Cambodia. She is currently an International Relations student of the Department of International Studies, Royal University of Phnom Penh; and an International Business student of the University of Cambodia. She also currently interns as Inclusive Education and Child Protection intern at USAID Cambodia.

Mr. Hao Nan is representing China. He is currently a political affairs program officer at Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (for China, Japan and ROK) based in Seoul, ROK. He holds a Master in Public Policy under Li Ka Shing Foundation Scholarship from Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, and a double Bachelor degree in English (Oriented to International Relations) and Diplomatic Studies.

Mr. Maxim Vandekerckhove is a representative of Belgium. Maxim is currently working as assistant coordinator at the expertise workgroup on Technology, Science and Innovation Diplomacy at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. He was
also a candidate at the 2019 European elections and is Europe Together Ambassador at the European Parliament, a project which gave young people a voice on the future of the EU in high level political meetings, founder of the Hand in Hand Foundation NGO and ARC7 alumni.

Setthikun: How do you perceive the impacts and disruption caused by the global pandemic on international development? 

Seak Por: We all are aware of and witness the impacts and disruption caused by the current COVID-19 pandemic on the way to live, the way we work, the way we learn, and more. From my perspective, the biggest impact of the global pandemic on international development has been, firstly, the transferring of most of the attention and resources away from other issues toward resolving the current pandemic, and secondly, the disruption it creates toward the implementation of any development initiatives.

On the one hand, the pandemic is currently the top priority for all countries as well as international organizations. It is important to stop the spread as soon as possible and get the situation under control. Yet, we also have to admit that other development issues are getting less attention due to this. I believe agenda setting matter very much when there are so many issues out there to address.

Moreover, the global pandemic is creating a “new normal” that is prohibiting relevant development initiative from proceeding. For instance, close contact with beneficiaries such as people with disabilities is largely constrained due to restrictive measures; traveling is nearly impossible in many areas of the world, and vulnerable people are also facing new additional challenges due to the current situation that requires further attention. What is more is that it is also reversing previously made achievements such as lifting people out of poverty and the decline of extreme poverty due to even harder financial hardship during this time. The World Bank has also estimated that 88 to 115 people are falling back into extreme poverty due to this. Given all these negative impacts, I also want to add that, on the flip side, maybe, the current pandemic is also uncovering many vulnerability sectors of the society that have been neglected, so that hopefully, it will also receive attention in a post-recovery plan.

Hao Nan: Speaking from my personal experiences by just zooming into East and Southeast Asia, we notice the widening gap among countries within the region concerning economic statuses. This issue can be reflected through the disparity of digital infrastructure in the region. The global pandemic generated socio-economic regression, which posed constraint and pressure on governments’ investment budget–especially in developing states–to further invest in digital infrastructure. Contrarily, in developed countries, the pandemic is perceived to be an opportunity to push forward their digital agenda. For example, in the case of East Asia, China came up with its 14th-five-year-plan, and a campaign to lay out new infrastructures, including the 5G infrastructure and Artificial Intelligence. Moreover, South Korea is closing a Green Economy Deal and Digital Deal to modernize its economy and to be greener and more digitalized. Another issue is related to youth mental health. In various countries with a younger population, such as many of the ASEAN countries, youth is exposed to unemployment or under-employment, triggering a sense of disappointment and depression. In South Korea and Japan, we witness an increase in the suicide rate during the peak time of the pandemic. A lot of young people suddenly become unemployed, and recently graduated students have a harder time to secure a job when entering the job market. I can personally relate to this, as someone who has graduated last year and started looking for work. Lastly, I would like to mention the issues of global solidarity–at the political level between states, and also at the individual level between people. Everyone is at a pointing-finger-at-one-another stage and has yet to work together to solve it. For instance, in Asia, we are working to promote collective responsibility, whereas in Europe, people are still prioritizing their individual rights. Ultimately, the pandemic has impacted the international sentiments, mutual understanding, and international exchanges between young people.

Maxim Vandekerckhove: From my perspective, the things that have been worse through Corona are the things that have been going on for quite a while, but the pandemic made them more visible. The first disruption is the lack of access to educational opportunities or exchanges. For instance, the Erasmus+ is still quite limitary – you are either an outstanding student or coming from a family with a good background to use the opportunity to its full potential. The program [mentioned] is officially open and available for everyone, but in reality, that is not necessarily the case. The miscommunication, lack of awareness of youth, lack of sharing of information has been an obstacle to the access of the opportunity. With Corona, the knowledge about these opportunities is short, and the youth’s willingness is also diminishing. As I saw, people easily forget about how good the opportunities were before.

Secondly, another disruption concerns the skills that people have now as compared to the skills that the job market needs. The job market is evolving in ways which requires the youth to have broad skills, that is, become generalists–knowing about different topics. Nevertheless, the job market still wants people with specific skills, combining broad knowledge with a more specified background. Yet, the overpopulation makes it increasingly hard for young people to gain enough experience to overrule those with many years of experience. Due to the Coronavirus, even people with ten years of work experience have lost their jobs, which means they will now be entering the same job markets as young graduates. Therefore, young people like us with only two to three years of work experience will not be able to compete with them, this is incredibly sad. So, the states will need to consider how to provide sufficient income to all these people.

Although it will take away the incentives and merits for people to be successful, this can also be good for society: when providing basic income to younger people, one can also oblige them to a certain amount of work, including e.g. helping the society in the care sector. In return, we can also have a better outcome for our society as we have people with higher education and with great soft employed in various sectors.

Setthikun: What should be the prioritized areas that governments and the international community should focus on to restore the progress on international development? How can youth contribute to the recovery?

Seak Por: From my perspective, I think that the health care system and education sectors should be prioritized. Firstly, the current pandemic is highlighting many vulnerabilities of the health care system, especially in developing countries. Few experts have expected this pandemic or expected it to last for this long. Just like in the saying “No one is safe until everyone is safe”; the international community should come together and help developing countries in establishing resilient health systems for all citizens.

When health and well-being is disrupted, it influences all activities. Fortunately, it is now great to see the global effort in distributing the vaccine. Furthermore, education should certainly be one of the priorities, given its cross-sectional nature. The education sector has been significantly disrupted and is particularly important because it fosters experts, human resources and knowledge–valuable contributions to society at any time. The education sector can also go beyond teaching technical skills to develop soft skills that allow people to be more adaptive, flexible, and resilient to any other future obstacles. Also, the issue of understanding collective responsibility versus individual rights in times of emergency is important, as it is a determining factor in the decision-making process of restrictive measures. To contribute to the post-recovery, youth can voice their concerns to let the government as well as the international community know what needs to be addressed, utilizing social media and other tools to build the future we want. Youths can also be the authors and initiators of many creative ideas and solutions to societal problems – exchanging ideas and cooperation among youth from different backgrounds also makes the solutions even more effective with more resources mobilized. Lastly, we play a role in assisting the implementation of government measures and policies as an effective grassroot networks.

 Hao Nan: As for me, I would answer it from two levels – domestic and international level. At the domestic level, the pandemic has disproportionate impacts on different groups of people from different economic statuses. The people at the bottom of the society might be impacted the most since they do not have a social safety guarantee, or security scheme, and a high income to begin with. With the socio-economic recession, they might have lost their jobs, might have been unable to pay their bills or their rent, which may lead to homelessness. This may certainly have a negative psychological impact on people. Therefore, the government needs to come up with plans, invest more, and provide opportunities to improve social safety nets which take care of the marginalized, and vulnerable people in society. This includes women, especially elderly women, single mothers, orphans, and disabled people. At the international level, there are too many quarrels between governments. Now it is time to restore multilateral cooperation. The first priority is to guarantee the delivery of vaccines, especially to developing countries which do not have the capacity to manufacture them themselves creating a great demand. That would lead us to respect international laws and institutions, including the United Nations, the World Bank, the IMF as well as regional organizations like ASEAN, and ASEAN+3. In such cases, youth can bridge mutual understanding between countries to resolve the misunderstanding. It is not just about communicating in a common language with other young people, but also diving into the culture, civilization, history, and context to make sense of the contemporary dynamics of certain countries. I wish to see youth pitch more ideas, and turn them into projects and reality–to make our world better.

Maxim Vandekerckhove: The international community and the government need to get their priorities straight. Corona presents an opportunity to rethink our approach to long-term changes. At the international level, sustainable development goals are good ideas, but they are broad. What is essential is that there is a necessity to develop local plans of action in different countries, without criticizing other countries. In the EU, there is a need to create a new contract between the government and the citizens in the society–like the Conference on the Future of Europe. Europe needs to have technological independence from other continents and big companies. It is also related to education and they need to think about providing incentives to develop open-source software, which is available to everyone. Local primary schools in Europe have a very low budget; they cannot spend thousands of euros every year for a new version of Microsoft Office or zoom, so we need the government to invest in open-sources. This will improve e.g. higher education and exchanges of payment. Another aspect related to the development of the green sector are taxes on robots, just as the tax on labor–similar to how governments tax people who work–since products in Europe are produced by robots and people only contributing through their intellectual work. It would incentivize firms to hire more people, including small and medium enterprises, since the tax on labor is cheaper. Lastly, there is a need to have common and affordable transportation that can help us to move from place to place for employment and other purposes. Based on personal experience, I had to travel various places to attend international conferences where I met interesting people for my future to access to all these good opportunities. Therefore, government needs to learn from this and present a strong support plan for businesses, NGOs and schools that pushes for further European integration, and internationalization. In the post pandemic recovery, I hope international youth create institutional bodies that are dedicated to the youth specifically, and be a pressing group addressing issues. Our tasks should now involve being the link between the international and the local community–communicating the efforts by the international community to make changes and contribute to the development. We need to defend these efforts to protect international cooperation. We also need to make sure and keep on pushing for politicians and diplomats to report their activities more.to be accountable.

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