Keynote Speech by USAID Mission Director Joakim Parker at the Lower Mekong Initiative Alumni Enrichment Conference

Thursday, November 29, 2012
USAID Mission Director Joakim Parker addresses the LMI alumni in Hanoi.
USAID Mission Director Joakim Parker addresses the LMI alumni in Hanoi.
Photo: USAID/Vietnam

HANOI -- Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for the privilege of making the keynote address at this first gathering of LMI alumni. And welcome everyone to Vietnam, particularly those of you representing the newest participant in the Lower Mekong Initiative. We see real progress in Burma's recent reforms and look forward to supporting them and learning from them, through both LMI and other mechanisms.

As supported by the United States, LMI has implemented programs through a variety of interagency partners on both sides of the Pacific. The U.S. Agency for International Development, my employer, is proud to have a prominent role in that support. Through bilateral programs in LMI countries and regional initiatives managed from offices in Bangkok, we have been particularly active in promoting cooperation on health, environment and water, and education. USAID is hardly the only agency involved, however.

The United States' effort is both deep and broad. Allow me to elaborate on Ms. Pierangelo's summary of the whole-of-government efforts since 2010. They include:

  • over $69 million on environmental programs in the lower Mekong region. These address water resource development, reduce deforestation and forest degradation, and stimulate water-quality research and improvement, among other things;
  • over $9 million in areas related to infrastructure development;
  • over $140 million in the health field, including cooperation on emerging pandemic threats, and support for the control and regulation of counterfeit and substandard medicines; and of course
  • the International Visitors Leadership Program, which facilitates exchanges among professionals from LMI partner countries.

As Ms. Claire Pierangelo reminded us, LMI is about collaboration on trans-boundary challenges. In real terms this means collaboration among officials like you. I would like to emphasize today the initiatives meant to strengthen the foundation for such collaboration, and on the need to broaden participation.

At the LMI Ministerial meetings last summer, Secretary Clinton announced the Asia-Pacific Strategic Engagement Initiative, or APSEI. APSEI represents a geographically broader effort to engage partners on important issues, But it also includes a deepening commitment to Southeast Asia under what is called "LMI 2020." The new programs under LMI 2020 seek to advance knowledge and understanding of the environmental and health implications of economic and infrastructure development along the Mekong River. You know that the River is one of the most bio-diverse water ecosystems on the planet. The programs will also strengthen the capacity and coordination of government, civil society and academic/research institutions in the region on these issues.

Your involvement in the design of these programs is essential. They include the new "Connect Mekong," which focuses on sustainable infrastructure systems and technical capacity by supporting a series of best practice exchanges with a wide range of U.S. and LMI partners. These exchanges will focus on development of infrastructure that enhances competitiveness and allows better access to transportation, electricity, information technology, education, and improved sanitation and quality of life. We expect Vietnam to host such an exchange in January, which feels very appropriate given the accomplishments in Vietnam on improving competitiveness and USAID's new higher education and clean energy investments here.

I will also highlight the Lower Mekong Public Policy Initiative, which promotes educational cooperation towards a platform for conducting research, training, and policy on regional topics such as water resource management, regional infrastructure systems, and agricultural systems. I am pleased this effort is based on collaboration between USAID and Harvard University.

As I said, your involvement is essential but alone it is not sufficient. We must work together to broaden both participation in the LMI and the vision for its impact. I would emphasize participation by women and the private sector. As recognized by our governments last summer in the Joint Statement on Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment, women and girls must be fully integrated - both as change agents and beneficiaries - into the work and goals of the LMI. Our governments also committed to sharing best practices on the promotion of gender equality and women's empowerment in order to enhance capacity of LMI countries. We should already be asking how we are living up to those commitments. The United States committed to helping develop a regional network of women leaders in government and civil society to address common issues such as environmental resources and management, funding scholarships for future women engineers, and providing financial backing for female scientists in the Lower Mekong countries to collaborate with U.S. scientists. What else can be done?

I have another example of the importance of being sensitive to gender. Consider disaster risk reduction, which is a LMI priority. And consider these facts from the United Nations:

  • Disasters lower women's life expectancy more than men's;
  • Women, boys and girls are 14 times more likely than men to die during a disaster;
  • Following a disaster, it is more likely that women will be victims of domestic and sexual violence; many even avoid using shelters for fear of being sexually assaulted.

These facts alone impel us to fully implement the LMI Joint Statement. That last statistic is particularly meaningful this week, as just days ago the world commemorated the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and launched 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. Perhaps we will witness some activism within this conference.

The participants in this conference are largely associated with government. But the goals of the LMI are achievable only if we expand our involvement of the private sector, in addition to improving the demographics of our collaboration. In order to reach the scale and sustainability required to affect real change - to finally solve intractable problems in development - we must embrace a new era of private sector engagement, by both business and not-for-profit entities. This applies to U.S. assistance as well, which explains why USAID's Administrator is leading us to engage companies not as sources of corporate charity, but as real partners with an interest in serving the needs of our peoples, particularly the most vulnerable. It is an approach that requires deeper focus on science, technology, and innovation. It takes advantage of the opportunity in the reality that private capital accounts for over 80% of flows to developing countries. Here in Vietnam, that type of engagement has translated into a partnership with Intel and Arizona State University to strengthen engineering education, which is directly relevant to LMI's infrastructure goals. We have another partnership with Cisco and San Jose State University to develop social work education. The extent to which we use LMI activities to leverage private sector involvement of this type will, to a significant degree, determine our success.

A much bigger example of this kind of success relates to food security. One of the many positive results of Burma's inclusion in LMI was the creation of an "Agriculture and Food Security" pillar to the LMI plan of action. There have been tremendous accomplishments on food security in Southeast Asia in recent decades. You have major rice exports. Poverty rates have declined. Yet in this region you will find areas in which more than one-third of child deaths are due to under-nutrition, and around a third of children under age five are stunted or short for their age. Engaging with the private sector to reduce these numbers would be very promising. You may have heard of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition announced earlier this year. It is a commitment by G8 members, African countries, and private sector partners to achieve sustained and inclusive agricultural growth to lift 50 million people out of poverty over the next 10 years. More than 45 companies are involved, and they include both large and small African and foreign companies. They include names that will be familiar to you, like Cargill, Kraft, Mars, and Monsanto. Surely we can work together through the LMI to expand our cooperation with the private sector to tackle the challenges grouped into our five pillars. Southeast Asia's dynamic qualities make it even more fertile ground to expand participation.

I look around this room and see the potential for a bright future for regional cooperation. Your collaboration, supported in part by the United States' LMI assistance, can make such a difference in overcoming historical tensions and meeting current challenges. By working together and involving other stakeholders, you will succeed.

Thank you for the commitment reflected in your participation, and thank you for inspiring us to make the most of our work with you through the LMI. I am grateful to you and the organizers of this conference for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you today.

Issuing Country 

Last updated: December 30, 2015

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