Human Security and Asia's Financial Crisis: A Critique of Canadian Policy

Article excerpt

A critique of Canadian policy

MORE THAN THREE YEARS AFTER the onset of Asia's financial crisis, several of the region's economies have been showing signs of recovery. As interest rates continue to decline and exchange rates in the region show signs of strength, many analysts argue that the region is poised to resume its journey towards economic growth and development. Because of improvements in the regional economy, some believe that the worst is over and that standards of living and social conditions in Asia will continue their long march upward.

The complete story, however, is less sanguine. In some countries, industrial capacity continues to decline and private investment is far from pre-crisis levels. These persistent challenges promise even more unemployment and continued social difficulties. When coupled with the likelihood of continued economic hardship in some economies through 2000 and 2001, the popular argument that Asia's economic and political troubles are over seems less convincing as the declining social security/welfare situation is not likely to see consistent improvement.(1) Even if the least afflicted economies manage to post strong growth through the remainder of 2000, their situation will remain precarious, and economic stability will not be assured. Consequently, they will be less able to provide their citizens with the sorts of opportunities for economic advancement that were available prior to the crisis.(2) The absolute number of people living either on or below the poverty line will remain large, and the human welfare challenges posed by the crisis will persist. As a result, Canadian policy-makers will have to remain vigilant and continue to monitor the situation in Asia closely.

The purpose of this article, however, is to go beyond the income-related effects of the crisis and draw attention to some of its more specific implications on human security concerns in three Southeast Asian countries - Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Using data uncovered during fieldwork - through interviews/consultations with personnel from government, academe, and non-governmental/activist groups, as well as a review of primary and secondary data most readily available in these countries - the article provides a critique of how the Canadian policy establishment conceptualizes and articulates human security in the 1995 foreign policy statement, Canada in the World.

The decision to focus on Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam was driven by two key considerations. First, the violence and remarkable political transformations that took place in Indonesia and, to a lesser degree, in Thailand and South Korea has meant that other countries affected by the crisis have received relatively less attention and analysis either from academe or from the international media. Second, each of these countries is experiencing social, economic, and political transformations that began before the onset of the crisis. By focusing on these three countries, it is possible to examine how an exogenous/systemic shock (the crisis) affected domestic/endogenous processes of social and governmental change and the implications of this interaction on human security concerns.

The article makes two arguments. First, Asia's financial crisis had a considerable impact in countries already undergoing transitional processes. On their own, these internal transformations posed serious human security challenges to citizens in each country, and the onset of the crisis exacerbated their effects. In some cases, key institutions faltered and human security was compromised in ways that go beyond the income-related effects of the crisis. Second, the observations and conclusions drawn from the fieldwork, in most cases, present a direct challenge to how Canadian policy-makers conceptualize human security. Based on the data uncovered during the course of research, the argument is that Canada should rethink its understanding of human security if its efforts are to be effective over the longer term. …