ASEAN—What’s In It For You?

From Business World, published on October 3, 2017

 

Still many people think ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is about traffic, cancellation of work and classes, and just like the flak APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) got in 2015, people still do not understand its relevance to the common man or woman.

I had my immersion in ASEAN when I joined the ASEAN Women Entrepreneurs Network (AWEN) in 2014. The private sector group, I soon learned, is part of a big web of committees, councils, and ministers endorsing to higher ministers and so on. It takes time to understand it so I dove deep into reading the Charter and studying the volume of work the group has been doing for 50 years now. Here are some tidbits for you to have a better appreciation of ASEAN, from my point of view.

Your business is and will be affected by policies drafted by the ministers. The ministers are advised by their economic ministers for business issues like non-tariff barriers, etc. and other initiatives economic ministers think will benefit all the 10-member states.

It’s good to know the lingo, too:

  • The countries are called AMS or ASEAN Member States. Not economies. In APEC, they are called economies.
  • There are three pillars: Sociocultural, Economic and Political.
  • The ASEAN-BAC or Business Advisory Council falls under the ASEAN Economic Pillar.
  • The AWEN falls under the Sociocultural Pillar.
  • There is a third and interesting Political and Security Pillar where issues on security and political topics are discussed.
  • There is an ASEAN Committee on Women or ACW.
  • There is an ACCSME or ASEAN Coordinating Committee on SMEs

What is its role in my business, you may ask. Well, you could be in services or products but somehow the policies will and may soon affect your competitiveness or your success in and outside the region.

Take lawyers and accountants and auditors. Though I am not that familiar with the service side, it helps to know if you can practice across ASEAN using your own firm in the Philippines. Or do you have correspondents in each member state?

How about coffee? We have long enjoyed the AFTA or the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement which has zero duty on coffee shipped around ASEAN as opposed to 40% on coffees from Ethiopia and Brazil. Or has Vietnam enjoyed it more than our coffee farmers? Vietnam is now number two in coffee production, a rallying second behind Brazil when it only started in coffee 40 years ago. What does this do to Filipino coffee farmers? Well, we have had to step up and improve our quality, as we cannot beat Vietnam in volume. So we in the industry chose to niche our heirloom coffee varieties and our unique territory to be able to compete in the ASEAN and world market for specialty coffee. “If you cannot do volume, do quality,” we would tell our farmers. That’s just coffee.

Next, we got to know the other coffee players in the region by organizing the ASEAN Coffee Federation (ACF). We now know the other specialty players and are able to buy together and sell to each other but on a higher level of quality. So, it’s good to know other ASEAN coffee people.

On the women angle, we got to know other women associations in all the member states and are able to leverage on each others’ strengths. As a unified body of ASEAN women entrepreneurs, we get to collaborate with South Asia through the South Asian Women Development Forum (includes the SAARC or South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) led by Nepal and includes Maldives, Afghanistan, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bhutan, and Nepal.

What’s in it for me and my business? My business is about sourcing from women producers like women in coffee and other commodities. So ASEAN is relevant for me. But I needed to study the complicated web of its role to an SME like myself. It is not just about networks, it is about business.

If all the women in ASEAN did some business of some sort, around $9 trillion will be added to the GDP. I’m not even counting the coffee supply from Vietnam, India, and the rest of Southeast Asia. Imagine the world buying Asian coffee rather than African or Latin American.

As a market, imagine China and India and the rest of Asia. That’s more than half the world. There are 600 million in ASEAN alone plus almost 3 billion for the two larger ones, India and China. There is no way to avoid the growing numbers of Asians all over the world.

There is a business case in knowing what businesses the women of ASEAN bring to the economy of each country. And think about the coffee, among other commodities like rice and cacao and coconut.

Now, imagine not knowing what ASEAN does. I cannot.

 

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