Workers' Rights In Southeast Asia
Labor laws exist to empower and protect workers’ rights. The rights of employees hold their employers accountable for their well-being in the workplace. Commonly, large corporations take advantage of the world’s poor, knowing they can subject these people to dire working conditions and insufficient wages that threaten the health and safety of workers. Not to mention, these insufficient wages keep individuals in the control of poverty, indefinitely. The U.N. has stated that in Southeast Asia specifically, promising developments have occurred in the area of workers’ rights since March 2021. However, social divides, COVID-19, long-lasting systemic customs and the exploitation of the poor, still hinder the development of workers’ rights in the region. In the hopes of raising awareness, here are five facts about workers’ rights in Southeast Asia.

5 Facts About Workers’ Rights in Southeast Asia

  1. Labor Laws Enforcement in Southeast Asia Needs Improvement: The Second U.N. South Asia Forum on Business and Human Rights took place in March 2021 and it involved 89 countries and 1,500 participants, according to OHCHR. Its purpose was to evaluate the problems and prosperities of workers’ rights in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. This forum resulted in the conclusion that the enforcement of labor laws in Southeast Asia needs improvement. There are plans to discuss country-specific issues and progress for the 2022 forum.
  2. The COVID-19 Pandemic Expedited the Regression of Secure Jobs in Southeast Asia: While a lack of workers’ rights is prominent, the pandemic has caused the existence of work itself to dwindle. The pandemic pushed 4.7 million people in Southeast Asia into poverty due to the disappearance of 9.3 million jobs. This has caused a sense of desperation and willingness for Southeast Asian workers to subject themselves to substandard working conditions, as work has become a scarcity in the aftermath of the pandemic.
  3. Workers Frequently Experience Unequal and Discriminatory Treatment: In the “Access to justice for migrant workers in Southeast Asia” report, findings concluded that while 20.2 million workers in Southeast Asia have access to labor rights, “they frequently experience unequal and discriminatory treatment in practice.” The report explains this problem occurs primarily due to unsuccessful procedures in resolving worker complaints in Southeast Asia, which allows for these workplace abuses to happen.
  4. Modern Slavery: According to a Global Slavery Index report in 2016, Cambodia, Myanmar, Brunei and Thailand are a part of the top 10 Asian countries with the highest number of people in working conditions of extreme exploitation. The numbers equated to about 2.5 million Southeast Asians “being caught up in the grip of modern slavery,” according to a PLoS Med article.
  5. Workers’ Complaints Need Fair and Responsive Solutions: The “Access to justice for migrant workers in Southeast Asia” report has analyzed Southeast Asian workers’ complaints from Migrant Worker Resource Centers from 2011 to 2015. The analysis of more than 1,000 cases across five countries revealed the most extensive compilation of Southeast Asian worker complaint data. The substantial analysis has revealed that progress in justice has increased, but prominent challenges in fair and responsive solutions persist.

Looking Ahead

Worker’s rights are essential to the eradication of poverty. It is substandard working conditions and wages that keep individuals in an ongoing loop of poverty. When people are provided with the necessary working accommodations, they are more likely to afford more, in turn, becoming customers of places they usually wouldn’t like niche small businesses that are especially healthy for the economy. Drawing attention to issues surrounding workers’ rights in places such as Southeast Asia is especially important to show all the efforts they are making.

– Madeline Ehlert
Photo: Piqsels

Agent Orange Affect Southeast Asia
During the Cold War, the policy of containment dominated U.S. foreign policy. The policy of containment is the concept that one can most effectively combat communism by fighting it whenever and wherever it appears. Vietnam came into the crosshairs of the U.S. because the U.S. feared the Soviet influence that was taking hold of the country. Evidently, this policy barely distinguished between neutrality and open hostility and led to the use of agent orange and the U.S. bombings of officially neutral Cambodia and Laos.

Cold War Bombs in Southeast Asia

From 1961 to 1975, beginning with the secret war in Laos and closing with the end of the Vietnam War, the U.S. dropped 2.7 million tons of ordnance, including 26 million cluster bomblets in Cambodia. The U.S. dropped more than 2.1 million tons of ordnance on Laos and 8 million tons of ordnance in Vietnam.

As of 2021, injuries and fatalities because of the campaigns number nearly 64,931 people in Cambodia, 25,000 people in Laos and more than 100,000 people in Vietnam. The crisis at hand is that the legacy of these wars is still severely impacting people living in Southeast Asia. A notable amount of bombs did not detonate on impact, UXOs (Unexploded Ordnances), and these UXOs are still taking lives in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam today. The estimated percentage of ordnance that did not explode that remain are respectively 25% for Cambodia, 33% for Laos and 10% for Vietnam.

Agent Orange in Southeast Asia

Agent Orange was a mixture of herbicides created to eliminate vegetation that the U.S. military sprayed in Vietnam and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a trail that spills over into Cambodia and Laos, with the intent of killing vegetation that guerilla fighters were using for cover. By the end of the Vietnam war, the U.S. had sprayed more than 11 million gallons of Agent Orange on Vietnam, with spray drifting into Cambodia and Laos.

The agent resulted in generations of birth defects and chronic health issues including cancer, heart disease, shortened or missing limbs and developmental disabilities that affect both those who had exposure to Agent Orange and their descendants. The damage from the usage of Agent Orange is extensive, for it still deteriorates the health of hundreds of thousands of people and their children in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and the U.S. in the case of veterans who served.

Ameliorating this situation has an added difficulty, the State Department has a split stance. The VA publicly concedes that Agent Orange spray did drift into Cambodia and Laos. Upon being asked about dioxin [Agent Orange], a State Department spokesperson responded that “The legacy of dioxin is a complex issue; and one that the U.S. and Vietnamese governments have collaborated on since 2000,” exclusively referring to Vietnam when Laos and Cambodia have also experienced the effect of how U.S. usage of Agent Orange complicates global efforts to right the wrongs.

UXO Removal: Cambodia and Laos

One State Department partner making a difference in Cambodia and Laos is the HALO Trust, a notable humanitarian landmine and UXO removal organization. Thanks in part to the advocacy efforts of the HALO Trust, there was an increase in Congressional funding for demining efforts in Vietnam and the region, $7 million for Vietnam and $25 million for the region. The combined efforts of the HALO Trust and their local community partners led to the remarkable achievement of dismantling over 575,000 landmines and UXOs in Cambodia and Laos.

Fighting Agent Orange: Vietnam

Dr. Charles R. Bailey, head of the Ford Foundation and agricultural economist, funded a study that led to a monumental breakthrough in fighting Agent Orange. Until this study, there was widespread fear and uncertainty pertaining to how to deal with Agent Orange. However, this study led to the discovery that dioxin [Agent Orange] was no longer a danger in the general landscape of Vietnam, rather it was concentrated only in a few hotspots. This discovery is what made it possible to clean up Agent Orange contaminations so the people of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia can finally begin to heal from this wretched legacy of war.

Additionally, this discovery got the legacy of the Cold War in Southeast Asia into American policy circles, executive and Congressional. As Dr. Bailey recalled his time in Vietnam in the late 1990s, he found U.S. diplomats in the embassy were under the direction of the State Department to not even utter the words “Agent Orange.”

The nature of the debate has surpassed this point in the past 20 years, hence the bipartisan support that has come to the floor for funding UXO removals and Agent Orange clean-ups. As of 2022, the U.S. government has spent $400 million to address environmental cleanup and health effects of Agent Orange with the money going towards clean up and persons with disabilities in Vietnam since 1991. This development presents a promising shift in U.S. foreign policy, taking greater responsibility for the legacy of its war in Vietnam. A hopeful start towards extending not only UXO removals to Laos and Cambodia, but also a recognition of the need to fight Agent Orange in the countries as well.

Chester Lankford
Photo: Flickr

Kidney Disease in Southeast Asia
End-stage renal disease, the last stage in chronic kidney disease, is one the deadliest illnesses in the modern world. This rise in end-stage renal disease can result in a considerable loss of economic growth and cause a massive loss of life. Growing countries and communities experience a harsher result from end-stage renal disease. Southeastern Asian countries face challenges that are damaging to poverty-stricken countries. Many vulnerable individuals face the challenging task of securing medical assistance for combating chronic kidney disease because of healthcare systems lacking financial support, including renal support. The 21st century has brought to light a new, dangerous illness. The process of combatting kidney disease in Southeast Asia must occur through global initiatives and support.

The Silent Chronic Illness

The term “silent illness” is a long-term sickness that results in death. Chronic kidney disease, known as CKD, is one of the deadliest diseases globally, killing millions each year. With more than 10% of the population suffering from the disease, its lethality has grown sharply. It increased from the 28th deadliest cause of death to the 19th. This sharp rise in death rate is comparable to only AIDS, and HIV has a sharper increase in death rate. This statistic showcases the challenges in combating kidney disease.

A recent study from the scholarly journal, Nephron Clinical Practice, displayed the significant financial and medical expenses that could come from the sharp rise in kidney disease illnesses and deaths. These issues will hit developing countries the hardest. More than 23 developing countries could lose more than $85 million in economic development. Southeast Asian countries suffer the worst. Renal Replacement Therapy costs 10 times as much as the per capita income. Furthermore, very few medical coverages support renal medical treatment. Only 10% of individuals suffering from chronic kidney disease have access to renal medical resources, a worrying statistic for the future of developing countries that work hand in hand with other developed countries to continue to flourish against kidney disease in Southeast Asia.

Kidney Disease in Southeast Asia

Kidney disease preventative centers and policies are not very accessible in Southeast Asia. Many governments have just become aware of the extensive and damaging results that kidney disease carries. Southeast Asian countries lack the essential resources to help with a deficiency of dialysis treatment.

This disease is, however, especially deadly in impoverished communities worldwide. Experts from The International Society of Nephrology, the world’s leader in chronic kidney disease research, found in a recent study that more than 10 million people die every year from chronic kidney disease. The BNC Nephrology systematic review also saw a sharp decline in human resources in kidney services and disproportionate effort within the healthcare system of these respective Southeast Asian countries.

Combative Practices

Political and social policies have always provided support to those who need it. However, recent years have been more optimistic towards a more renal secured Southeast Asia. One country that has doubled down on this matter has been Thailand. In the past decade, Thailand has created three new national kidney foundations. The kidney foundations work through direct financial and medical support to those most in need and politicians to secure a poverty-ending medical support policy for those at risk and suffer from chronic kidney disease.

Some are working on the introduction of a renal replacement therapy policy within Southeast Asia today, with help from the International Society of Nephrology. The society is holding various forums to work with the Southeast Asian governments for more inclusive policies.

Malaysia and the Philippines both have two national kidney foundations to educate and secure funds needs for renal therapy and medical support. Consequently, the increase of chronic kidney patients has increased the demand for dialysis nurses and doctors.

Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore are receiving public-private partnerships in supporting renal therapy and medical support. The acknowledgment of policies that allow further funding from private organizations and liberal implementations of new policies would also trigger community involvement, drafting a new healthcare system with the inclusion of kidney care to combating the rise of kidney disease in Southeast Asia.

Conclusion

Chronic kidney disease has been dismantling families and hitting poverty-stricken communities the hardest. Southeast Asian communities have followed a pattern in renal disease medical needs. Millions of people with and without preexisting conditions are at risk. But, Southeast Asia can become a much more healthy and prosperous place for those who suffer from chronic renal disease. Combating kidney disease in Southeast Asia will continue to be an uphill battle. However, the next generation of policy for a healthier healthcare program will usher in a new era of kidney care for those most at risk in Southeast Asia.

Mario Perales
Photo: Flickr

The Journey Towards Hmong Gender Equality
Hmong people are a part of an ethnic group from Southeast Asia. They have achieved relative economic and political stability in the United States and other countries of Hmong migration after the Vietnam War. However, Hmong women continue to face inequality and repression within their own communities. The Hmong culture highly values education. As such, Hmong families often encourage their children to pursue higher education. However, Hmong’s people still need to achieve Hmong gender equality. As a result, families have not equally supported young girls in recent years.

Hmong society firmly implants gender roles. Established gender conventions continue to affect Hmong families’ opportunities. However, women have been triumphant in breaking barriers. In a survey of several Hmong women, author Gokia Vang found that a number of respondents felt pressure to transform into perfect housewives and conform to the idea of the woman as the homemaker.

Who Are the Hmong People?

It is crucial to understand the socio-economic conditions affecting the contemporary Hmong population. According to a leader at The Center for Hmong Studies, the Hmong are an ethnic group within the country of Laos. People in Laos primarily refer to the Hmong as Hmong. Although a majority of Hmong people migrated to the United States from countries such as Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, the Hmong are a unique ethnic group of their own. Furthermore, they have their own distinctive culture and lineage.

The CIA began leading covert efforts to recruit Hmong soldiers to defend against the influence of communism in the 1960s. Additionally, most Hmong soldiers fought alongside the United States during the Vietnam War and the Secret War in Laos. The two wars devastated the Hmong population. Furthermore, it drove hundreds of families to abandon Laos and flee to more stable surrounding countries. Eventually, many migrated to the United States.

Gender Dynamics in the Hmong Household

Economic pressures as a result of mass migration vastly influence gender roles in the Hmong community. Sara R. Curran and Abigail C. Saguy’s research on the effect of migration in gender roles reaffirms this phenomenon. The heads of households often feel compelled to assert a sense of legacy and encourage male members of the family to become resourceful, well-educated individuals when migrating to a new country. This is so men can send money back to relatives in their home country.

Researchers have observed a behavior called relative deprivation, where male members of a migrant community compensate for the upturning of tradition by purchasing material goods to assert social dominance. However, the head of households is hesitant to challenge tradition and instead push women towards homemaking and marriage to better integrate into American society. According to Identity Within Cultures, Hmong women began embracing more liberal forms of gender expression after arriving in the United States. Furthermore, new insecurities emerged in regard to Hmong gender equality. Thus, more rigid gender roles emerged as a method of holding onto their own culture.

The Challenges of Hmong Gender Norms

Many often perceive gender equality in a white-centric context for Hmong women. Studies acknowledge Hmong culture as fluid and changing and that Hmong American women are active participants of cultural change. However, more discussion of discourse and ideologies that impact Hmong American girls’ self-perceptions and choices is necessary. Hmong women have succeeded in the educational sphere despite the racial and cultural implications. Furthermore, they have demonstrated their motivation to secure college degrees and seek out challenging careers.

Women within these communities have explored various paths to achieve Hmong gender equality and belonging. Their ambitious and motivated efforts have flipped the dynamics within the cultural sphere. Jennifer Yang, a writer for Diverse Education reported that Hmong women seeking higher education outnumber Hmong men. There have been significant improvements in Hmong gender equality. It is important to acknowledge how Hmong women have rapidly shifted economic roles and redistributed opportunities in a more egalitarian manner amidst the complexities of acculturation and cultural preservation. Women within micro-cultures can successfully shape and mold their own roles in a new social climate.

– Luna Khalil
Photo: Flickr

Healthcare in Thailand
Thailand is a country of hundreds of islands in Southeast Asia with a population of nearly 70 million people. Thailand has a history of political instability and economic uncertainty along with rising poverty rates. However, the country has made great strides to improve its healthcare. Nearly 7 million of Thailand’s citizens live in poverty and a wealthy few control a large majority of the country’s wealth. With one of the most extreme wealth gaps in the world, universal healthcare in Thailand creates a meaningful movement toward equality for all its citizens.

Switching to Universal Health Coverage (UHC)

In 2002, Thailand made the transition from a combination of various healthcare policies to an all-encompassing, universal health coverage (UHC) system. Under the UHC system, every Thai citizen is entitled to health services — including preventative, curative and palliative care, at any age. Under this system, financial protection for high-cost services also improved.

Challenges in Financing the UHC System

Though universal health coverage in Thailand has allowed increased access for all ages and classes of citizens, the country still faces challenges with funding the program. The UHC system is a predominantly publicly funded program, meaning that it functions mainly through taxation. Because the nearly 7 million Thai citizens live no more than 20% above the poverty line, the UHC budget coming from taxes is relatively inflexible. Therefore, funding the growing demands for healthcare in Thailand often requires reaching into other public funds.

Access to preventative medicine has decreased the rates of many illnesses by keeping them from occurring in the first place. However, medical expenses in other categories are on the rise. As the average age of the population increases, healthcare in Thailand faces an influx in elderly patients needing more care. Unsafe road conditions and unenforced traffic laws in many regions also contribute to high rates of road accidents and result in excessive trauma cases. Also, air pollution in cities and extreme weather conditions in various regions across the many islands contribute to increased utilization of the UHC system. For the UHC system to be an equitable, effective and sustainable service for the country, other avenues of funding must be explored.

Challenges and Looking Ahead

Healthcare in Thailand has had many positive improvements since the national transition to universal coverage in 2001. Yet, like any system, it often faces continued challenges. The system is considered popular among lower-paid citizens that did not previously have access to care. Albeit, higher-income communities hold some distaste for the system due to increased access leading to more crowding in hospitals. Universal healthcare in Thailand has created a much more inclusive environment for the Thai people as it helps to bridge the immense wealth gap. A gap between the nearly 7 million living in poverty and the wealthy 1%.

Positive Impact of the UHC System

This alteration of the previous healthcare system has led to an increase in the utilization of health services and decreased the prevalence of unmet needs in the country. Overall, healthcare in Thailand is improving. Not only did rates of care increase with the introduction of the UHC system, but other metrics of improving healthcare also rose.

Life expectancy from birth rose from 71.8 years before the introduction of the UHC system, to 77.2 years in 2020. Infant mortality rates similarly fell from more than 100 per 1,000 births in 1970 to 7 per 1,000 births in 2020. As citizens have been able to access preventative care and more expensive intervention at lower personal cost, out-of-pocket spending on healthcare needs have decreased. Meanwhile, household savings increased. Though the switch to universal healthcare certainly faces challenges, it has created quantifiable positive change for millions living in Thailand.

Jazmin Johnson 
Photo: Unsplash

Organizations Providing Mental Healthcare
After natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes and floods, most survivors focus on physical needs first, such as food, water, shelter and electricity. However, psychological needs are just as important. This leads to the need for mental health relief and psychological first aid that addresses the initial mental health needs of survivors of natural disasters. Here is some information about the situation in six different places along with the organizations providing mental health care amidst natural disasters.

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is an island commonwealth located in the tropics and near a fault line that places it at risk for flooding rains, tropical cyclones and earthquakes. In 2017, hurricanes Irma and Maria affected the island chain, with the latter being one of the island’s most devastating storms in history. With health care workers leaving the island after the storm, resources squeezed tight, electricity out and pharmacies closed, issues such as anxiety, increased suicide rates and PTSD became heightened. After the storm, one-fifth of all residents were in need of mental health care. People leaving the island put a further strain on available health care resources, including mental health services. Predictions have determined that about 600,000 people will leave Puerto Rico by 2023. Additionally, about 7% of children met the criteria for PTSD.

While progress in building the mental health infrastructure has been slow since Maria, the island has made progress. When Hurricane Maria hit, the storm knocked out power to almost the entire island. According to The American Psychological Association, Hurricane Maria disrupted half of the island’s cellphone service and most internet connections. Pharmacies closed, meaning antidepressants were unavailable. Some rural towns experienced complete isolation so mental health professionals were unable to reach people in need. Moreover, staff with the Puerto Rico Psychological Association did not have full training prior to Hurricane Irma, and Hurricane Maria made PRPA aware of the various needs. Immediately after the storm, the PRPA sent psychologists to disaster areas, set up triage and provided counseling to people in need. The big things they focused on were listening to people’s stories of survival and focusing on a positive future outlook.

Organizations Providing Mental Health Care in Puerto Rico

Save The Children established the Journey of Hope project, and the organization worked to keep children on track through education, an important opportunity to support emotional wellbeing, in addition to coping with loss and anxiety. In the year after the storm, the project helped over 1,600 children. The Hispanic Federation provided solar lamps to people who lost power after the earthquakes since power outages triggered PTSD in Hurricane Maria survivors. The Hispanic Federation also teamed up with the University of San Juan to provide mental health services to people in both rural and urban areas. Direct Relief provided counselors and medications and hosted a workshop to address mental health needs.

Dominica

Hurricane Maria also caused widespread devastation on the Caribbean island nation of Dominica. As with Puerto Rico, the storm caused catastrophic damage on the island. International Medical Corps, together with the Dominica Psychological Society and IsraAid, designed and hosted 15 one-day workshops with over 200 leaders between December 2017 and February 2018, where they learned about psychological first aid. The community leaders who participated in the workshop came from various NGOs, local government councils throughout the island and ministries in the government, including The Ministry of Health. In addition, the organizations hosted workshops for art-based psychological first aid.

Bahamas

The Caribbean Development Bank provided $1 million to the island chain nation after Hurricane Dorian to address the mental health needs of residents. This came after the organization announced a broader initiative with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) to provide counseling assistance, citing the need to address the link between natural disasters and mental health. International Medical Corps assisted the Bahamas Ministry of Health by providing mental health and psychosocial support services. Because individuals tend to focus on food, water and shelter needs first, issues such as anxiety, PTSD and depression could be major long-term health crises, since most people on the affected islands lost their homes or loved ones. As a result, the organization sent mental health counselors to Grand Bahama Island, trained officials in psychological first aid and supported community-based mental health initiatives.

India

The National Institute of Mental Health and Neurological Sciences in Bengaluru assisted flood victims in Kodagu after floods affected the region in 2018. A team of experts, which included psychiatrists and psychologists, went to the region where they trained people on the ground to help with local mental health needs and communication. Additionally, volunteer groups created the Kerala Floods Mental Health Support Group to connect survivors of the floods. In India, there are few resources that go to mental health care. A 2015 World Health Organization (WHO) report found that there were only three psychiatrists per million people, while the National Programme for Mental Health received less than one-tenth of 1% of the 2017-2018 budget.

Indonesia

After the 2018 Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami killed over 4,000 people, IsraAid provided mental health services and supportive activities to the communities the disaster affected. These included training individuals in the community to cope with and learn about the long-term effects of trauma. Doctors Without Borders partook in similar efforts, training volunteers on the ground to reach at-risk and remote communities. UNICEF worked to address the mental health needs of children, helping 4,500 at 60 different places through psychosocial support. More than 10,000 psychosocial kits went to children and teachers.

Southeast Africa

Cyclone Idai made landfall in Madagascar in March 2019, causing torrential flooding in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi and killing more than 1,300 people. In Zimbabwe, UNICEF and Childline Zimbabwe and the Regional Psychosocial Support Initiative provided counseling to the children the cyclone affected. The organizations also established a shelter at Ngangu Primary School to cater to the victims’ material and psychosocial needs. Near Chimanimani, UNICEF worked with eight different organizations to provide counseling and psychosocial support to those the disaster affected.

In Mozambique, more than 31,000 children received psychosocial support through UNICEF after Idai and Cyclone Kenneth, which impacted the country a month later. In Beira, Mozambique, Doctors Without Borders provided counseling to the storm survivors and health care workers, and also trained psychologists on psychological first aid. Additionally, the organization undertook a public health campaign to talk about the symptoms of trauma related to the cyclone and the flooding it caused in Buzi. Meanwhile, UNICEF reached 10,000 children in Malawi through an initiative that provided opportunities for psychosocial support.

Closing Remarks

Future efforts by organizations providing mental health care will need to focus on community-based efforts and in collaboration with local figures. These modes of care will need to be integrated into the healthcare infrastructure and focus on long-term outcomes.

– Bryan Boggiano
Photo: Flickr

Tea Farming in Sri LankaSri Lanka is a small island off the southeastern coast of India. The country is home to around 22 million people and to a long and vibrant history. Sri Lanka has gone from an early Buddhist settlement to a colony under the control of major European powers to, finally, its own independent republic in 1972. Throughout its secular history, tea farming in Sri Lanka has remained a constant activity and has played a massive role in the development of culture on the island.

Sri Lankan tea gained global prevalence after British colonial rulers transformed tea agriculture into a plantation-style economic powerhouse. With the economic success brought on by the explosion of tea farming in the country, the British began pushing peasants and subsistence farmers into producing tea to capitalize on the global interest in the beverage.

Tea Farming in Modern Sri Lanka

Plantation-style agriculture still makes up a notable volume of Sri Lanka’s economy, and tea is the “preeminent crop of the plantation sector” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The global demand for tea has not diminished in modern times and seemingly neither has Sri Lanka’s role in providing it. The country exports hundreds of millions of kilograms of tea every year. For example, from January 2020 to May 2020 Sri Lanka exported over 100 million kilograms of tea to its trading partners.

Therefore, much of the country’s agricultural workforce is devoted to tea farming. More specifically, two million Sri Lankan farmers rely on tea farming and tea production to provide for their families and households. With tea ingrained in so much of Sri Lanka’s culture and economy, modern solutions need to be embraced to soothe the working conditions of the many poor farmers who work to meet the global demand for tea.

How Microsoft is Improving Tea Farming in Sri Lanka

To do so, Sri Lanka has turned to technology and confided in companies to assist the government in finding these solutions. For Sri Lanka specifically, Microsoft has been a superb partner in this goal.

One broad way Microsoft has helped is via a survey conducted with local business leaders to determine if they have an interest in integrating artificial intelligence (or “AI”) as a business solution. The survey discovered that 80% of those business leaders surveyed found AI to be essential to maintain their business’s competitiveness. Acknowledging this, Microsoft is investing millions of dollars into enhancing tech skills for businesses in Sri Lanka, as well as starting programs and providing hardware to assist tech startups rising in the nation.

The implications of this initiative are massive. Considering the vital status of tea farming to Sri Lanka’s culture and economy, Microsoft’s assistance in pushing more technology into businesses can lead to more efficient farming. As a result, there will be more valuable data available to increase crop yields and more companies will engage in tea farming as their enterprise of choice. The introduction of these tools can also lead to an improvement in the lives of millions of tea farmers in Sri Lanka in both safety and economic terms.

The Colombo Tea Auction

Such efforts have already begun to take hold in Sri Lanka. One major example of Microsoft’s valuable assistance to tea farming in Sri Lanka can be found in the Colombo Tea Auction. The Colombo Tea Auction is a weekly event that takes place in the nation’s capital involving the sale and export of tea from farmers. The event is vital to the tea farming community’s success as it is a major method for how the country’s tea is prepped and sold for export around the world.

However, the auction tends to involve a lot of close-quarters contact between attendees; a reality that has proven impossible given the current global COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, with the help of Microsoft’s Azure team and their Azure cloud and AI products, a local tech company was able to develop an e-commerce platform that allowed sellers and buyers to trade tea from the safety of their own homes. This was developed with extreme speed, and it allowed the tea economy (and two million poor tea farmers) to avoid economic disaster and flourish amongst a dangerous pandemic.

Now that the benefits are starting to become more tangible, and economic success is within reach for Sri Lanka’s farmers, technology may become more and more prevalent in the Sri Lankan tea industry. With the success of the Colombo Tea Auction’s move to digital commerce, along with Microsoft’s continued efforts to support Sri Lanka’s growth in tech and economic fulfillment, the world may see a better-equipped, safer and more successful Sri Lanka in the near future, perhaps beginning with their high-quality tea.

– Domenic Scalora
Photo: Flickr

EdTech in SoutheastSoutheast Asia is a region that is known for placing importance on education, with parents often enrolling their children in additional after-school tuition sessions to enhance their academic knowledge.

The region is home to 700 million people and 25.7% of the population falls under the school-going age group.
However, due to COVID-19, many educational institutions were forced to adapt and utilize education technology (edtech) to conduct virtual classes for students. Edtech in Southeast Asia utilizes tools such as mobile applications, websites, online quizzes, streaming videos and online tutorials to provide Southeast Asian students with the opportunity to continue studying no matter the circumstance or location.

The Problem of Gaining Access to Quality Education

In rural parts of Southeast Asia (SEA), the lack of development and scarcity of trained teachers result in the problem of children not getting the education they deserve. Teachers are underpaid and classes have high student to teacher ratios, further exacerbating the quality of education that students receive. As a result, public schools are underfunded and poorly-run. Those with the financial ability mostly choose to invest in private education for their children (either in the form of additional tuition or private schooling), however others who do not have the means are forced to study within the existing system, leading to a widening gap in educational inequity.

However, with edtech, not only are many of the physical obstacles (such as distance and lack of school facilities) mitigated but also, edtech lowers the cost and potentially increases the accessibility of quality education for students who have an internet connection.

EdTech in Southeast Asia as the Solution

SEA has high internet penetration rates, and in 2019 alone, 97 million handsets were purchased in SEA, making the region fertile ground for the expansion and adoption of edtech. In addition, over the last five years, Southeast Asia managed to raise $480 million in venture capital funds for edtech startup investments.

Today, there are many edtech startups in SEA such as Topica, (Vietnam), Taamkru (Thailand), Ruangguru (Indonesia) and Classruum (Malaysia) that are hoping to breach the educational gap and increase the quality of education. In particular, Topica, a Hanoi-based edtech startup aims to increase the talent pool by equipping young adults with the skills they need to thrive in a fast-paced working environment in the digital age. Topica has more than 3,000 e-learning courses, in topics such as social media marketing and computer programming, and has trained more than 6,000 students thus far.

Clearly, edtech in Southeast Asia is a burgeoning industry that promotes educational inclusion for many in need. Especially during COVID-19 where many schools have yet to reopen for fears of further spreading the virus, edtech is useful for providing millions of children in SEA with the opportunity to learn during national lockdowns.

– Mariyah Lia
Photo: Flickr

 


Technology has the ability to empower those in a community to achieve better, faster, and more efficient results. Gojek is an Indonesian start-up that began with a vision to use technology to improve the lives of motorcycle taxi drivers. The company has now flourished into an online ecosystem that connects Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in Indonesia to millions of customers and Big Tech clients. This effort is further improving the lives of millions in the region.

Who is Gojek?

Gojek is Indonesia’s first unicorn company and Super App that provides a multitude of services to thousands of users across Southeast Asia, such as ride-hailing, food delivery, beauty services, entertainment booking and online payments. The company believes there is always a way to solve everyday problems and create a positive social impact using advancements in technology. As SMEs make up most of the businesses in Indonesia, Gojek helps SMEs in Indonesia by creating a digital platform that connects consumers and businessmen efficiently and seamlessly. Overall, the company managed to raise billions of dollars in financing from Google, Tencent, JD.com, Mitsubishi and VISA. More recently, Facebook and Paypal also invested in Gojek’s financial technology division, thereby officially joining Gojek’s list of high profile investors that share the mission of increasing digital economic growth in Southeast Asia.

Connecting SMEs with Big Tech in Indonesia

Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s largest and fastest-growing digital economy. Therefore, Gojek plays an important role in facilitating the growth of the digital economy by acting as a medium of communication between Big Tech companies who want to invest in the region and Indonesia’s SMEs. This results in more sustainable business opportunities.

Gojek helps SMEs in Indonesia by increasing financial inclusion through the digital payments platform on GoPay that is supported by Whatsapp. Digital payments are safer and more reliable for both customers and businesses, yet the majority of SMEs in Indonesia still operate on a cash-basis. SMEs operate this way because they lack access to financial services such as setting up a bank account. This reliance on cash payments only has limited the financial ability and customer reach of SMEs in Indonesia.

However, since its launch in 2015, through its app, Gojek has helped more than a hundred thousands of Indonesian merchants tap into an international market of more than 170 million people across Southeast Asia. In particular, Gojek’s GoPay functionality allows Indonesians who do not have bank accounts to participate in the digital economy by transferring money through Whatsapp, a social media app owned by Facebook that is used by a majority of the Indonesian population.

Gojek’s role during COVID-19

In light of the impact of COVID-19, which rendered consumers unable to physically visit stores, Gojek successfully converted 100,000 traditional businesses onto Gojek’s online platform, saving them from going out of business. By providing SMEs with complete digital solutions and tools, business owners no longer solely rely on in-store sales. Now, they are able to migrate their business online and take advantage of Gojek’s established online platform in light of the pandemic.

In other words, Gojek helps SMEs in Indonesia by promoting digital literacy and skills that will allow them to adapt their business model and increase their chances of reaching more customers, thereby building the long term resiliency of SMEs. Not only does the company play a crucial role in ensuring the delivery of essential food and goods are carried out, but Gojek has also played an active role in helping the Indonesian society by providing relief programs and soft loans for its drivers. For instance, Gojek’s senior management initiated a pay cut to allocate more than $7 million for its drivers and employees that are struggling due to the decrease in demand for Gojek’s services. As a whole, Gojek has helped the Indonesian government manage the COVID-19 pandemic by contributing to the backbone of the Indonesian economy.

It is clear that Gojek’s mission to solve the friction in everyday life is beginning to have a positive impact. It can be seen through the financial aid and support that the organization provides to the SMEs in Indonesia. By connecting Big Tech companies and SMEs, Gojek helps SMEs in Indonesia by giving them a louder voice and increased competitiveness in the regional and international marketplace of the digital economy.

– Mariyah Lia
Photo: Flickr

Life Expectancy in Timor-Leste
Timor-Leste, also known as East Timor, is a nation that occupies the eastern half of the island of Timor in Southeast Asia. With a population of 1.26 million people, Timor-Leste is one of the least populated countries in Asia. The Portuguese originally colonized the country in 1520. After declaring independence in 1975, Indonesia invaded the nation, which occupies the western half of the island. The Indonesian invasion brought violence, famine and disease to Timor-Leste, resulting in a large loss in population. After a majority of the Timorese population voted to become independent in 1999, Indonesia relinquished control and Timor-Leste moved under the supervision of the United Nations. The nation officially became independent in 2002, making it one of the newest nations in the world. These 10 facts about life expectancy in Timor-Leste outline the rapid improvement the country has made since Indonesian occupation and the issues it still needs to overcome.

10 Facts About Life Expectancy in Timor-Leste

  1. Life expectancy in Timor-Leste increased from 32.6 years in 1978 to 69.26 years in 2018, matching that of South Asia. The consistent improvement in life expectancy in the past decade is primarily due to the Ministry of Health’s public health interventions. Such interventions include the reconstruction of health facilities, expansion of community-based health programs and an increase in medical graduates in the workforce.
  2. Life expectancy in Timor-Leste increased despite a drop in GDP, which decreased from $6.67 billion in 2012 to $2.6 billion in 2018. However, Timor-Leste’s GDP rose by 2.8% from 2017 to 2018. Continued improvement in GDP and economic progress in the nation will only serve to increase life expectancy by providing more opportunities for employment, education and improved quality of life.
  3. Tuberculosis was the highest cause of death in 2014, causing 14.68% of deaths. In 2014, estimates determined that Timor-Leste had the highest prevalence of tuberculosis in Southeast Asia, and 46% of people with tuberculosis did not receive a diagnosis in 2017. Maluk Timor, an Australian and Timorese nonprofit committed to advancing primary health care, provides a service through which team members visit Timorese households to locate undiagnosed patients and raise awareness about the severity of tuberculosis in the community. The organization collaborates with the National TB Program and aims to eliminate suffering and deaths in Timor-Leste due to diseases that Australia, which is only one hour away, had already eliminated.
  4. Communicable diseases caused 60% of deaths in 2006 but decreased to causing 45.6% of deaths in 2016. While diseases such as tuberculosis and dengue fever remain a public health challenge, the incidence of malaria drastically declined from over 200,000 cases in 2006 to no cases in 2018 due to early diagnoses, quality surveillance, funding from The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and support from the World Health Organization.
  5. The adult mortality rate decreased from 672.2 deaths per 1,000 people in 1977 to 168.9 deaths per 1,000 people in 2018. Additionally, the infant mortality rate decreased from 56.6 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in 2008 to 39.3 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in 2018. While public health interventions and disease prevention contributed to the decrease in the adult mortality rate, Timor-Leste needs to expand access to maternal health services in rural areas to continue to improve the infant mortality rate.
  6. Maternal mortality decreased from 796 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1998 to 142 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2017. The leading cause of the high maternal mortality rate is poor access to reproductive health services, as only 43% of women had access to prenatal care in 2006. While the Ministry of Health continues to expand access to maternal health care through mobile health clinics that reach over 400 rural villages, only 30% of Timorese women gave birth with a health attendant present in 2013. Even as access increases, challenges such as family planning services, immunization, treatment for pneumonia and vitamin A supplementation remain for mothers in rural communities.
  7. The violent crisis for independence in 1999 destroyed more than 80% of health facilities. Despite rehabilitation efforts to rebuild the health system, many facilities at the district level either have limited or no access to water. However, the number of physicians per 1,000 people improved from 0.1 in 2004 to 0.7 in 2017. The capacity of the health care system is also improving, as UNICEF supports the Ministry of Health in providing increased training for health care workers in maternal and newborn issues and in striving to improve evidence-based public health interventions.
  8. Timor-Leste has one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world. At least 50% of children suffered from malnutrition in 2013. Additionally, in 2018, 27% of the population experienced food deprivation. USAID activated both the Reinforce Basic Health Services Activity and Avansa Agrikultura Project from 2015-2020 to address the capacity of health workers to provide reproductive health care and the productivity of horticulture chains to stimulate economic growth in poor rural areas. Both projects aim to combat malnutrition by addressing prenatal health and encouraging a plant-based lifestyle that fuels the economy.
  9. Motherhood at young ages and education levels are key contributors to malnutrition, as 18% of women began bearing children by the age of 19 in 2017. Teenage girls are far more likely to experience malnourishment than older women in Timor-Leste, contributing to malnutrition in the child and therefore lowering life expectancy for both mother and child. As a result of malnutrition, 58% of children under 5 suffered from stunting in 2018. Additionally, findings determined that stunting levels depended on the wealth and education level of mothers. In fact, 63% of children whose mothers did not receive any formal education experienced stunting, while the number dropped to 53% in children whose mothers received a formal education.
  10. Education enrollment rates are increasing, as the net enrollment rate in secondary education increased from 40.5% in 2010 to 62.7% in 2018. Completion of secondary education links to higher life expectancy, especially in rural areas. Since 2010, Timor-Leste has increased spending on education. Additionally, local nonprofit Ba Futuru is working to train teachers to promote quality learning environments in high-need schools. After Ba Futuru worked with schools for nine months, students reported less physical punishment and an increase in innovative and engaging teaching methods in their classrooms. The organization serves over 10,000 students and provides scholarships for school supplies for hundreds of students. With more programs dedicated to increasing enrollment and the classroom environment, students are more likely to complete secondary education and increase both their quality of life and life expectancy.

These 10 facts about life expectancy in Timor-Leste indicate an optimistic trend. Although malnutrition, disease and adequate access to health care remain prevalent issues in Timor-Leste, the nation’s life expectancy has rapidly increased since Indonesian occupation and has steadily improved its education and health care systems since its founding in 2002. To continue to improve life expectancy, Timor-Leste should continue to focus its efforts on improving public health access and community awareness in poor rural areas, and particularly to emphasize maternal health services to reduce both maternal and infant mortality rates. Despite being one of the newest nations in the world, Timor-Leste shows promise and progress.

Melina Stavropoulos
Photo: Flickr