U.S. Foreign Assistance in Southeast Asia Highlights Shared Priorities and Strong Partnerships

I recently returned from a trip to the Philippines and Burma.  Despite the tremendous differences and unique challenges faced by these two countries, I came away reminded of the significant benefits derived from our investments in our foreign assistance partners.  Foreign assistance is not charity; it is an investment in our global community, in a strong America, and in a free world.  Our foreign assistance empowers our international partners and reinforces their willingness and abilities to work with us in pursuit of common goals.

My visit to the Philippines reminded me that the U.S.-Philippines alliance is built on a 70-year history; rich people-to-people ties, including a vibrant Filipino-American diaspora; and a long list of shared objectives.

Foreign Assistance Director Hari Sastry visited both State Department and USAID supported foreign assistance programs in both the Philippines and Burma. [State Department photo]

I traveled to Tagbilaran City in Bohol Province, where I met with Governor Edgar Chatto, Mayor John Yap, and members from the local business community. Tagbilaran is the business capital and center of governance for Bohol province and has been recognized as one of the 25 most competitive cities in the Philippines. 

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has been implementing development activities in Bohol since the 1990s, and local officials in Tagbilaran were quick to highlight how the U.S.-Philippines Partnership for Growth (PFG) has supported their development plans and policies. Under the PFG, USAID partners with the Philippine government to enhance the competitiveness of key industries (tourism, agribusiness, and manufacturing) by facilitating and removing barriers to investments through policy reform and infrastructure development.  These initiatives bolster coordination among the stakeholders involved in Bohol’s development and unify investment promotion programs to attract more investments throughout the province.

I also travelled to Subic Bay, the site of the former U.S. Naval base, to tour the Philippine Navy’s BRP Gregorio Del Pilar (BRP is a ship designation, like “USS” in the U.S.).  Formerly a U.S. Coast Guard High-Endurance Cutter, the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar was decommissioned by the United States Coast Guard in March 2011 and transferred to the Philippine Navy two months later.  It is the first of three such cutters that have been transferred to the Philippine Navy under the Excess Defense Articles program, which provides equipment declared “excess” to allies in support of U.S. national security objectives. 

Foreign Assistance Director Hari Sastry meets members of the Philippine navy during his recent trip to the EAP region. [State Department photo]

The  enhanced capabilities of the Del Pilar and her sister ships provide expanded opportunities for the Philippine Navy to participate in joint exercises and train with other navies in the region, to patrol and monitor the Philippines’ vast maritime spaces, and to contribute to humanitarian assistance and disaster response.  The Filipino officers I met with clearly took pride in their ship and expressed their gratitude for continued U.S. assistance.  Throughout my visit, my interactions with Philippine officials reinforced the fact that the United States and the Philippines have a deep and broad relationship, where the numerous, strong partnerships continue to move forward. 

In Burma, I saw firsthand the critical role U.S. foreign assistance plays in supporting the U.S.-Burma partnership while continuing to strengthen and deepen reforms.  There is a palpable sense of optimism and energy as the country opens up.  Close coordination between the United States and Burma remains a critical aspect to success as Burma’s government begins to take a new look at the important role of foreign assistance. Foreign assistance will play an increasingly critical role as Burma addresses its legacy challenges, which include years of repressive military rule, economic instability, communal violence, and decades-long conflict with ethnic armed groups. 

Forerign Assistance Director Hari Sastry aboard BRP Gregorio del Pilar during his recent visit to the Philippines. [State Department photo]

In Lashio City I visited more than 100 religious, civil society, and youth leaders at an interfaith harmony workshop supported through USAID’s Kann Let (Offering Hand”) project. This forum addressed issues related to inter-communal conflict while also promoting tolerance in local communities. Notably among the participants was Mansu Sayardaw, the Chairman of Lashio District Sangha Council and the influential Buddhist spiritual leader of the region, known for sheltering Muslims who were being persecuted by Buddhists in Lashio and surrounding areas.  Despite Rakhine State, these individuals and organizations in Northern Shan State remained committed to the important work of reconciliation. USAID will continue to provide opportunities for coordination and cooperation among civil society and local leaders, and enhance their ability to promote tolerance and build peace in their communities.     

During a visit in the Ayerwaddy Region, I spoke with people from rural communities about the impact of U.S. assistance on their lives.  Small-scale bridges and walkways built after Cyclone Nargis in 2008 are impressively well-maintained and still providing valuable services to communities. The use of credit and technology introduced by USAID’s current activities increased yields for farmers in such magnitudes that they were able to invest in new non-farm businesses, send children to secondary school and university, build community infrastructure, and farm more of their land.  Farmers in this region are progressive and eagerly adopt new technologies, maximizing the benefits of USAID assistance aimed to increase smallholder farmers’ productivity and address their challenges.

Foreign Assistance Director Hari Sastry meets an infant at a baby-weighing program in Burma. [State Department photo]

In Sin Pin Thar Village in central Burma, just outside Meiktila--one of more than 2,800 villages in Burma targeted through USAID's Shae Thot ("Way Forward") project--U.S. assistance facilitates community participation and strengthens community governance to achieve sustainable solutions in the areas of maternal and child health, livelihoods and food security, and water, sanitation, and hygiene.  The Village Development Committee established through Shae Thot showed me the village's child nutrition and health activities, as well as their revolving goat and seed banks.  The community "banks" allow members to receive livestock or improved seed varieties with a commitment to "pay back" their loan once the animals breed or harvests are complete, freeing up new resources for other community members.  This type of assistance is preparing communities to more fully participate in the democratic transition, while saving lives of children and improving economic conditions for rural communities.  

Burma and the Philippines are truly places where we are seeing a strong return on investment for our foreign assistance. Our investment in both Burma and the Philippines today is critical for our shared tomorrow, and I look forward to following their progress.

About the Author: Hari Sastry serves as Director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources at the U.S. Department of State.

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Residents sit in the waiting room of a USAID supported health clinic outside of Burma's capital. [USAID photo]
Posted by Hari Sastry
December 22, 2016


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