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ASEAN Competitive Enhancement

Congress may challenge USAID project

Don Ross and Imtiaz Muqbil  Mar 19, 2010

The USAID-funded ASEAN Competitive Enhancement project, by promoting Myanmar, breaches the rules on how it is allowed to disburse funds and must be changed if Congress intervenes.

That’s the view of a leading Myanmar expert in Washington, US Campaign for Burma advocacy director, Jennifer Quigley, who told TTR Weekly: “To my knowledge, Congress is aware of this project, and I believe they may require USAID to change the project as a result of this violation.”

The US$8 million ACE project aims to build commercial competitiveness in ASEAN’s tourism and textiles industries. Approximately, US$4 million of the 2008 to 2013 ACE budget goes to a tourism marketing campaign called “Southeast Asia: Feel the warmth” that is built around a consumer website that will drive tourist bookings to the 10 countries of ASEAN, of which Myanmar is a member.

The official blurb on SoutheastAsia.Org, under the tag About Us, states “members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that will benefit from Southeast Asia: feel the warmth are: Brunei Darussalam; Cambodia; Indonesia; Lao PDR; Malaysia; Myanmar; the Philippines; Singapore; Thailand and Vietnam.”

The project was created, funded, and developed by USAID’s ASEAN Competitiveness Enhancement (ACE) Project, which is managed by the US firm, Nathan Associates Inc. from its branch office in Bangkok and under contract to the US Agency for International Development (USAID) Regional Development Mission Asia (RDMA).

At the heart of the marketing campaign, functions as a commercial, consumer site with a booking engine supplied by the meta-search engine Wego.Com.

Content management stipulates that each of the 10 ASEAN countries gain equal space for their travel products. This issue has been intensively discussed amongst the ASEAN national tourism organizations, which have sought assurances that there will be no anti-Myanmar bias in the way the travel products are presented.

US consultancy firm Nathan Associates Inc. selected a former career US government and USAID employee, RJ Gurley, to head the initiative as its project manager.

In addition to the Southeast Asia branding campaign, Mr. Gurley has committed USAID funds to remake the Greater Mekong Sub-region consumer website that will concentrate on driving travel to a six-member country bloc – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and two provinces of China (Yunnan and Guangxi). The project comes under the auspices of the Mekong Tourism Co-ordinating Office, which is funded equally by the six member countries. is a carbon copy of with the same Wego.Com booking tool and similar commercial objectives.

As Myanmar is a part of both ASEAN and the GMS, the ACE project has come to the attention of Myanmar-watching groups in Washington DC and is raising eyebrows there.

After considering the details, Ms. Quigley concluded, “We can’t believe someone approved this project at all. We are alerting some interested members of Congress that would agree that the potential Burma component of this program is not in line with US Burma policy.”

By definition, the ACE project has to include Myanmar as a member of ASEAN. But, Ms. Quigley stated: “The spirit of [US Burma sanctions] was to keep American dollars out of the hands of the Burmese regime. The way the Burmese tourism economy is structured, it is not a stretch to assume the regime would benefit financially from an increase in tourism.

“Additionally, US legislation that governs how the US can spend government funding has clear guidelines for how USAID can utilize funds in regard to Burma, and this USAID project would run counter to those guidelines.”

London-based Burma Campaign UK’s executive director, Anna Roberts, outlined its position stating: “There aren’t any sanctions on tourism, but we would not support projects that promote tourism to Burma (and nor would the UK government)."

The ACE management team recognizes these issues. In a recent email communication with the ASEAN secretary over financing travel expenses, ACE informed its ASEAN partners that it would provide support for air tickets and per diems for the project team when visiting all ASEAN member states except Myanmar “due to the policy of its technical assistance.”

The field trips required ACE support of around US$5,000 for tickets and per diems for a team conducting consultations with the ASEAN NTOs to compile the ASEAN Tourism Strategy Plan 2011-2015.

Significantly more is being invested in the development of SoutheastAsia.Org that will ultimately provide substantial value for Myanmar’s tourism, courtesy of USAID.

A study of all available public documents issued by ACE, including tables presented in the Proposed Target Sectors Evaluation Memorandum, June 2008, reveals a consistent absence of data and references to Myanmar. Even a tourism data table, sourced from ASEAN, was edited to show only the results from nine member ASEAN states leaving out Myanmar. Only cursory mentions of Myanmar were made in later ACE documents.

These contradictions have long been apparent. They were first raised at the time when the original Memorandum of Understanding was signed between ACE and ASEANTA at the ASEAN Tourism Forum in Hanoi, January 2009. Asked to explain, a USAID representative in Hanoi declined comment, referring queries to the USAID head office in Washington DC.

The controversy has gathered steam. At a press conference at the ITB Berlin earlier this month, Travel Business Analyst’s editor, Murray Bailey, asked about the possibility that blogs on the site could be used to generate anti-Myanmar commentary, as well as criticize of other ASEAN countries or the private sector.

Mr. Gurley, who was hosting the press conference, responded that the project had a proper procedure in place to weed out these comments “without acting like a censor board.” However, he brushed off further questions asking how this would be policed, and by whom. “I don’t want to get into it,” he said.

The reality presented by the ACE website points to a single conclusion: Myanmar stands to benefit substantialy from USAID’s investment in the website and allied promotions.

Officially, USAID states that it suspended assistance to the country following the 1988 suppression of the pro-democracy movement. Since 1998, its states funding has been limited to supporting democracy in Myanmar and pro-democracy groups outside Myanmar and providing humanitarian assistance such as primary health care and basic education support to refugees living in border refugee camps and emergency relief during the Cyclone Nargis.

Report jointly researched and written by TTR Weekly editor, Don Ross, and Travel Impact Newswire editor, Imtiaz Muqbil.

Congress may challenge USAID project
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