Beyond Effectiveness

The Political Functions of ASEAN’s Disaster Governance

In: Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations
Brooke Coe Oklahoma State University Department of Political Science USA Stillwater, OK

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Kilian Spandler University of Gothenburg School of Global Studies Sweden Gothenburg

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Why do Southeast Asian states use regional mechanisms for disaster relief? From a conventional functionalist perspective, inadequate domestic-level responses to emergencies create a demand for scaled-up governance. This article offers an alternative interpretation of disaster cooperation in Southeast Asia. Drawing on theoretical insights from comparative regionalism and critical disaster studies, it argues that the raison d’être of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) is to empower ASEAN states vis-à-vis extraregional humanitarian actors. The AHA Centre works to enable Member States to gatekeep intrusive extraregional aid and, ultimately, to transform authority relations in the international humanitarian system in favor of state actors that have traditionally found themselves in a peripheral and passive role.

1 Introduction1

Why do Southeast Asian states use regional mechanisms for disaster relief? From a conventional functionalist perspective, the logic of regional cooperation in this policy field may at first appear obvious. That is, natural disasters often transcend national borders, and inadequate domestic-level responses create a functional demand for “scaled up” governance. In this article, we offer an alternative interpretation of regional disaster cooperation in Southeast Asia. Drawing on theoretical insights from comparative regionalism and critical disaster studies, we argue that the raison d’être of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) is to empower ASEAN states vis-à-vis extraregional humanitarian actors. The AHA Centre works to enable Member States to gatekeep intrusive extraregional aid and ultimately to transform authority relations in the international humanitarian system.

ASEAN is a ten-member grouping diverse in terms of size, economic power, and regime type.2 The association has developed a distinctive approach to regionalism based on noninterference, consensus decisionmaking, and peaceful settlement of disputes. Although it has become nominally more legalistic in the twenty-first century via the 2007 ASEAN Charter—which lays out some minimal standards of membership—it remains relatively steadfast in its commitment to sovereignty-protective intergovernmentalism. During the twenty-first century, ASEAN has worked to build its capabilities in the realm of humanitarian assistance and disaster governance, attracting both praise and scrutiny. An emerging body of academic and policy research evaluates ASEAN mandates, mechanisms, and on-the-ground responses, centering analysis on the organization’s technical performance. This existing literature has done little to theorize the political functions of the AHA Centre or to clarify how this regional mechanism might change “the game” of disaster governance in Southeast Asia. We aim to fill this gap. As scholarship in different disciplines has pointed out, in spite of its image as a predominantly ethical pursuit, humanitarian action is characterized by political contestation.3 State and nonstate actors may respond to emergencies with a view to asserting or expanding their authority and legitimacy as protectors of vulnerable populations. What is more, the transboundary nature of international disaster governance often leads to intrusive practices by external actors that can have profound effects on communities at the national and local levels. Consequently, it is important to investigate how the AHA Centre affects power relations and the ability of ASEAN Member States to realize their interests and normative visions for disaster governance in the region.

As observed in three 2018 disasters analyzed in this article, the AHA Centre’s modus operandi is to defer to Member State policy and provide technical assistance that supports the affected government’s approach, whether the government is welcoming of extraregional assistance or not. This assistance and technical support is deeply political in two (overlapping) ways. First, the AHA Centre enables a transformation of authority relations in humanitarian governance toward more autonomy by ASEAN Member States. Second, it enables diverse modes of Member State gatekeeping of assistance by external actors. Like humanitarian action more generally, disaster governance in Southeast Asia has for a long time centered on intrusive mechanisms that accord Western-dominated international organizations crucial roles in coordinating and conducting relief operations.4 ASEAN’s disaster management mechanisms thus work to transform the humanitarian order toward the empowerment of state actors that have traditionally found themselves in a peripheral and passive role.

This article proceeds in three parts. First, in Section 2 we review existing research on ASEAN’s regional mechanisms for humanitarian assistance and disaster governance and identify its shortcomings. In response, in Section 3 we draw on theoretical insights from critical disaster studies to develop an analytical framework that allows us to situate institutional developments in Southeast Asian disaster governance in broader political struggles over authority in humanitarian action. Based on empirical insights from the AHA Centre’s disaster response activities, in Section 4 we provide evidence of two political functions of ASEAN’s disaster management mechanisms: challenging international hierarchies and enabling Member State gatekeeping.

2 The Literature

Regional institutions in the Global South are uniquely positioned, politically, to mediate between domestic and extraregional actors. Existing research on regional humanitarian assistance and disaster governance, however, tends to ignore these political functions of regional mechanisms, focusing instead on questions of technical effectiveness. These studies identify advantages of governance at the regional level, but also important constraints including limited mandates, deference to state sovereignty, and capacity deficits.5 Several studies evaluate the effectiveness of ASEAN and the AHA Centre in particular, sometimes emphasizing the evolution of its capabilities over time6 and its advanced progress relative to other regional bodies,7 but often also noting shortcomings and room for improvement. Mely Caballero-Anthony, for example, found that ASEAN comes up short in its efforts to protect displaced people and that it “lacks a coherent strategy on disaster risk and reduction of disasters.”8 A common line of critique is that ASEAN’s normative commitments to consensus seeking and noninterference, and aversion to legalism, hamper its responsiveness.9

We are interested in what drives the development of regional disaster governance, particularly in Southeast Asia. Assessments of the AHA Centre’s effectiveness are valuable, of course, but they take as a starting point an overly narrow understanding of what the agency was intended to accomplish. In doing so, they reflect mainstream theories of regionalism that see cooperation and integration as ways to address transboundary policy challenges and exploit economies of scale in the provision of public goods within a region.10 We do not deny that the AHA Centre works to address real material problems, but we argue that crucial political functions for ASEAN Member States point to their relations with external actors. In this, we follow comparative regionalism approaches that highlight strategic interests of governments in regional cooperation as a way of enhancing state autonomy and securing regime stability in light of external pressures.11 As discussed in Section 4, we understand the creation of the AHA Centre to be part of a coordinated move to challenge the authority of extraregional actors.

Several studies do note the importance of outside factors. They draw on diffusion approaches in regionalism research to argue that the emergence of ASEAN’s regional mechanisms follows a global trend of regional cooperation on disaster governance that dovetails with the localization agenda; that is, a global consensus to increase ownership over humanitarian action by those in proximity to the emergencies.12 Similarly, See Seng Tan has interpreted ASEAN’s approach to humanitarianism and disaster governance as evidence of an emergent regional ethics, the “Responsibility to Provide,” resulting from a localization of the “Responsibility to Protect” norm.13 We contend, however, that an exclusive focus on the diffusion of disaster management norms and standards leads to a narrow understanding of Member States’ motivations to set up a regional governance mechanism. Theoretically, researchers developing the notion of diffusion have themselves pointed out that these processes are never just unidirectional exchanges between external senders and internal recipients and that the adoption of norms and governance models by regional actors is usually selective and strategic.14

Overall, separating internal national or governmental interests from external mechanisms is reductive and loses sight of the political dynamics that emerge at the intersection of these issues. Research on the effectiveness of the AHA Centre takes internal problem-solving for granted as the main driver and fails to problematize broader relational dynamics. Meanwhile, diffusion approaches risk reducing the AHA Centre’s functions to the technical provision of public goods according to globally dominant norms and modes of governing. In theorizing the empowerment functions of the AHA Centre, we emphasize agency by ASEAN governments, while also acknowledging that external factors—including normative discourses and existing hierarchies in the international humanitarian system—create a constitutive environment within which ASEAN actors pursue their political interests.

In drawing attention to ASEAN Member State initiative and the empowerment functions of the AHA Centre, we build on, and speak to, two strands of literature: critical disaster studies and comparative regionalism. Multidisciplinary scholarship on disasters and emergencies has long pointed out its political dimensions. It has unpacked how securitizing something as an emergency and claiming authority over the response is an exercise of power that enables different forms of agency and has wide-ranging effects on policymaking and resource allocation.15 Researchers have also analyzed the power dynamics inherent in the relationships of different actors involved in governing disasters, and how certain epistemic regimes or discourses may benefit some (often Western) actors over others.16 In particular, we use insights from the field of critical disaster studies that have questioned the technical nature of disaster governance and characterize it instead as a field structured by competing normative claims and struggles over authority (see below).17

While this literature focuses mostly on national and local contexts, and how they relate to global regimes, we shift the focus by theorizing the role of regional mechanisms in authority struggles between states and international actors. Our emphasis on regional agency, in turn, is situated within scholarship on comparative regionalism that seeks to enhance our understanding of the functions of regional organizations beyond solving collective action problems, especially by exploring how governments in the Global South use them for regime boosting and to enhance their autonomy against Western dominance and intervention.18 A particular point of reference is the work on the gatekeeping role of regional organizations regarding humanitarian intervention,19 from which we draw the idea that regional mechanisms may enhance governments’ ability to control intrusion by extraregional actors.

The following section develops a framework that enables an analysis of governments’ attempts to use regional disaster governance to advance their interests (and project their conceptions of regional order) in the context of extraregional conditions. We ground this inquiry theoretically by drawing on critical disaster studies, focusing on three ways in which scholars from this strand of literature see disaster governance as political.

3 Theoretical Foundations: The Politics of Disaster Governance

3.1 Reproducing and Contesting International Order through Disaster Governance Practices

Contrary to practitioners’ and policymakers’ representations of humanitarian emergencies and disasters as neutral grounds that call for altruistic relief efforts, critical disaster studies emphasizes that they are shaped by strategic interests and embedded in hierarchies. Humanitarian actors’ interventions in emergencies necessarily reproduce or alter these power relations. This is immediately obvious in local and national contexts, where Martin Sökefeld has interpreted postdisaster situations as “sites of political contestation.”20 For example, the state may try to use disasters to expand its authority vis-à-vis other agents,21 whereas relief efforts by external actors like nongovernmental organozations (NGO s) may reinforce, disrupt, or create local hierarchies.22

Beyond that, however, authors have pointed out that the management of disasters also interrelates with power dynamics on the global scale. The notion of an international humanitarian “system”23 (or “order”24) indicates that practices of disaster governance are shaped by principles, norms, and rules that foster unequal authority relations and express certain ideas about what counts as legitimate governance, which reflect more general power asymmetries in the international order.25 At the same time, disasters are disruptive events that open up spaces to either reassert these understandings, or challenge them and assert alternative visions of international order. States may use their disaster management capabilities, on their own territory and in the form of international assistance, as means to project their power and claim their status in the international order.26 Decisions to offer, receive, and reject aid, therefore, often follow political considerations in the relations between donors and recipients, rather than simple material cost-benefit calculations, let alone strictly ethical motivations.27

Scholars have frequently described ASEAN as a strategic instrument that allows Member State governments to navigate broader structures of power and consolidate their authority by countering or mediating the influence of external actors.28 We contend that Member State governments see a similar function for the AHA Centre in the field of disaster governance.

3.2 Normative Tensions in Disaster Regimes

Simon Hollis has pointed out that the field of disaster risk management is characterized by different and partially competing legitimizing discourses.29 The most apparent incompatibilities exist with regard to the emphasis on the principle of state sovereignty on the one hand, and the humanitarian ethics of care on the other. While the former affirms the ultimate authority of the state over the governance of disasters, the latter asserts protection from bodily harm as a universal human right, and thus empowers the international community as a provider of disaster governance irrespective of national boundaries. Such discursive tensions can become concrete disputes when humanitarian actors demand “unimpeded access to affected populations”30 and justify intervention in the name of the ethics of care against the will of the affected state’s government.31 A critical analysis of disaster governance needs to account for how power relations infuse the management of these normative conflicts.

Similar contestations have surfaced in connection with the emerging discourse of localizing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.32 The idea of transforming disaster governance toward more ownership by national and local actors has gained traction in global fora, most visibly at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. However, hegemonic actors have been slow to cede control and implement the localization agenda out of concern over what they promote as the universal principles and standards of humanitarian action.33 Again, the navigation of these normative tensions is profoundly political, bound up as it is with ideas about authority, the legitimacy of the humanitarian order, and how actors position themselves within that order.

Past experiences with disaster governance suggest that ASEAN Member State governments are heavily invested in these debates. Despite the importance of state sovereignty and noninterference as cornerstones of ASEAN cooperation,34 some states have been generally more willing to accept external aid than others.35 These divergences situate the AHA Centre’s activities in a complex normative environment and suggest that dealing with normative tensions and diverging prioritizations of norms among its Member States is a crucial task for it.

3.3 Performing Sovereignty through Disaster Governance

A third political aspect of disaster governance is the way in which state actors instrumentalize it to engage in performances of sovereignty. Several authors have noted that the internal and the external legitimacy of states is predicated on practices that are seen as protecting their populations against harm from disasters and humanitarian crises.36 Accordingly, governments perform humanitarian and disaster governance functions as a way of engaging in practices of responsibility, projecting power, and thus asserting their identity as sovereign agents.37

Importantly for the purposes of this article, though, there is no single way to perform sovereignty in the wake of a disaster. Domestic governments can, in theory, live up to their responsibilities by providing disaster relief autonomously (with no outside assistance) or by relying completely on outside assistance. Giving and receiving aid, as Travis Nelson puts it, are “significantly symbolic and political” acts that require careful consideration.38 While accepting aid can improve the emergency response of a government and thus bolster perceptions of its effectiveness, being seen as reliant on external aid can seriously damage perceptions of the state apparatus as sovereign.39

Scott D. Watson notes that how states solve these questions may also depend on the particular legitimating narratives that define, in Christian Reus-Smit’s terms, the “moral purpose of the state.”40 While nationalist narratives portray the state as the guardian of the integrity of the nation, bureaucratic narratives see it primarily as a provider of public goods. These narratives enable divergent state practices with regard to disaster governance—more closed, go-it-alone approaches that reject outside intervention in the nationalist variant and more open, multistakeholder or “networked” approaches in the bureaucratic variant.

Research on ASEAN has emphasized its performative dimension; for example, by pointing to the ritualistic and symbolic character of many organizational activities. Enriched by imaginations of ASEAN as a “people-centered” or “people-oriented” community, these practices help governments enact roles as responsible providers for their peoples and buttress their state-building projects.41 It is intuitive that decreasing societal vulnerability against disasters and addressing humanitarian crises can form part of such roles. In what follows, we explore the ways in which joint disaster cooperation through the AHA Centre enhances Member States’ sovereignty performances according to specific domestic scripts.

4 Political Functions of the AHA Centre

In its development of regional disaster governance mechanisms, ASEAN’s most notable milestones have been the signing of the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER) in 2005, a legal framework for regional cooperation, and the establishment of the AHA Centre, which acts as the main agency for operationalizing the organization’s policies on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. In this section, we present two political functions of the AHA Centre, focusing our analysis on the agency’s responses to recent disasters in Laos and Indonesia. We argue that the AHA Centre enables a transformation of authority relations in humanitarian governance toward more ownership by the ASEAN Member States and that it facilitates diverse modes of Member State gatekeeping (rather than a one-size-fits-all approach). To be clear, we do not claim that ASEAN states experiencing disaster are independent from extraregional actors and institutions. Full autonomy has not been achieved. The AHA Centre itself receives funding from ASEAN’s international partners, although Member States have gradually stepped up their own contributions.42 Rather, our central claim is that the AHA Centre was designed to be—and has indeed served as—a tool of Member State empowerment, increasing governments’ ability to gatekeep and manage intrusive aid.

4.1 Promoting Localization and Challenging International Hierarchies

In the Southeast Asian context, disaster governance has long been centered on UN agencies. In 2005, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, which is the UN system’s primary global humanitarian coordination mechanism, introduced a so-called cluster approach to emergency operations. Activated when national capacities are deemed overwhelmed or constrained, it assigns responsibility in different response sectors to various international organizations.43 UN-appointed humanitarian coordinators lead Humanitarian Country Teams (HCT s) that include representatives from the major international humanitarian organizations (e.g., World Food Programme; UN Children’s Fund [UNICEF]). The teams coordinate between the different clusters with the assistance of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), make operational decisions, and at the same time liaise with national and local actors. The cluster approach is highly intrusive, geared as it is at securing humanitarian access for the major international aid organizations. National actors play a subordinate role, while regional organizations hardly factor into the UN’s original “architecture” at all.

ASEAN has intervened in this architecture by introducing a regional governance mechanism. It decreases dependence on external actors in particular by building and enhancing the capacities of its Member States’ national disaster management organizations (NDMO s).44 The AHA Centre pools important functions of national disaster governance such as risk assessment, monitoring, information sharing, and coordination. Through its ability to mobilize and distribute assets from the regional standby arrangements that the Member States created after signing AADMER (especially the regional stockpiles of relief items), it also improves national authorities’ access to material resources and decreases their dependence on extraregional aid. Finally, it performs capacity building primarily by facilitating technical and scientific exchange, and through training courses for emergency response and assessment teams, and the AHA Centre Executive Programme, which aims at “Preparing the Future Leaders of Disaster Management in ASEAN.”45 The AHA Centre’s role as a service provider for the Member States is also anchored in its institutional design, as the governing board is made up of the heads of the NDMO s.

Overall, the AHA Centre thus functions to change the relative power position of ASEAN governments in the international humanitarian system. The rationale is that strengthened national capacities make it harder to justify external intervention. Specifically, they can affect the calculations of the UN humanitarian coordinators, whose task it is to determine whether a disaster or humanitarian emergency warrants an international response. This can also explain why OCHA initially expressed some skepticism and, according to some observers, pushed back against the AHA Centre’s increasing role in disaster governance.46

ASEAN’s mechanisms provide a way for its Member States to appropriate and instrumentalize the localization discourse for their own purposes. They have sought to shape understandings of localization through their involvement in global fora developing the localization agenda; for example, through collective participation in the World Humanitarian Summit 201647 and in the Regional Organizations Humanitarian Action Network (ROHAN), a platform for the promotion of regional and local agency on humanitarian action.48 The state-centric interpretation of localization by ASEAN is not necessarily compatible with that of locally active NGO s, but it speaks to its Member States’ interests. In interviews,49 ASEAN and non-ASEAN actors frequently pointed to the desire to increase national ownership over disaster governance as a driver behind the creation of regional mechanisms. An OCHA representative acknowledged the changes emerging from this impetus in an interview: “It was very interesting—I can’t remember which disaster response operation—sitting kind of down the side of a table, with the national disaster management agency and ASEAN at the head, thinking: ‘10 years ago, it would have been us [chairing the meeting].’ ”50

The creation of the AHA Centre can be conceived as part of a coordinated power move against extraregional actors and institutions. We might locate impetus for this coordinated strategy in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, and regional alarm over Member State inability to manage the uncontrolled influx of extraregional humanitarian groups. This influx presented problems to the Indonesian government in particular; it had to coordinate a large number of external agents in the worst-hit region of Aceh—diverting urgently needed administrative resources51—and it feared that losing control over the political conflict in the region might prompt external interference.52 Additionally, there were complaints about a lack of cultural sensitivity on the part of Western aid workers.53 Overall, the post-tsunami experience demonstrated to the ASEAN Member States the negative effects of having to rely excessively on external assistance in the aftermath of disasters. Efforts to build up an ASEAN agency thus reflect a desire to transform regional states from passive receivers to active managers of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

International reactions to the regionalization and localization of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief—coming from a variety of actors, including donors, NGO s, and international media54—betray the political nature of these developments. Traditionally dominant humanitarian actors see ASEAN’s activities (partially) as a challenge to their authority, and to the normative underpinnings of their conceptions of humanitarian order, viz the “principles of humanitarian action.” These frictions indicate that ASEAN is not just a norm taker or passive recipient of diffusion.

International aid groups expressed confusion and frustration when Indonesia imposed restrictions on foreign NGO s in the wake of the 2018 Sulawesi earthquake.55 This restrictive approach was enabled and enhanced by the AHA Centre, which the government tasked with the coordination of incoming aid (see below). Team leaders of a South African aid group, for example, complained that NGO s had “already encountered massive costs”56 and that “what’s very frustrating is that at all the sites that we have been to, we see a need for our involvement and search and rescue.”57 Amnesty International referred to the situation as a “sad example of bureaucracy trumping humanity” and argued that “Indonesia has the obligation to seek international assistance when needed.”58 This claim is based on ongoing efforts by the UN’s International Law Commission to establish legal principles for the “Protection of Persons in the Event of Disasters.” However, Indonesian representatives have explicitly rejected the notion of a duty to seek assistance in the UN debates on a draft legal framework, and advocated stronger respect for national sovereignty alongside other ASEAN Member State governments.59

These reactions are arguably indicative of changing power relations that are manifested in—and brought about by—the enforcement of localization policies (which are themselves enabled by the activities of the AHA Centre). These shifts have wide-reaching consequences for the way disaster governance is conducted. According to the director of the Humanitarian Advisory Group, for example, increased control over disaster response by affected states will force changes to international funding structures and modes of aid delivery.60 Overall, the development of regional mechanisms reflects not exclusively a search for more effective governance, but also the desire by the Member States to catalyze broader structural changes in the regional humanitarian order.

4.2 Enabling Diverse Modes of Member State Gatekeeping

By enhancing state ownership and agency, the AHA Centre enables the ASEAN Member States to engage in performances of sovereignty and to navigate the normative tensions that characterize the field of disaster governance on their own terms. On a general level, ASEAN Member States can showcase their cooperation in disaster governance as evidence of their responsibility to protect their populations,61 in line with the notion of a “people-centered” ASEAN. This explains the wide-ranging efforts to create public awareness about the AHA Centre’s work as evidence of Member States’ care for “middle class and grass root communities.”62 It is not surprising that some practitioners from inside and outside the organization see the symbolic value of channeling assistance through the AHA Centre as exceeding the material one.63

Beyond these generic and symbolic representations of responsibility, however, the AHA Centre also makes concrete performances of sovereignty possible, as it allows the Member States to implement diverse policies regarding the degree and type of external intrusion they will admit in concrete postdisaster settings. These are situations where the normative tensions between commitments to humanitarian ethics and national sovereignty noted in Subsection 3.2 manifest in an often highly politicized manner. How they are navigated through mechanisms of controlling humanitarian access (or intervention, depending on the perspective) and decisionmaking over relief operations becomes a crucial question for Member State governments. ASEAN states are a diverse group and vary in terms of their response capacity as well as their normative orientation toward intrusive extraregional aid. Not all are therefore in a position to (nor necessarily do they desire to) restrict extraregional assistance.

How does the AHA Centre intervene in these processes? The AHA Centre’s own public information material makes it clear that it is “not intended to replace national response” and that “the leadership of the response remains entirely in the hands of the national government.”64 In keeping with the ASEAN Way, the AHA Centre defers to the needs, interests, and policies of the affected state. It allows them to perform sovereignty in divergent ways corresponding to their preferences, ranging from open (bureaucratic) approaches prioritizing humanitarian ethics to closed (nationalist) approaches emphasizing national sovereignty. We illustrate this point through an examination of the regional response to three disasters from 2018, showing that the AHA Centre plays an enabling role for ASEAN Member States’ gatekeeping strategies. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, policymakers think of its involvement in terms of different models that can be activated according to the concrete context.65 Its services surrounding information and communication, coordination, and logistics enhance national and local authorities’ ability to control which actors gain access to affected areas. They also increase their capacity to take the lead in the operations if they so desire. The AHA Centre thus enabled the government of Laos to welcome external assistance in the wake of the 2018 floods. Later that year, the centre enabled Indonesia to restrict such assistance (after the Lombok earthquake) and then to combine a welcoming and restrictive approach (after the Sulawesi disaster).

4.2.1 Lao Floods (July–September 2018)

Over the course of several weeks in 2018, heavy rainfall and the collapse of a large dam caused large-scale flooding in several provinces of Laos. On 25 July, the government declared the Sanamxay District a National Emergency Disaster Zone and welcomed international assistance.66 As rainfalls on a large scale continued, the Foreign Ministry issued a request on 1 October for international assistance to the whole country.67

From the very beginning, Laos involved the AHA Centre in the relief efforts, reportedly requesting its assistance on 24 July (the day before announcing that it would welcome international assistance).68 The centre took over crucial tasks in managing relief items, such as analyzing demand, clearance, and stock tracking.69 It also mobilized and delivered relief items from the shared ASEAN stockpiles,70 coordinated responses by the ASEAN Member States through its Emergency Operations Centre, and channeled bilateral assistance from ASEAN Member States; for example, by using funds provided by the government of Malaysia to procure rescue boats.71

The AHA Centre also played an important information management role for the wider humanitarian community, producing information in the form of Situation Updates. Stakeholders identified this function as a key strength of the regional agency’s response.72 The centre also positioned itself as a coordinator of offers of assistance from international humanitarian actors like the UN, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and private organizations, which were asked to use ASEAN’s standard operating procedures—although apparently only one non-Member State organization verifiably used that protocol.73 In doing so, the AHA Centre worked alongside the HCT, the main coordinating mechanism for relief efforts of the “old,” UN-centered humanitarian system. The HCT drafted a disaster response plan that aimed at mobilizing funds from the various UN agencies for the relief efforts,74 and it mobilized a substantial amount of funding to emergency response operations implemented by the Food and Agriculture Organization, UN Development Programme, World Food Programme, and World Health Organization.75 Overall, the Lao government relied heavily on assistance from international actors, both regional and extraregional, and the AHA Centre supported it in this welcoming approach.

4.2.2 Lombok (July–August 2018)

In the aftermath of the 2018 Lombok earthquake, the government of Indonesia strongly asserted national ownership over disaster management. Both the Lombok and Sulawesi disasters (below) proved to be test cases for Indonesia’s domestic disaster response capacity. The government had been developing this infrastructure since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami via the establishment of new agencies, including the Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Bencana (BNPB, National Agency for Disaster Countermeasure) as well as provincial agencies.76 During the entire response period, the BNPB emphasized that national capacities were up to the task and that international assistance would not be necessary.77 BNPB declared the earthquake a provincial rather than a national disaster. It justified this decision by arguing that declaring a national emergency would trigger international response mechanisms that “may cause additional issues related to politics, economic, socio-cultural, as well as security,” and it expressed pride in the fact that the authorities had not needed to declare a national emergency since the 2004 tsunami.78 The collective memory of the uncontrolled influx of aid actors, which had triggered legal and institutional changes aimed at increasing national disaster management capacities, clearly informed the approach in the aftermath of the Lombok earthquake.79 The actual disaster response was carried out primarily by Indonesian governmental agencies, including those listed above as well as the National Search and Rescue Agency, the national police, and the Indonesian army.80 The BNPB advised local NGO s against inviting their international partners, and the activities of the international partners already arrived were put on hold.81 Despite insisting on the preparedness of national agencies, the government of Indonesia faced criticism for its “slow and disappointing” response.82

The role of the AHA Centre was one of assistance to the BNPB, and this assistance enabled the government’s national-led response. It provided temporary staff support to the national agency’s Emergency Operation Centre, and its Emergency Response and Assessment Team (ASEAN-ERAT) worked under the guidance of the BNPB, helping, for example, with analyzing satellite imagery.83 Regarding material aid, the AHA Centre delivered relief items from regional stockpiles. In a telling statement, the centre’s then executive director, Adelina Kamal, emphasized Indonesian ownership over these items:

The ASEAN relief items belong to all ASEAN countries, including Indonesia. Whenever a disaster occurs and relief items are required, ASEAN Member State can access the regional stockpile, and the AHA Centre will facilitate its mobilisation to the affected areas.84

Finally, the AHA Centre performed an informational liaison function to the international community via its Situation Updates.85 According to the centre itself, it worked in “close coordination with the BNPB” to conduct “information management, preparation, and dissemination of information products [including BNPB products] to regional and international Stakeholders.”86 Furthermore, by reproducing national authorities’ classification of the disaster as within national capacities in its situation reports, the AHA Centre effectively discouraged international assistance.87

4.2.3 Sulawesi (September 2018)

In September 2018, an earthquake hit the island of Sulawesi, triggering a tsunami and soil liquefaction that cause widespread destruction. While the government of Indonesia made a point of not requesting international assistance and again declared a provincial rather than national disaster, in light of the larger scale of damage it did permit more external aid in this case than after the Lombok earthquake.88 In early October, President Joko Widodo communicated that Indonesia would accept international assistance from public and private sources.89 Due to the less restrictive policy, the Indonesian Red Cross (a primary response agency) deployed a much greater number of international personnel in Sulawesi than on Lombok.

Still, Jakarta insisted on a national-led response and sought to control the activities of international actors, especially regarding on-the-ground operations, allowing access only through certain channels.90 Echoing concerns after the Lombok earthquake, a spokesperson for the Indonesian Foreign Ministry argued that “the presence of foreign aid workers, who have good intentions, may hamper the rescue and recovery work carried out by the national team.”91 The BNPB spokesman voiced similar concerns, saying that “letting foreigners enter disaster-hit areas without limitations and clear management would just give the country’s task force more work.”92 Accordingly, the BNPB heavily regulated foreign NGO s, enforcing strict rules. Foreign aid groups already on the ground were “advised to recall their personnel immediately” and were barred from accessing disaster sites unless partnered with a local organization.93 Given these restrictions, it is not surprising that during the initial relief period, “96% of reported activities were implemented through national NGO s, [the Indonesian Red Cross] and the government.”94 This policy of control was coupled with the Indonesian government’s preference for regional over extraregional assistance, an approach that “caught many in the international community (donors, humanitarian organisations, and media) off guard.”95 Many analysts see the disaster response as a turning point in the international humanitarian landscape.96

The AHA Centre supported the government’s preference for regional mechanisms by complementing national capacities and performing tasks normally under the purview of UN agencies, especially OCHA. These include, for example, information management via its Situation Updates and coordination among regional and extraregional actors.97 The AHA Centre’s Emergency Operations Centre was used as a central hub for information sharing, joint assessment, and coordination among international aid actors, including OCHA.98 On the ground, ASEAN-ERAT assisted the BNPB in establishing the Joint Operations and Coordination Center for International Assistance (JOCCIA) to “strengthen coordination among organizations” and enforce the government’s approach of limiting the number of international aid workers.99 While the UN deployed its own coordination and assessment team (UNDAC), their activities were embedded in the AHA Centre’s structures.

More so than in the Lombok case, international humanitarian actors followed the request to use ASEAN’s standard operating procedures for offers of assistance, which the AHA Centre then forwarded to Indonesian authorities as the final decisionmakers.100 Through this mechanism, the government was able to admit aid selectively based on concrete needs, which were communicated through the AHA Centre’s Situation Updates.101 The AHA Centre also served as a conduit for regional aid,102 and incoming relief items were registered and tracked by AHA Centre staff to maintain a maximum of control over external aid.103

5 Conclusion

This article provides insights into the politics of regional disaster governance in Southeast Asia by analyzing the specific political functions regional mechanisms fulfill for the ASEAN Member States. Drawing on comparative regionalism and critical disaster studies, our analysis reveals that ASEAN Member State governments see the establishment and deployment of regional mechanisms as tools for managing external intrusions according to their policy preferences. This state ownership, in turn, challenges the hierarchies of the international humanitarian order. Our approach allows us to draw out these connections and to observe how the AHA Centre accommodates a diverse set of member states. ASEAN states boast different capacities, embrace different normative visions, and therefore perform sovereignty (via responsibility) in diverse ways. While Indonesia’s determined use of the AHA Centre to help restrict external aid is an outlier case so far, the fact that six other ASEAN Member States have involved the centre in some way in domestic disaster operations104 demonstrates the centre’s adaptability to diverging government strategies. Our findings have implications for debates about the evolving Southeast Asian regional normative order, specifically those regarding change and continuity in ASEAN’s adherence to non-intervention. Our findings confirm arguments that there is mostly continuity in terms of how sovereignty is organized and the overall functionality of regional cooperation for national sovereignty. At the same time, we observe that regional mechanisms may enable more pluralism in the way Member States interpret their sovereignty in practice; that is, as they manage their autonomy in concrete disaster settings.

The finding that the AHA Centre accommodates Member State diversity as part of ASEAN’s mission of regional resilience and autonomy connects to broader trends in regionalism in the Global South. By expanding regional governance, states in the South not only scale up solutions to domestic problems. They also collectively empower themselves in ways that challenge established international hierarchies. This trend is not unique to regions where strict interpretations of noninterference prevail. In Africa, for example, intrusive security governance institutions have developed at the regional and subregional levels, and traditional sovereignty norms increasingly compete with norms of regional responsibility. These developments in some ways complement the work of global security institutions, but they also challenge UN primacy and centrality. As the stature of regional mechanisms for governing security is growing, so too does their potential to function as gatekeepers of extraregional intervention. The regionalization of governance therefore has far-reaching implications for global order.


Research for this study was supported by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) (stipend #57386478). The authors are also grateful to Nathanaël Fritz, Miroslava Grausová, Franziska Höhne, and Alva Monti for their valuable research assistance at various stages of the project.


Includes founding states Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand (1967), and newer members Brunei (1984), Vietnam (1995), Laos (1997), Myanmar (1997), and Cambodia (1999).


Cf. Anderson et al. 2020; Sökefeld 2011.


Barnett and Walker 2015. We provide a more detailed account of the old humanitarian order in Southeast Asia in Subsection 4.1.


Ferris, Petz, and Stark 2013; El Taraboulsi et al. 2016, 17; Fan 2014, 314.


Fan and Krebs 2014, 14.


Ear, Cook, and Canyon 2017, 11.


Caballero-Anthony 2017, 137; 2018, 166.


Amador 2009; Loh 2016; Simm 2018.


Börzel 2016.


Acharya 2014; Söderbaum 2004.


Rum 2016; Hollis 2015; Oishi 2016.


Tan 2011, 213–214; 2017.


Acharya 2014; Jetschke 2009.


Anderson et al. 2020.


Aradau 2014; Bankoff and Hilhorst 2009.


Sökefeld 2011; Watson 2019.


Acharya 2014; Söderbaum 2004.


Bellamy and Williams 2011.


Sökefeld 2011, 9.


Watson 2019, 35–36.


Sökefeld 2011, 11.


Barnett and Walker 2015, 130.


Barnett 2010, 1.


Watson 2019.


Watson 2019, 15, 44–45.


Dany 2020, 200–201.


Acharya 2014.


Hollis 2014.


Hollis 2014, 354.


Watson 2019, 77–78.


Barnett and Walker 2015.


Bennett, Foley, and Pantuliano. 2016.


Narine 2002.


Fan and Krebs 2014, 12.


Dany 2020, 199–200; Watson 2019, 35–36.


Chong and Lee 2018; Deng et al. 1996; Bellamy and Williams 2011.


Nelson 2010, 386.


Nelson 2010, 386–387.


Watson 2019, 30–33; see also Reus-Smit 1999.


Davies 2018, 13–14.


In 2017, Member States contributed around 7.9 percent to the centre’s total revenue inflow. In 2018, this number rose to 15.3 percent. In 2019, it stood at 21.9 percent and in 2020 at 21.8 percent. See the AHA Centre n.d.d.


Inter-Agency Standing Committee 2015, 4, 7.


Official at ASEAN Secretariat, interviewed by Kilian Spandler, Jakarta, 21 November 2018; former official at the AHA Centre, interviewed by Kilian Spandler, Jakarta, 14 December 2018.


AHA Centre n.d.a, n.d.c; staff member at BNPB, personal correspondence with Kilian Spandler, Jakarta, 10 December 2018.


Official at the UN OCHA Regional Office Asia-Pacific, interviewed by Kilian Spandler, Jakarta, 9 November 2018; official at the ASEAN Secretariat, interviewed by Kilian Spandler, Jakarta, 21 November 2018; former official at the AHA Centre, interviewed by Kilian Spandler, Jakarta, 14 December 2018.


ASEAN 2016.


Humanitarian Policy Group 2017, 9. ROHAN last convened in 2018.


Official at the UN OCHA Regional Office Asia-Pacific, interviewed by Kilian Spandler, Jakarta, 9 November 2018; two European Union officials, interviewed by Kilian Spandler, Jakarta, 12 November 2018; former official at the AHA Centre, interviewed by Kilian Spandler, Jakarta, 14 December 2018.


Official at the UN OCHA Regional Office Asia-Pacific, interviewed by Kilian Spandler, Jakarta, 9 November 2018.


Official at the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, interviewed by Kilian Spandler, Jakarta, 29 November 2018.


Gentner 2006, 7.


Official at the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, interviewed by Kilian Spandler, Jakarta, 29 November 2018.


IFRC 2019a, 6.


Former staff member at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, interviewed by Kilian Spandler, 19 September 2019. It should be noted that at least some international aid groups responded more positively to the restrictions, see Lyons 2018.


Aprilia 2018.


Ngcobo 2018.


Bangkok Post 2018.


UNGA 2016, 39, 60.


Loy 2018.


Official at the UN OCHA Regional Office Asia-Pacific, interviewed by Kilian Spandler, Jakarta, 9 November 2018; official at the Analysis and Monitoring Division of the Political-Security Department at the ASEAN Secretariat, interviewed by Kilian Spandler, Jakarta, 21 November 2018.


AHA Centre 2020a, 2–3; see also Spandler 2020. Apart from its website, the AHA Centre publishes information about its work on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter several times per week, often with more than one post per day. It also publishes a monthly news bulletin, The Column.


Three staff members at the International Committee of the Red Cross, interviewed by Kilian Spandler, Jakarta, 5 December 2018; former official at the AHA Centre, interviewed by Kilian Spandler, Jakarta, 14 December 2018; AHA Centre n.d.b, 20.


AHA Centre n.d.b, 25.


Official at the ASEAN Secretariat, interviewed by Kilian Spandler, Jakarta, 21 November 2018.


Government of Lao PDR 2018, 9.


OCHA 2018.


Virtual OSOCC 2018.


AHA Centre 2018c, 6.


Kurniawan 2018.


AHA Centre 2018a, 4; 2018b, 4.


AHA Centre 2020b, 56.


AHA Centre 2019, 24.


Office of the Resident Coordinator 2018a, 2018b.


UN in Lao PDR 2019, 14.


Paul 2018.


Nugroho 2018, 11.


BNPB 2018; see also Paul 2018.


Official at the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, interviewed by Kilian Spandler, Jakarta, 29 November 2018; official at the UN OCHA Regional Office Asia-Pacific, interviewed by Kilian Spandler, Jakarta, 9 November 2018; Heintze and Snel 2019, 5.


IFRC 2019b, 1.


AHA Centre 2018i, 1.


Paul 2018.


Bisri et al. 2019, 202.


AHA Centre 2018d.


AHA Centre 2020b, 102.


AHA Centre 2018e.


AHA Centre 2018e, 2.


IFRC 2019a; Loy 2018.


Reuters 2018.


Trias and Cook 2021, 4.


Aprilia 2018.


Arby, Anja, and Hajramuni 2018.


AHA Centre 2018h, 3.


Humanitarian Advisory Group 2019, 5.


IFRC 2019a, 6; official at the UN OCHA Regional Office Asia-Pacific, interviewed by Kilian Spandler, Jakarta, 9 November 2018.


IFRC 2019a; Loy 2018.


Trias and Cook 2021, 5; Humanitarian Advisory Group 2019, 9.


AHA Centre 2018h, 3.


AHA Centre 2018h, 3, 13.


AHA Centre 2019, 32.


AHA Centre 2018f, 3.


AHA Centre 2018g, 16.


AHA Centre 2019, 31–32.


AHA Centre n.d.e.


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