Sixteen years ago, recognizing the rapid changes occurring across Asia, SEI leaders decided to establish a centre in the region. Development would bring new social and environmental challenges, they predicted, and SEI could make a greater contribution to policy processes if it had a local presence and strong relationships with stakeholders.

The Asia Centre was formally established in Bangkok, Thailand, in January 2004. From the start, it has been multi-disciplinary and culturally diverse, active not just in research, but in outreach, capacity-building and policy engagement, emphasizing partnerships and collaboration.

On Monday, 17 November, the Asia Centre hosted a day-long seminar to celebrate its 10th anniversary, look back on its achievements to date, and share ideas and perspectives on the Centre’s current and future work.

The event featured some of the Centre’s close partners and collaborators, including Thailand’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, researchers from Chulalongkorn University – which hosts SEI – and other institutions in the Mekong Region, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), the Australian government, and others.

They were joined by SEI Executive Director Johan L. Kuylenstierna and past and current SEI researchers with a relationship with the Asia Centre (see the full agenda, PDF, 2.9MB).

“The Asia Centre embodies SEI’s strong commitment to bridging science and policy to support sustainable development,” says Kuylenstierna. “Policy engagement works best when you focus on solutions that address the real concerns of policy-makers, build long-term relationships, and ensure a continuous dialogue over time. This approach to science and policy is at the core of SEI Asia’s operations. We are proud of the competent and innovative team we have built, with experts from across Southeast Asia and around the world, working in close collaboration with more than 150 other research colleagues across SEI.”

Engaging with top issues in the region
The Asia Centre has worked on multiple issues of intense concern to policy-makers in the region: from how to protect mangrove ecosystems, to agricultural transformations, to the economics of climate change and low-carbon development in China.

After the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami struck the coastlines of 11 countries in South Asia and Southeast Asia in December 2004, SEI worked with key regional partners and local people to help ensure that rebuilding efforts would bolster the long-term resilience of communities and coastal ecosystems.

Hydropower is being promoted by governments in the region but remains highly contentious. Addressing its social and environmental issues has been a focus of SEI work in Asia since 2008. SEI’s work on strategic environmental assessment in Vietnam is considered a path-breaking effort in emphasizing effective mitigation and compensation measures in hydropower development.

Much of the Asia Centre’s work focuses on the Mekong Region, and since 2005, SEI has served as the Secretariat of the Sustainable Mekong Research Network (SUMERNET). The network, now in its third phase (2013-2017), combines research with policy engagement and capacity-building. It brings together research partners working on sustainable development in the six countries of the Mekong Region: Cambodia, China (specifically Yunnan Province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region), Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. Now in its third phase (2013-2017), SUMERNET continues to be a key area of the Asia Centre’s work.

“Through the SUMERNET network, we help ensure that our research is highly relevant to current policy debates,” says Chayanis Krittasudthacheewa, deputy director of the Asia Centre, who joined SEI in 2006.

SEI Asia also led a major collaborative project to build knowledge and capacity for adaptation, the Regional Climate Change Adaptation Knowledge Platform for Asia, which produced a wealth of materials to inform research, policy and practice.

This year, the Asia Centre formally began work in Myanmar, signing an agreement with the country’s Directorate of Water Resources and Improvement of River Systems to support participatory water resources planning and assessment in the Ayeyarwady River Basin. Called Ayeyarwady Futures, the programme aims to support sustainable development through evidence-based participatory planning processes around the Ayeyarwady River, Myanmar’s largest river and most important commercial waterway.

“The Asia Centre is dynamic, with many new staff joining us in recent years and new partnerships,” says Centre Director Eric Kemp-Benedict. “Our long-term partners’ agendas also continue to evolve. For that reason, although we are proud of what we have accomplished, our anniversary celebration will actually focus on our current work and the future of the region and of SEI. Because our partners also work on these issues, we have invited them to join us and share their insights about important trends and challenges.”


See a Storify feature with highlights from the event »