Wilson Center Experts

Alasdair Olav Bowie

Fellow
Asia Program

Expertise:
Asia
Affiliation:
Associate Professor, The George Washington University
Wilson Center Project(s):
"Power to the People? Implications of Decentralizing Government for Local Economies in Vietnam and Indonesia"
Term:
Sep 01, 2004
-
May 01, 2005

While I was born and raised in a small provincial town in New Zealand, my personal and professional development has been shaped, in one way or another, by events in the Pacific and Southeast Asia, and by U.S. involvement in the region. My father, a Scottish family doctor, served with Ghanaian troops in Burma during WWII, and fought behind enemy lines in the Arakan Peninsula of Burma. My mother comes from a rural farming background in Victoria, Australia and recalls the newly completed Melbourne hospital into which she and other newly trained nurses were about to move being commandeered to treat the American wounded from Midway, the Battle of Coral Sea, and the battles to come in the Pacific War. So, while I spent my formative years in a relatively isolated part of the world, I was conscious of events in the Asia Pacific from early on, and in some ways it seems very natural that the Asia region is my primary research interest. It was perhaps my experience growing up in a rural provincial town, working seasonally on farms, in meat and dairy processing factories, and in the local municipal government, to help pay for my university studies, that has led me to my present research focus on local economies.The Fulbright Program gave me my first opportunity to travel to the U.S. to study international affairs, and the Woodrow Wilson School helped support my first visit to Southeast Asia. There I found myself in a small, remote, provincial capital in Eastern Indonesia, working as a junior consultant in rural development, but more importantly soaking up the language, culture, flora and fauna of a region to which I have returned as often as I can. I wrote my doctoral dissertation based on a year-long research stay in Malaysia during which I traveled widely on local buses and trains and river boats to the more removed states of Malaysia in the East Coast and on Borneo.My research during the mid-1990s focused on cross-national studies of national level decision-making in response to crises (the specific countries in the study included, in addition to Malaysia and Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines). While focusing on issues of investment and trade, I also met local private-sector entrepreneurs in regional cities like Surabaya as I explored the role of sectoral business associations in shaping national economic policies. From them, I learned of the conflicts between centralized national decision-making on economic matters and the real needs of small and medium-size business owners on the ground in the regions.Since 2001, my research has circled back to my interest in the experience of provincial regions somewhat removed from the center, and their use or abuse of power and authority devolved from central government. By happenstance, two neighboring (maritime boundaries), resource-based economies in Southeast Asia, that had hitherto relatively highly centralized mechanisms of economic decision-making, implemented in 2000-2001 important programs to decentralize much of this decision-making to local provincial and regency governments. In the case of Vietnam, this devolution of government powers affecting the private enterprise economy has taken place within the generally centralized political environment of a communist party monopoly of power. In Indonesia, this devolution occurred in the wake of the ouster of a military-dominated regime, in parallel with a democratic transition. These contrasting institutional settings suggested to me the comparison that is at the heart of my present project.With resources provided by the Luce Foundation and my university, I began learning the Vietnamese language and traveled in the fall of 2003 to Vietnam for an intensive introduction to the effects of these changes on economic conditions in various provinces of Vietnam. Then, with support from the United States Indonesia Society and my university's research fund, I returned to Indonesia to undertake six months' research in regions outside Jakarta, learning of the effects of decentralization on city and regency economies there. I've been fortunate to be in Indonesia studying these economies at this particular political moment, against the backdrop of parliamentary elections and the first direct presidential election. Among the substantive issues upon which the competing candidates differ is on central government relationships with the provinces and regencies and how much authority should be ceded on economic matters to the regions, especially where there's a threat of secession and national disintegration in the case of the resource-rich regions. So I've been able to see some of the issues on which my project focuses discussed in televised public debates between the candidates (the first such debates ever held in Indonesia).
 

Education

B.A. (1978) Economics and Political Studies, University of Auckland, New Zealand; M.A. (1980) Political Studies, University of Auckland; M.P.A. (1982) Public and International Affairs, Princeton University; Ph.D. (1989) Political Science, University of California, Berkeley
 

Subjects

India,International Economics,Indonesia
 

Experience

  • Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, The George Washington University, 1996-present
  • Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, The George Washington University, 1993-96
  • Assistant Professor, Department of Politics, The Catholic University of America, 1989-93
  • Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Government, Cornell University, 1989

Expertise

Economic and political change in Vietnam and Indonesia; decentralization; development of regional economies and polities within these countries

Project Summary

In my project, I analyze what effects the limited transfer of powers from central government to local (provincial and regency) government have had on how local economies are managed. I am considering the impact of contrasting national political institutions in the two countries—one nominally socialist, one nominally democratic—on the implementation of decentralization, the kinds of local institutions created, and the impact they have on the growth and health of the economies of local regions (within these countries).

Major Publications

  • The Politics of Open Economies: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, with Danny Unger (Cambridge University Press, 1997)
  • Crossing the Industrial Divide: State, Society, and the Politics of Economic Transformation in Malaysia (Columbia University Press, 1991)
  • "The Dynamics of Business-Government Relations in Industrialising Malaysia," Business and Government in Industrialising Asia, ed. Andrew J. MacIntyre, Cornell University Press and Allen and Unwin (Sydney), 1994, pp. 167-94

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