On 25-26 April, 2013, senior representatives of the Lower Mekong Basin countries, namely Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, Viet Nam, and the United States gathered in Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam, for the Fourth Regional Working Group Meeting of the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI).  Members of the six delegations reviewed progress on the LMI Plan of Action and discussed plans for future cooperative activities in the six LMI pillars of Education, Environment and Water, Health, Connectivity, Agriculture and Food Security, and Energy Security.  The Representatives affirmed that LMI is an essential mechanism and forum for building cooperation and capacity to narrow the development gap in the region,  a shared objective of the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI).  They noted the importance of increasing cross-sectoral collaboration across all LMI pillars and integrating a focus on gender equality and women’s empowerment in all LMI programs and policy discussions.  The Representatives discussed the importance of utilizing appropriate channels of communications, and agreed that information related to all LMI programs should be channeled through the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of all partner countries. 

Agriculture and Food Security Pillar:  The LMI Agriculture and Food Security Pillar has approved its Plan of Action and prioritized initial focus on support for policy, research, and public/private cooperation to enable the sustainable development and use of agriculture and fisheries resources and the efficient movement of agricultural goods.

The Representatives agreed to implement activities to advance research and policy on the above areas with particular focus over the coming year on food safety standards, innovative approaches for technology transfers, development of sustainable fisheries, and the agricultural enabling environment. The Representatives also agreed to carry out activities, when applicable, in partnership with the Friends of the Lower Mekong (FLM), civil society, and the private sector. The Agriculture and Food Security Plan of Action fully incorporates gender into all activities.

Energy Security Pillar:  The Representatives reaffirmed the overarching goals of enhancing energy security and accessibility; and ensuring greater sustainability in the Lower Mekong sub-region.  The Representatives agreed to reach these goals through the following objectives: increasing energy accessibility and reliability; ensuring diversification; promoting development and conservation of resources; encouraging information sharing and capacity building; strengthening cross-border cooperation; and engaging and leveraging private sector expertise and resources through public-private partnerships.  They identified five priority areas to achieve these objectives: (1) Regional Energy Market Development; (2) Power Interconnection; (3) Energy Efficiency and Conservation; (4) Transparency and Good Governance; and (5) Energy Research and Development.  The Representatives discussed specific activities that would support the five priority areas including developing gas and power policy assessments; building regulatory capacity; expanding the Energy Smart Communities Initiative; conducting a regional market survey; and supporting synchronization of grid systems.  The Representatives agreed to finalize the Plan of Action for the Ministerial Meeting in June in Brunei Darussalam.

Education Pillar:  The Representatives noted with appreciation the continuation of the LMI English project, Professional Communication Skills for Leaders, into its second phase (August 2013-June 2014).  The Thai Co-Chair presented a detailed proposal on the LMI Leadership Pilot project to (1) prepare youth for future cooperation among LMI countries and for ASEAN integration in 2015, and (2) foster cooperation between LMI and the United States. The Representatives further agreed to develop a more strategic approach for the Pillar that shifts the focus from training to policy formulation and identifies specific areas in the education sector that cut across all LMI member states and pillars.  The Representatives noted that activities within the pillar need to be closely aligned with ASEAN education objectives.  They identified equivalency and accreditation at the tertiary level as a specific area that would benefit policy-makers across LMI.  The Representatives appreciated a presentation from a regional expert on international standardized assessments.  Prior to the next Regional Working Group Meeting, representatives agreed to gather, summarize, and share already-existing equivalency/accreditation policies for tertiary education programs in their respective countries.  At the next RWG Meeting, the Pillar will invite experts, such as the ASEAN University Network, to further the development of a strategy for harmonizing equivalency and accreditation across LMI countries.

Environment and Water Pillar:  The Representatives identified priority themes (Disaster Risk Reduction, Water Security, and Natural Resource Conservation and Management), discussed existing and potential projects and programs, and agreed to operating procedures for the working group (to be codified in a formal terms of reference).  Each government will establish a National Coordinator to facilitate government and stakeholder engagement in the development and implementation of proposed E&W activities.  Additional priorities include strengthening country ownership of the activities, building on local wisdom and knowledge, and expanding technical assistance in response to country demands.   The Representatives also agreed to other steps to accelerate implementation of the LMI Plan of Action and take advantage of other regional and international events to highlight shared policy goals and advance the efforts of the working group. 

Health Pillar:  The Representatives noted the importance of regional collaboration and information sharing on health issues, affirmed the current Plan of Action, and identified areas for further cooperation among LMI nations, including approaches that include governments and the private sector.  World Health Organization International Health Regulations (IHR) compliance emerged as a top priority, which included taking a regional approach to preparedness for chemical, radiation, and biological events.  Members discussed the importance of continued joint efforts to combat counterfeit and sub-standard medications, including engaging the private sector.  All agreed to the importance of integrating a focus on gender equality and women’s empowerment into all LMI health activities.  LMI partner countries committed to continue sharing best practices in cross-border collaboration.  Viet Nam expressed its willingness to share its experience on managing drug resistant tuberculosis.  Thailand indicated its willingness to share best-practices on sanitation and indoor air quality.  The Representatives agreed that the LMI national health focal points will strengthen their communication network.    

Connectivity Pillar:  The Representatives noted the importance of aligning the Connectivity Pillar with the framework of the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity as well as the goals outlined under the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS).  They discussed ongoing projects, including the development of physical and institutional infrastructure being undertaken in each LMI partner country, and welcomed the sharing of U.S. expertise in improving regional connectivity.  In relation to LMI and ACMECS, Representatives acknowledged Thailand’s proposal on Capacity Building on Cross-Border Procedures and Border Management where the U.S. can share its experience on border management.  

The Representatives reaffirmed the importance of interconnectivity, particularly in relation to the development of software, procedures, and information that enable for both the efficient and safe transit of goods and people.  In particular, participants emphasized the need for further development of the ASEAN Single Window and Single-Stop Inspection mechanisms for facilitating trade through the USAID ASEAN Connectivity through Trade and Investment (ACTI) program. Participants highlighted opportunities for the U.S. government to collaborate with LMI partner countries in advancing national and regional efforts to develop these procedures.  The United States agreed to continue supporting the ASEAN Single Window and trade facilitation efforts.

They welcomed the success of the first LMI Infrastructure Best Practices Exchange held January 14-15 2013 in Hanoi, Viet Nam, which brought together LMI government officials responsible for infrastructure development and experts from the private and public sectors.  The Representatives welcomed a proposal from the Departments of Commerce and State to translate discussion into action with 5 follow-up LMI Infrastructure Sector Workshops in 2014 and 2015.  The Representatives noted the progress in planning for a series of LMI Engineering Best Practices seminars focused on infrastructure needs in the region, including on engineering, fire safety, regulatory, and maintenance systems.  They noted with appreciation the progress being made in implementing the LMI Roads and Pavement Management series of workshops through U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and looked forward to sending participants to the first course in the series, which will take place in Vientiane, Lao PDR in May, 2013. The Representatives highlighted the importance of enhancing critical job skills, knowledge, and experience for enhancing their economic competitiveness through new programs utilizing ICT to develop higher education and vocational training.  The Representatives highlighted current gaps within their respective countries, in areas such as science and technology, engineering, mathematics, nursing, and tourism, and agreed that LMI could serve as a forum for building greater human resource capacity, including by empowering women.  USAID and the Department of State agreed to develop programming in support of this objective.

The Representatives welcomed the U.S. proposal for the first activity under Mekong Technology Innovation Generation and Entrepreneurship Resources (TIGERS) to be an innovation tour, which would bring together successful venture capitalists, respected high-technology business development professionals, and founders from successful new technology companies to meet with promising entrepreneurs in the high-tech sector from LMI partner countries. The Representatives also welcomed plans to have a series of LMI Investment and Trade Facilitation workshops in 2014, an example of a Third Country Training Program supported jointly by Singapore and the United States.

LMI’s Role In the Broader Regional Architecture:  The Representatives recognized that the LMI and the Initiative for ASEAN Integration share many of the same goals and areas of engagement.  In order to ensure LMI and IAI complement each other and work together when it makes sense to do so, we recommend strengthening communication between the two initiatives.  A first step would be a meeting between the U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN and the Permanent Representatives of LMI partner countries to ASEAN to discuss potential areas for collaboration and how best to communicate about the two initiatives.  To strengthen coordination between LMI and ASEAN, the LMI Coordination Hub along with IAI & Narrowing the Development Gap (NDG) Division of the ASEAN Secretariat will identify areas of possible collaboration in various sectors based on activities of mutual interest. 

Eminent and Expert Persons Group: The Representatives welcomed the draft Terms of Reference, describing the objectives of the Group, as proposed by the United States, and agreed to provide comments or suggestions on the draft by May 10, 2013, in advance of the Senior Officials Meeting. 

Friends of the Lower Mekong:  The Representatives welcomed the first participation of FLM partners Japan, Australia, South Korea, and the Asian Development Bank at the RWG.  The Representatives agreed that involving FLM in official and informal LMI meetings would be beneficial and present opportunities for further dialogue and collaboration, however, details for donor partner engagement need to be clarified.

Regional Coordination Hub: The Representatives were pleased with the progress of the LMI Coordination Hub in its first year.  The Representatives are looking forward to the launch of the upgraded LMI website (www.lowermekong.org) and accompanying social networking sites by June 2013, which will share best practices, highlight activity achievements, and support outreach efforts for upcoming events.  The Representatives agreed to help the LMI Coordination Hub in its effort to strengthen information sharing, outreach, and stakeholder cooperation under LMI. 

Public-Private Partnership Seminar: Representatives noted with appreciation Viet Nam’s hosting of the Seminar on Development and Implementation of Public-Private Partnership projects.  Members recognized the need for more activities to build capacity of Mekong countries in developing projects for PPP implementation.  In this regard, the United States proposed an LMI infrastructure work program.

Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality:  Representatives noted progress in integrating gender equality and women’s empowerment issues into ongoing LMI programs and policy discussions, and agreed to new language in the LMI Master Plan of Action designed to deepen gender integration efforts.  They agreed that the LMI Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality Policy Dialogue can be held on the sidelines of the ASEAN Minister’s Meeting on Women once every three years and that informal meetings can be held on an ad-hoc basis on the margins of the ASEAN Committee on Women and Children (ACWC) annually, building on discussions held on the margins of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women annual session in New York on March 11, 2013. 

The deadline for comments and changes to all papers or proposals to the SOM is May 10, 2013.  The Representatives agreed to hold the Fifth LMI Regional Working Group Meeting, at a time convenient to the partner countries and prior to the Seventh LMI Ministerial Meeting, which will be held in 2014 in Myanmar.