Since 1992 the Asian Development Bank (ADB) initiated the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) Program encompassing the five countries and parts of China. As of 2016, over USD 14 billion has been invested by the ADB. The GMS program is another flagship endeavor by ADB under the strategic pillar entitled “regional economic integration”. Furthermore the GMS Regional Investment Framework (RIF) 2013 – 2022 serves as the master plan for over 200 projects with an estimated investment of about USD 50 billion.1
In its own words the ADB claims to be a “catalyst” of the GMS program. The Bank intends to work closely with Mekong governments in order to develop, finance, coordinate and even conceptualize numerous development projects into local realities. At this point the GMS have become one of the key influencing mechanisms for guiding investment in the region. The key stakeholders are the Mekong governments, international financial institutions (IFIs) including the ADB, academics and other regional bodies such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). However according to a report in 2008 by Oxfam Australia, the projects in the GMS region promote economic growth and regional integration with limited or undermined focus on poverty reduction. The report further suggests that the GMS program has spent billions of dollars on infrastructure development projects, hydropower dams, and transport corridors with catastrophic impacts on people’s livelihoods, local environments and social fabrics.
Civil society-led impact studies on ADB funded GMS projects suggest that groups mostly dependent on natural resources bear the brunt of direct disempowerment from practices such as mining, logging, involuntary resettlement and road-building among others. Once removed from their rights of access to their customary resources, the ADB presupposes that affected communities will invariably integrate into new market-based economies. Most often than not, however this is far from the local reality.