ASEAN Investment Report: Foreign Direct Investment and Economic Zones in ASEAN

Last year I acted as a consultant for UNCTAD – United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in the area of special economic zones in the Greater Mekong Subregion. The full report is available online here. You might find some of the sections I wrote in various chapters or I can tell you about them in considerable detail.


Provision of Educational Services in Special Economic Zones in the Greater Mekong Subregion

Yesterday I attended the last day of the Newton Fund Researcher Links Workshop at the Asia Hotel in Bangkok organized by the British Council and hosted by Khon Kaen University. The purpose of the workshop is to help foster links between British and Thai academics, particularly early career Thai academics.

My presentation was on Provision of Educational Services in Special Economic Zones in the Greater Mekong Subregion


Special economic zones (SEZs) are time and space-limited areas in which the regular laws of the land do not apply. Instead, various provisions are made to privilege capital above labour and, thereby, encourage domestic and especially international investment. States welcome this kind of investment because it provides direct employment and the prospect of technology transfer and industrial deepening. In the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) (i.e. Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Yunnan Province of China and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Zone) SEZs are being enthusiastically promoted because of the help it is hope they will provide states in passing through the Factory Asia Paradigm (FAP) – i.e. import substituting, export oriented, intensive manufacturing based on low labour cost competitiveness and a potential exit from it that would represent graduation from the Middle Income Trap. At various stages of the FAP, it is necessary to provide educational services to employees at different levels of seniority. This might include specific on-the-job training, vocational skills-based education or more advanced forms of learning to foster creativity and innovation. Within the GMS, educational provision has begun to be provided in some of the different types of SEZ that have been opened or which are still being built. More will be expected in the future as, for example, the Thai government has recently called for foreign universities to open facilities within its SEZs to try to meet state-level developmental goals. This paper investigates the current level of provision of such forms of education and compares it with what might be required, together with a brief consideration of how the gap might be bridged.

Keywords: education. Greater Mekong Subregion, special economic zones, vocational education

There is going to be book on the workshop’s themes in due course and I plan to submit a chapter to it.

Governance of Economic Spatial Initiatives

Announcing: Ampornstira, Fuangfa and John Walsh, “Governance of Economic Spatial Initiatives,” International Review of Management and Development Studies, Vol.1, No.3 (2017), pp.1-5.

Abstract:  The current Thai regime has emphasized the importance of special economic zones (SEZs) in border regions as a means of promoting overall economic development. The use of SEZs in this way has become popular throughout most of East Asia, with even North Korea participates, if a little warily. Governments seem to be attracted to these forms of spatial
initiative because they are able to enforce different forms of law within them, customarily privileging capital over labor, as well as because the example of China shows what kind of growth can be achieved without yielding round on democratization and personal and political liberties. They are technocratic solutions that have the support of important transnational organizations such as the Asian Development Bank and, also, the Chinese government and its
many currently compliant corporations, which have been involved with the North-South and East-West Economic Corridors and the Asian Highway Network. At the level of implementation, the creation of these schemes requires enforced purchase of land and involuntary migration of previous residents, which has led to armed resistance to projects from Myanmar to India and beyond. This raises numerous questions about the appropriate means of governing such areas in ways that are equitable and accountable. This paper uses a case study approach to highlight various governance models from different parts of the world and seeks to identify success factors that may or may not be transferable elsewhere. No single model, it is argued, will be successfully applied in every case, although principles of transparency and proper public consultation would always be welcome. Some policy implications and recommendations are drawn from the analysis.

Keywords: development, governance, policy, spatial initiatives, special economic zones

Special Economic Zones in CLMTV


I spent two days last week at a workshop on special economic zones in Southeast Asia for the United Nations (UNCTAD), in conjunction with ASEAN and support from a number of other partners. I was invited to speak on the topic of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in CLMTV (Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam): Significance, Impact and Linkages. The audience consisted of representatives of eight Southeast Asian nations, academics and private sector representatives and we met at the Amari Watergate Hotel here in sunny Bangkok.

The issues involved are complex and opinions diverse: in India, for example, SEZs are seen as a means of land-grabbing and reviled by most people while in China they are revered as part of the means of enabling hundreds of millions of people to lift themselves from poverty while retaining monolithic political control. Here in the Mekong region, they are part of the Factory Asia paradigm of import-substituting, export-oriented intensive manufacturing based (at least initially) on low labour cost competitiveness. One question is how to involve local companies and individuals as part of the global value chains being created by firms through forward and backward linkages. The provision of infrastructure and connectivity is necessary but not sufficient in achieving this.

Attending the workshop is part of my consultancy with the UN, which now requires me to complete various reports and I will be busy with that over the next couple of weeks.

Thailand’s Border Special Economic Zones and the Reconfiguration of Cross-Border Social, Labour and Commercial Relations


I am back now from the InterAsian 5 Conference at Seoul National University in Korea ( It was a successful and interesting event with more than a hundred scholars joining a series of workshops with pre-prepared and pre-circulated papers. This was mine:

Thailand’s Border Special Economic Zones and the Reconfiguration of Cross-Border Social, Labour and Commercial Relations


Border special economic zones have been announced as the next step of developing the Thai economy and making qualitative, structural changes to it. Yet it is not clear how such zones differ from the currently employed industrial estates, which have done sterling service in fueling rapid economic growth for several decades and continue to be important elements in the economy. This paper explains the issues behind this policy and the ways in which estate might hope to become a zone.

Keywords: border, industrial estate, middle income trap, special economic zone, Thailand

It is likely that in due course the collected papers from each of the workshops will appear as a journal special issue or book in due course.

Impacts of the Special Economic Zones of Lao PDR


This is a paper that I am going to present at the 5th Lao Studies Conference to be held in July this year.


One of the principal policies for rapid economic development in Lao PDR is the creation of special economic zones (SEZs). These areas aim to encourage inward investment by providing stable infrastructure and tax breaks in various categories to potential domestic and international investors. Hosting factories on this basis enables the country to pursue its trajectory along the Factory Asia paradigm (low labour cost competitiveness in export-oriented, import-substituting manufacturing). In addition to direct effects of increased employment, this also offers possible spillover effects in the form of industrial deepening and technology transfer. SEZs are generally located near to large markets or population bases or the intersections of transportation routes. If successfully managed, SEZs act as magnets for new forms of development and provides demand for social and public services. Social relations are also affected because many of the people drawn from the agricultural into the industrial sector will be women. The Lao government is planning to build an additional 41 SEZs and specific economic zones with the view of creating another 50,000 jobs and adding US$2,400 to local per capita incomes. International investors in both private and public sectors will be invited to contribute to these projects. This paper explores the existing use of SEZs in the country and their impact on local conditions from various perspectives (e.g. social, environmental, legal and geographic) and then attempts to predict likely impacts to be caused by the future constructions. Policy recommendations are derived from this analysis.

Keywords: Factory Asia paradigm, infrastructure, Lao PDR, social relations, special economic zones

The prgoramme for the conference is now online at:


Uneven Development and the Special Economic Zones of the Greater Mekong Subregion


Announcing: Walsh, John, “Uneven Development and the Special Economic Zones of the Greater Mekong Subregion,” Journal of Perspectives on Development in the Greater Mekong Region, Vol.3, No.1 (January-June, 2015), pp.1-16, available at:


The use of industrial estates in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) has been very successful in terms of numbers of projects launched, number of factories opened, amount of goods manufactured and so forth. However, although aggregate levels of creation are impressive, it is not clear that the value added to the economies involved overall is very high. One important means of enhancing the quality of the connectivity between economic actors located within an industrial estate and other economic actors in the wider economy. This would involve connectivity that would be characterized as becoming greener and smarter. This paper argues that the concepts of environmental friendliness and intelligent relationships can be folded into the construct of connectivity as a framework for analysis. This is used to inform the study and discussion of a series of case studies of industrial estates within the GMS and helps to refine a future research agenda.

KEYWORDS Connectivity, Greater Mekong Subregion, Industrial estates, Special economic zones, Uneven development