SAARC Needs to Move ahead with New Dynamism

|  K.P. Sharma Oli  |

The 15th Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was held in the capital city of Sri Lanka from August 2 to 3, 2008. With around one-forth of the world's total population, the South Asian Region has been characterized by deprivation, underdevelopment and abject poverty. The region has suffered from a myriad of other serious problems like terrorism and extremism. The need for a regional forum was widely felt to identify the causes behind such scourges and to make concerted efforts in order to deal with them in a more effective manner. SAARC started its organized journey in 1983 after the then foreign ministers of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka made public the name and the charter of the regional forum. Following the presentation of the objective of SAARC by the then President of Bangladesh, Zia Ur Rahaman, extensive discussions were held for and against the regional body. Ultimately, the importance of the regional forum was widely realized. As a result, the first SAARC Summit that was held in Dhaka in 1985 decided on the fate and size of the regional organization.

Now, the number of member states of SAARC reached eight after the inclusion of Afghanistan in the 14th Summit, which was held on 3-4 April, 2007 in New Delhi, the capital city of India. Some more Asian countries have shown their interest to acquire membership of the regional organization. Australia, China, Iran, Japan, Mauritius, Myanmar, the Republic of Korea (RoK), the United States of America (USA) and the European Union (EU) have become observers of SAARC. Some more countries and organizations are eager to be observers of this regional forum.

With the highest concentration of the poor, reducing poverty is still a formidable challenge in South Asia. The region awaits concerted efforts of the member states  to  tackle  the  abject poverty. As the entire region has lagged behind in terms of socio-economic development, the region needs to create an environment of social and political stability which leads to economic take-off. South Asia is in need of a huge amount of investment in programmes and projects suitable designed for poverty alleviation and social development.

Over the last decade, South Asia has achieved the achieved the distinction of being one of the fastest growing regions in the world, with an average economic growth rate of around 5.3 percent per annum. Sustaining this growth trajectory is a special motivation as well as a challenges for us, which might have several positive ramifications in the socio-economic life of the region as a whole.

The core economic areas of trade and investment must be brought forward for stimulation of further growth and prosperity. SAFTA has come into effect since January 2006 and brought us a lot of hope. Any problem encountered in its smooth operationalisation must be sorted out, with lead role of the larger economies of the region. If we compare the intra-regional trade volume of the South Asian Region with other economic blocs, it is dismally low at 5 percent of the total trade of the region. So, necessary measures need to be taken to use trade such as a vehicle of prosperity and contribute to the transformation of our society. The South Asia Free Trade Area (SAFTA) must be bolstered by trade facilitation measures, such as harmonization of standards and customs procedures and enhanced transport connectivity. Initiatives have been taken in
these areas in the last Summits. The establishment of SAARC Development Fund is another important initiative to stimulate investments in the region.

SAARC has already embarked upon the preparation for ultimate realization of the South Asian Economic Union in a phased and planned manner  by 2020. A Term of Reference  for  the roadmap to this goal has been prepared. It, of course, needs further elaboration and clarity and the incorporation of ideas of experts and professionals, including the commissioning of studies.

South Asia's energy demand exceeds the economic growth rate by 2 to 3 percent. It is traditionally an energy deficit region, relying on imported fuels. However, renewal clean energy such as hydroelectricity in which our country has tremendous potential is being looked upon with renewed interest in the region. We should be prepared to develop a few big hydropower projects as model for regional or sub-regional cooperation in the energy sector. We need to emphasize the inter-connectivity of power grids and the development of trans-border gas and oil pipelines for creating economies of scale in energy trade, which is of utmost importance for the whole region.

Although SAARC is moving ahead at a slow pace, it has taken many important steps. Some of the major achievements of the regional body include SAARC University, SAFTA and SAARC Development Fund (SDF). In its 25 years of history, the regional organization has held 15 summits. But it is true that the regional forum has not been able to make the desired accomplishments. It still has a long way to go.

The regional organization holds much significance for Nepal. The country has been facing the problems of backwardness, poverty and violent conflict. As a member state, Nepal has given much importance to the SAARC process since the beginning. The country has been actively taking part in the organization's activities.

A worthless debate was created regarding Nepal's participation in the 15th Summit due to narrow partisan political interest. However, Nepal participated in the Summit by concealing the bruises created by the immature behaviors. The country was able to save its international image.

Poverty, unemployment, terrorism, extremism, underdevelopment, trafficking in women and children and lack of proper exploitation of the natural resources are regarded as major problems and challenges facing the South Asian Region. Although the third decade of SAARC is recognized as the decade of implementation, no effective strategy and action plan has been formulated so far t deal with the aforementioned problems. The regional organization is often blamed for just becoming a forum for Sought Asian leaders to meet each other. The charge is also not baseless when we look at the action plans of the regional body.

The 15th SAARC Summit laid its emphasis on issues such as poverty, price hike of fuels and food crisis and approved proposals. Issues related to terrorism, extremism and cross-border crime control also get prominence at the Summit. The member states prominently raised their concern over the ineffective implementation of SAFTA. They called for an effective enforcement of the regional trade regime. The Summit also focused its attention on reducing or removing the negative list of goods to promote trade within region. The member states of SAARC are required to come up with honest and broader thoughts if they are to make joint efforts to resolve the problems of the region. The 15th Summit concluded with a 41-point declaration under the theme
"Partnership for growth for our people". The member states agreed on four major  issues, including making South Asia food storage. The foreign ministers of the SAARC member states signed documents of SDF Charter, establishment of South Asian Regional Quality Control Organization, ensuring access of Afghanistan to SAFTA and fostering inter-state and regional cooperation for controlling cross-border criminal activities. Although the SDF is not sound financially, decision has been taken to establish its secretariat in Thimpu. These  steps  are certainly positive and encouraging.

The need of the hour is to integrate the national and regional efforts to deal with the rampant poverty and illiteracy in South Asia. All the member states should adjust their national plans and programmes with the regional ones. If we are to address these problems and achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015, we must come up with more planned and integrated regional policies and strategies. The concept of regional understanding and cooperation is increasing among the different sections of people and the NGOs of the region. Now we must also combine the efforts of the governments and the people and their organizations of the region.

SAARC must give emphasis to regional connectivity and increased people-to-people contacts for enhancement of business confidence. For maximization of the benefits of economic growth and development, social evils like terrorism, drug trafficking, trafficking in women and children, money laundering and other trans-national crimes must be brought under control through concerted efforts. We need to pay attention to the implementation of the pgrogrammes mentioned in the Social Charter.

It may be recalled here that SAARC had announced decades and years for improving the status of children and women, and alleviating poverty. But those initiatives remained unsuccessful. Many other decisions made by the regional forum were also not implemented effectively. One of the reasons behind the inability on the part of SAARC to achieve the desired goals could be mutual enmity, mistrust and non-cooperation among the nations of the region and particularly between bigger nations of the region. SAARC is not a forum for making debates and discussions on bilateral issues. The regional body is also not supposed to address such issues. But the activities of SAARC seem to have been hit hard by bilateral relations between the bigger member states. It is worth mentioning that some SAARC Summits were postponed because of bilateral issues.

SAARC will be a more efficient organization only when there are positive changes in the internal political situation of the member states. The feeling of mutual cooperation should also  be generated among the member sates. SAARC needs to learn lessons from similar other regional organizations. We should look at the progresses made by the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union (EU) and learn lessons from them.

SAARC has to foster ties based on traditional relations between and among the nations of the region. The positive aspects should be restored and updated so as to strengthen relations among the member states. The future of the regional organization depends on the matured behavior of the neighbors who are armed with nuclear weapons, suffering from abject poverty and facing lack of mutual understanding.
In terms of size and strength, India has more important role to play in the region. Like India, other member states also have to play their respective roles to help enhance regional cooperation. SAARC could emerge as a successful organization if the regional forum concentrates its activities on promoting cooperation among the people, and  pays  attention towards materializing the concepts of welfare state, and social justice and security. The regional organization should take up such measures at a time when economic liberalization and market- oriented economy are gaining ground worldwide. With the solution of problems of this region, around one-forth of the world's problems will be solved. Therefore, SAARC's success in achieving its objectives will be proved to be unique. The regional organization should not come up with these very issues in a similar way at the 16th Summit to be held in Male, capital of the Maldives. Rather, it should assess its achievements and formulate new necessary plans and programmes to make additional accomplishments.