“The beast was born dead, but feigned life. The pretence of being alive was sustained by various equally stillborn attempts to show signs of life.”
– Himal Southasian, editorial, January 2004
Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. The more things change, the more they remain the same. This French aphorism perhaps best describes the institutional character of SAARC, which, since its establishment in 1985, has been seeking a change in our region in terms of poverty eradication and sustainable development. But this change is still nowhere in sight.
The problems besetting SAARC’s member states, and those hampering the implementation of its agreed-upon plans and programmes, remain largely unaddressed. Southasia continues to be one of the world’s poorest regions, with a closed economy despite some progress made toward trade liberalisation during the 1990s. The vast majority of its peoples continue to live under grinding poverty and sub-human conditions. Five of SAARC’s eight member states – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives and Nepal – belong to the UN category of so-called Least Developed Countries.
Southasia’s imports and exports make up a much smaller share of GDP than in either East Asia or Latin America, and its tariffs are among the highest in the world. Protectionism continues to limit market access. Intra-regional trade is non-consequential, representing just four percent of total trade. Compare this with 62 percent in the European Union, 55 percent in the NAFTA area of North America, and 35 percent in ASEAN. Meanwhile, the collective share of the SAARC region in world trade is no more than one percent.
It has now been more than two decades since SAARC came into being, as an expression of our region’s collective resolve to keep pace with the changing times, and to evolve a coherent regional cooperative framework for the socio-economic well-being of the peoples of its member states. During this period, we have seen the world transform and come together at an electronic pace through the marvels of technology and communication. The world has moved ahead at an accelerated rate of economic growth and affluence, while Southasia remains mired in its unbroken legacy of poverty, hunger, disease and illiteracy; all the while, SAARC, as an organisation, has not gone beyond rhetoric and anodyne declaratory pronouncements, with no tangible achievement to its credit.
In general, the SAARC countries also lag behind in developing genuine democracy, rule of law and good governance through universally acclaimed norms and principles. What has gone wrong with SAARC is a question that continues to agitate minds at all levels. Our leaders’ vision of ushering in an era of peace and prosperity for Southasia remains unfulfilled. Their pronouncements are often a reflection of the only ‘consensus’ that we seem to have developed at the ‘regional level’: acknowledging the grim reality that SAARC, during almost two and a half decades in existence, has not lived up to the expectations of its member states. Now, we must have consensus on the need to take a fresh look at the efficacy of the Association.
New new vision
Every SAARC Summit ends with a ‘new vision’ for the region’s progress and prosperity. The 15th Summit in Sri Lanka will undoubtedly do the same. But visions alone will not promote regional cooperation in Southasia. We already have our regional vision, that SAARC was created to serve and which even now remains valid. We now need to look ahead, to think afresh with a sense of greater commitment and practicality on our existing goals – and on the means to accomplish them.
To perform, SAARC requires an enabling environment in the region, free of mistrust and hostility, without which no regional arrangement anywhere in the world has worked. Economic integration is inextricably linked to the creation of a climate of mutual trust and confidence, an environment of peace and stability. But the India-Pakistan equation, with all of its ramifications, is not the only factor that has adversely impacted on SAARC’s record. The Association’s capacity to deliver on its ambitious agenda has also been conditioned by its systemic limitations and operational handicaps.
There is now a pervasive feeling that something may have been fundamentally wrong with our regional approach. The most effective remedial measure would be to focus on implementing our pledges rather than continuing the proliferation of voluminous documents, fruitless meetings and non-implementable commitments. In fact, SAARC needs to be re-oriented both structurally and operationally, enhancing its effectiveness as a dynamic vehicle of regional cooperation. For this, our regional perspective must be clearly drawn out, our goals and priorities pragmatically defined, and our wherewithal appropriately geared towards the realisation of our declared objectives.
This requires an attitudinal change, both at the national and regional levels; to move from our declaratory stance to implementation mode, equipped with necessary means and resources. Besides political commitment and deeper engagement on the part of all member states, a new result-oriented normative framework and operational culture is needed, one that is consistent with our regional ground realities. SAARC needs to move from the realm of ideas to actionable plans.
We only have to rationalise our priorities with the basic socio-economic needs of the people, with education and health in particular receiving the largest budgetary allocations. We need to capitalise, together, on our region’s geo-economic location, in terms of its potential for intra-regional as well as inter-regional oil-and-gas pipelines and transport, as well as communications networks. Increased engagement of non-governmental stakeholders, including NGOs, civil society and the private sector, in the realisation of SAARC objectives will not only help to bridge the mental divide between the peoples of the region that has been created by governmental policies and propaganda, but will also give added impetus to the process of regional cooperation.
Besides simplifying and facilitating travel within the region, we must promote people-to-people contact, business and cultural exchanges, and cooperative linkages among educational institutions in the region. We must build on our common experiences of civilisation, cultural affluence and mutuality of values and interests. Southasia today needs an exceptional new impulse to stay apace with the changing times, and this absolutely must spring from within the region.
~ Shamshad Ahmad is a former foreign secretary of Pakistan, presently active in civil-society initiatives in Lahore.