The success or failure of SAARC in advancing regional cooperation is dependent upon the inescapable fact that it is an inter-governmental organization. Even within the areas of cooperation that have been agreed upon, it will be as effective as the member-governments desire it. In other words, the scope and pace of cooperation that the governments find conducive to their perceived interests will play the decisive role. The question then arises, to what extent the individual governments are sensitive to the expectations of the people about the initiative known as SAARC. How far have signals from the “non-official” SAARC process been able to goad governments in the direction of cooperation?
The second half of the first decade of the SAARC organisation witnessed some decidedly positive developments. First, SAARC acquired a fairly elaborate institutional infrastructure, and appeared to have achieved the resilience needed to survive recurrent setbacks that are a part of South Asian reality. The organisation has also developed the potential of a war-preventive and peace-facilitating forum. Second, progress towards the institutionalisation of democracy in several countries also helped SAARC. Third, nearly every country has introduced bold and basic reforms for economic liberalisation, success in which may also promote interdependence. Initialives on the economic front promise higher rates of growth, greater macro-economic stability, increased foreign direct investment, an expanding middle class, growing modernisation and fast access to the information revolution. All these indications are favorable for regionalism.
The prospects of stability, peace and cooperation, however, are far from deeply rooted, and the instabilities within and between countries continue to cloud prospects. The region is rife with endemic instability related to political, ethnic, communal, sectarian and other types of conflict. The sources of conflict are of ´structural´ nature, with their roots in history, geopolitics, economics and ecology. The same historical, ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious values that bind the nations together also keep them apart. Progress in SAARC is also hostage to divergent political and security perceptions originating in the division of the Subcontinent and its subsequent fallout.
It is against this backdrop that the effectiveness of nonofficial initiatives for cooperation in South Asia have to be looked at. There are two main streams of non-official dialogue process that are at work in South Asia to complement the official SAARC process. The first is an informal process on the sidelines of the official events and agenda, while the second is the whole spectrum of initiatives outside it.
Common Contentious Concerns
As an institution, SAARC was born handicapped when the governments decided to limit themselves to cooperation in non-controversial areas of socioeconomic and cultural nature, and decided to keep “bilateral and contentious” out of the Association´s purview. A close examination of the SAARC process will reveal, however, that while initiatives for cooperation have been facing severe challenges because of instability in inter-state relations, the Association has served as a forum where members have discussed—successfully or not—problems having implications for regional security and stability.
One notable aspect has been the increased frequency of mutual contacts at official and political levels. And there has hardly been any major SAARC event that did not witness informal consultation of member states on issues of dispute. Such issues do not appear as agenda items, but outside these the leaders and officials discuss matters of common concern practically without restriction. The trend was set in the first SAARC summit held in 1985 in Dhaka, when the member-governments decided through “informal” consultations to explore the possibility of expanding their cooperation in combating drug trafficking and abuse, and terrorism—which are not only politically complex but also quite controversial and basically of bilateral implication. Negotiations continued even though prospect for cooperation was rather remote, and in the end, two regional conventions, one on the suppression of terrorism and the other on prevention of drug abuse and trafficking, came into effect in 1988.
Similarly, the SAARC forum has been used for informal negotiations on some issues of bilateral nature. Such issues include the sharing of water resources between Bangladesh and India, the Indo-Pakistan controversy over the nuclear issue, and the lndo-Sri Lankan problem over ethnic conflict in the latter. The recent signing of the water-sharing agreement between Dhaka and New Delhi is the culmination of a process in which a whole series of non-official dialogues within and outside the SAARC process contributed. The Indo-Pakistan agreement not to strike each other´s nuclear installations is another example of successful confidence-building diplomacy using SAARC as a platform.
While these are official dialogues riding the coattails of formal SAARC meetings, the period since the launching of SAARC has witnessed an unprecedented rise in various types of “non-official”—often referred to as “Track Two”—initiatives. Though contacts at people´s level is nothing new in South Asia, a multiple flowering of regional dialogues has been a striking feature of recent years. (Incidentally, the frequency of strictly official events have also increased a lot, facilitating greater interaction between thousands of South Asians. As early as in 1987, the number of SAARC events organised by the various technical committees under SAARC´s Integrated Programme of Action was estimated to be well over two hundred annually. That number has gone up considerably since then, and there is about one meeting taking place daily today.)
According to an inventory compiled recently of on-going non-official bilateral and regional initiatives, there are more than 40 categories of interactions in progress. Numerous channels are at work. These include academia, research institutions and various other professional groups including media and social groups; issue-based organisations involved with environmental, gender, human rights, and so on; and development workers, election monitors, accountants and management experts, engineers, educators, consultants, business representatives, students groups, youth and private individuals, even political parties, trade unionists, speakers and parliamentarians. This outpouring of nonofficial activism can be viewed as an expression of what is expected of SAARC at the popular level.
To be fair to the SAARC process, it may be too early to start totting up achievements. It is fair to say, however, that the non-official interactions have become a kind of growth industry, with the number of initiatives increasing by the day. This has certainly improved the scope and channels for better linkage of individuals and institutions within the region. Unfortunately, most of these initiatives have remained singular events, rather than transforming into any sustained process of networking. Few have well-defined directions, and most importantly, there is hardly any coordination of the various initiatives through an institutional mechanism. Nevertheless, the activities have served to bring into sharper focus the issues of regional cooperation from the point of view of academics, researchers, journalists, retired government officials, NGO activists and, in some cases, the business leaders who are the most frequent participants in the process.
In terms of impact on policies, it is not very dramatic. Typically, these initiatives produce a variety of papers or reports, sometimes published in the form of books, monographs, or in journals. Unfortunately, the experience has been that these publications hardly find any use at the official level. Even those that secure access to high offices very soon start to accumulate dust. Occasionally, however, there are initiatives of policy-oriented institutions which do provide useful input to the official process.
If one recalls, the imperatives for the very emergence of SAARC was articulated by a series of studies under the aegis of the Colombo-based Committee for Studies in Cooperation and Development. The working paper on the Bangladeshi proposal to launch the Association was prepared by Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies. Mention may be made also of the work of the Independent Group on South Asian Cooperation, which helped include some core economic and developmental areas such as poverty alleviation and trade cooperation in the Association´s agenda. The efforts of high-level officials close to the formal SAARC process and involvement of retired officials seems to have been especially helpful for initiatives to bear fruit.
Overall, the interaction between the non-official and official efforts remains far from institutionalised. But an attitudinal change appears to be taking place among officials, who are now more receptive to ideas coming from the non-official South Asian initiatives. One shortcoming of these initiatives is that they remain mostly confined to professionals, such as those in the academic and research communities. Academics, researchers, media and NGO activists may be enthusiastic in rushing in to tackle areas governments are reluctant to enter, but their ability to influence policy South Asia-wide remains fairly restricted. Similarly, very little effort has gone into roping in the younger generation of professionals— future policy-makers and opinion-shapers—who tend to be free from inhibitions and historical baggage and hence can be expected to bring fresh perspectives to old positions.
The factors which impede the process of cooperation in South Asia are many, and they will not be disappear overnight—SAARC or no SAARC. Despite continued setbacks and limitations, however, the growing interface between the official and non-official process has led to the building of regional public opinion in favour of strengthening regional cooperation. This must lead, in time, to the evolution of political institutions and processes which will work to make governments sensitive to the will of the people. Much will also depend upon the success and impact of the economic liberalisation process. Mean while, the expanding channels of non-official initiatives must be dovetailed into a committed network, which would work towards strengthening the civil society of South Asia.