Vol. 5 Num 558 Wed. December 21, 2005  

What SAARC offers to the region?

Against the backdrop of a series of bomb blasts and political squabble between Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and Leader of the Opposition Sheikh Hasina, the two-day 13th Summit of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which ended in Dhaka under heavy security arrangement, has not succeeded in producing such tangible results as expected. The summit produced an 8-page 53-point Dhaka Declara-tion, which appears not as serious as no organisation could focus attention on so many areas region wise. However, the pledge by the leaders to resolve unsettled issues leading to the implementation of SAFTA from

January, 2006 marks the positive indication toward evolving regional economic forum, which if implemented in the long run, will benefit India -- the largest economy in the region. But disagreement on the issue of identifying products reflects lack of progress toward SAARC's stated objective of increasing regional cooperation in economic fields. Apart from this, no significant progress has been achieved in alleviation of poverty by SAARC countries where 40 percent of the 1.5 billion people live in abject poverty.

The document on alleviation of poverty prepared by an independent SAARC Poverty Alleviation Commission, which was constituted at the sixth summit in Colombo in 1991, provided a radical conceptual framework for poverty alleviation through social mobilisation and empowerment. The summit in Dhaka in 1993 accepted the report and stressed that within the conceptual approach of daal-bhat, the right to work and primary education should be given priority.

Since the floating of SAARC in 1985 in Dhaka, it has crossed long twenty years but has hardly begun to walk. That however does not mean to write off the regional cooperation as irrelevant. Meetings, exchange of views on bilateral, regional and international issues and meetings on the sidelines could help better understand the problems the countries in the region are confronted with. It also offers interface to occur between India and Pakistan, two new nuclear powers.

Political instability, violence, a sense of mistrust and fear and exploitation have contributed toward stagnation of this regional bloc. Among the SAARC countries, Nepal is facing Maoist insurgents who are clamouring to abolish Kingship, Sri Lanka is not yet free from a long civil war with Tamil Tigers while India and Pakistan, major players in regional politics, are at loggerheads over the disputed Kashmir. Earthquake in Pakistan was "compounded by a plummeting equation with India after terrorists' bombings in New Delhi". Both Bangladesh and India are making allegation and counter allegation about harbouring insurgents while some points of water sharing disputes between the two countries remain unresolved.

This being the scenario in the region, there was little willingness or appetite to focus on economic cooperation to alleviate poverty.

However, there is redeeming feature of the 13th summit that concerns the elimination of terrorism as most of the countries, by and large, become the victims of terrorism. The leaders have expressed satisfaction at the ratification of an additional protocol to SAARC convention on suppression of terrorism. Another area of positive development is the creation of a regional disaster management centre. There is hardly any need to put emphasis on the establishment of such centre in view of frequent natural disasters being experienced by the countries in the region. However, it is not understood what was the importance for inclusion of Afghanistan within the fold of SAARC. The inclusion of Afghanistan signals its legitimacy while it is still a satellite of the United States. President Hamid Karzai is the head of a puppet government. At the same time extending periphery to Far East by inclusion of China and Japan as observer does not make much sense.

SAARC has a long way to go before it can catch up with other regional groups, such as Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its trading arm, the Asian Free Trade Association (AFTA), let alone the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group.

Whatever might be the outcome of the summit, one must praise the government for holding the summit successfully without any disturbance at a time when the country has been passing through violence and killings. It was also success for BNP led government to secure posthumous honour for Ziaur Rahman who floated the idea of SAARC and successfully negotiated with other countries for the establishment of the regional cooperation group.

Mohammad Amjad Hossain, a former diplomat, resides in Virginia, USA.