Naeem U. Hasan, former Secretary General, SAARC
Former Secretary General of SAARC, Naeem U. Hasan, talks to Southasia.
SAARC was formed with the aim to promote regional integration. Has it been successful in achieving this goal?
The establishment of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 1985 was a significant step for promoting regional cooperation in South Asia in a systematic and sustained manner. Given the history of strife and conflict in the region, it constituted a major and bold initiative to harness the positive impulses in South Asia, and lay the foundation for fruitful cooperation among its member countries within the regional framework to help advance their economic and social development. Over the next decade or two, SAARC did draw up regional programs in such key areas as poverty eradication, the social sector, and notably in economic and trade fields with the signing of the Preferential Trade Agreement and consensus on the creation of SAFTA. There was even talk of aspiring to achieve a South Asian Economic Union by the year 2020. Equally ambitious plans were envisaged on women and children issues, tourism, narcotics control, combating terrorism, and forging people to people contacts etc. However, while the edifice of SAARC, as contained in its plan of action, appears to be impressive, there has been little forward movement to realize the agreed objectives in any field. The past few years have, in fact, witnessed a distinct slowdown of the SAARC process on the ground. SAARC has thus not met the expectations in
forging close cooperation, let alone regional integration, in South Asia. South Asia is regarded as a region with tremendous potential but it has some of the lowest human indicators in the world. Why is it so? What are some of the most pressing problems of the South Asian region – and what is SAARC doing about them?
Although SAARC countries are endowed with much human resources, the low level of development of this abundant resource continues to be one of the main impediments to sustained growth and progress. Very little has been done in this key area in terms of promoting mutually reinforcing regional cooperation. Moreover, the SAARC region happens to be not only one of the most populous regions of the world but, more distressingly, the percentage of population living under poverty in the region is also higher than any other part of the world. The continued poverty of the vast segments of population in South Asia, accompanied with low savings and capital formation, pose a major problem for sustained growth and development of SAARC countries. At the same time, the intertwined problems of poverty, population growth, pressure on scarce natural resources and environment have other serious consequences. Similarly, the future qualities of life of the poor are compromised by inadequate education, health care and other amenities of life. While malnutrition, limited access to housing, medical care, education care and productive assets represent the multidimensional facets of underdevelopment in South Asia, endemic poverty also puts immense strains on the political and social fabric of SAARC countries. Against this backdrop, the founding fathers of SAARC had identified eradication of poverty as one of the main objectives of the association. The very first article of the SAARC Charter states that “all members of the association will actively work to promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and to improve their quality of life.” Likewise, SAARC has laid special emphasis on the needs of women and children and issues pertaining to these vulnerable segments of society have received increased focus and attention in the SAARC context. However, as in other areas, progress has been modest – mostly confined to sharing of information and experience – since social issues and poverty eradication are the domain of national policies and not regional plans under the aegis of SAARC. Has the rivalry between the two major members of SAARC, India and Pakistan, hindered the Group’s ideals? Can SAARC play any role in resolving these conflicts?
The pursuit of active regionalism has become a dominant feature in the contemporary world. Such movement towards greater regionalism has been inspired by many compelling considerations. Different regions of the world have thus consciously decided to enter into regional groupings not only to safeguard their fundamental
economic interests in an age of accelerated globalization and competition, but also to contribute to the establishment of harmonious and peaceful conditions propitious to the containment and eventual resolution of conflicts of a regional character. Their efforts have consisted mainly in promoting functional cooperation and regional economic integration in varying degrees in the expectation that these would facilitate, amongst others, political cooperation.
The experience of EU and ASEAN attests to the success of this approach. At the same time, in both these cases, greater political and defense cooperation has also been encouraged in tandem to address the common threat perception. In the case of SAARC, the relevant experience has been otherwise as the association has had very limited success in blending efforts to overcome hurdles in the political field with those aimed at greater functional and economic cooperation. In fact, the SAARC Charter specifically excludes the possibility of discussion on bilateral issues in any SAARC forum. These limitations, and the historical mistrust between the two major players, have impeded the progress of regional cooperation in South Asia. For the foreseeable future, and given the current political climate, the SAARC process will remain confined to the vicissitudes of the Pakistan-India relationship. The nature of challenges faced by South Asian nations is changing with time. In addition to economic woes, they are also affected by climatic disasters. What should be the top priorities of SAARC to cope with the environmental challenges?
There has been recognition within SAARC that environmental problems facing South Asia are linked to the general low level of development in the region and compounded by the wide incidence of poverty. Large coastal areas of some member states face problems of erosion and the risk of rise in sea level due to global warming. Climatic changes are also resulting in more natural disasters such as frequent flooding. South Asia is also increasingly exposed to industrial pollution, marine pollution and depletion of natural resources. SAARC’s efforts
to meet these challenges should largely focus on the enhancement of environmental awareness across the region and mainstreaming of environmental concerns in policymaking processes. While it is important to improve relations between governments, it is equally important to enhance people to people contact in the context of South Asia, given the shared history and culture of its people. What has SAARC done in this regard?
SAARC has enabled the member countries to promote greater people to people contacts through a series of concrete steps like the introduction of SAARC visa exemption scheme for certain categories of officials. It also recognizes the contributory role of such apex bodies and nongovernmental organizations like the SCCI – SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry – and SAARCLAW, an association of members from the legal communities across the region. SAARC has actively promoted the Association of SAARC Speakers and Parliamentarians. Similarly, the Audio Visual Exchange Program, the Scholarships Scheme, the Volunteer Exchange Program and the Youth Award Scheme have been other
notable initiatives undertaken under the auspices of SAARC to promote greater people to people contacts.
However, the scope and reach of all these endeavors has been very limited and has not touched the broad spectrum of the South Asian society. Restrictive visa regimes and unsatisfactory communication links between member countries continue to impede even official and business travel let alone the contacts between ordinary citizens of the region. What are SAARC’s major successes and failures?
The very fact that SAARC was established against the backdrop of deep-rooted mistrust and symmetries in South Asia and that it laid the foundation for cooperation among member countries could be regarded as a major achievement for the region. One of the foremost successes of SAARC has been that it has provided to the member countries an institutional framework to facilitate conceptualization and implementation of programs of a regional significance. SAARC countries, from time to time, have been able to adopt common positions on important economic and social issues at global forums and have also benefited from the cooperative arrangements SAARC has developed with UN agencies and other regional organizations over the course of years.
However, these successes have been symbolic and not substantive. Apart from the bilateral problems and lack of political will hindering regional initiatives, some of the main obstacles before SAARC are predominantly of an institutional character. The disjunction between the decisions taken at the highest political level and the implementation of these decisions has been a major constraint for SAARC. The SAARC Secretariat and other Regional Centers have never been encouraged to develop and function professionally on the lines of their counterparts in other similar organizations, notably ASEAN. Unless and until these basic flaws in the almost three decades of the SAARC experiment are seriously addressed by its members, the aims and objectives of the association as enshrined in its Charter will remain a distant dream.