Naeem U. Hasan, for­mer Sec­re­tary Gen­eral, SAARC

For­mer Sec­re­tary Gen­eral of SAARC, Naeem U. Hasan, talks to Southasia.

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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.

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