While some regional association such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have set themselves as paradigms of promoting regional integrity and economic development, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), after 28 years of inception has not been able to achieve the success similar to that of its counterparts in creating a prosperous regional economic union. Although different bodies of SAARC have made various commitments to address issues of unequal socio-economic relationships inherent in the South Asian society, implementation of these commitments into action have been rather sluggish. This is mainly due to aspects such as socio-economic development of the region, quality of life, democratic governments, creation of opportunities, fostering economic growth of the region that lay a foundation for creating a regional union have not been addressed. This article analyses SAARC’s declarations and charter, activities conducted so far and areas of cooperation while highlighting some desirable future course of actions for the association to be effective in the context of 18th SAARC summit in 2014.
Areas of Cooperation: From Positions to Actions
SAARC has yet to make a successful attempt in envisaging a comprehensive economic and social development in South Asia. This section analyzes the core issues of SAARC, namely people to people contact, cooperation in social development, economic development and emerging issue of climate change from Civil Societies’ perspective.
People to People Contact
While the SAARC charter emphasizes the need for joint action and cooperation from all member nations and all scopes within a member nation, respective political leaders continue to ignore the commitments they made during the establishment of SAARC. For instance, the inconsistent visa-regimes among member states and cumbersome procedures to obtain visas have led to restriction in mobility, lack of dissemination of information, economic activities and investment within South Asia. However, these restrictions seldom affect the mobility of politicians and the elites.
SAARC member states, often characterized by low literacy rates, prevalence of poverty, unequal access to income, wealth and distribution, gender inequality, must garner immediate attention to improving their social sector. Unfortunately, instead of addressing social issues, the policies implemented by political leaders in this region have exacerbated the pre-existing inequalities, marginalization and, denied access to rights, justice, and democratic freedom to the majority of people in this region (People’s SAARC, 2007). As shown in Table 1, despite having similar geographical topography, South Asia is lagging behind in all key indicators of social development in comparison to that of East Asia and Pacific.
Poverty and Hunger
The leaders of SAARC member states agreed on various action plans for development and uplifting the livelihoods of the downtrodden, but the plans are seldom realized and as such the impacts on the ground are almost non-existent. Although South Asia has witnessed high food consumption rates attributed by rapid population growth in the last two decades, the region comprises of highest concentration of malnourished people in the world, with 304 million people in 2010-2012. This accounted for around one third of the total number of undernourished people in the world. Likewise, more than 250 million children are undernourished in the region (The World Bank, 2013).
Education plays a vital role in improving quality of life. In the past few years, South Asia has witnessed some improvement in the education sector. For example, the number of drop out of school children of primary age has declined from 43 to 26 million – 11.5 million in India; 3 million in Afghanistan; 2 million in Pakistan and 1 million in Bangladesh, respectively. However, according to the World Bank Report of 2013, more than 30 million children do not have access to education in South Asia. One of the biggest challenges concerning the education sector in South Asia is gender inequality. Women account for majority of the adult population (ages 15 and up) who cannot read and write, reflecting decades old bias against women and their education. The single greatest factor keeping girls out of school is gender discrimination, compounded by the caste, class, religious and ethnic divisions that is prevalent the region.
Human Rights, Equality and Social Justice
The situation of human rights in South Asia is very challenging, particularly among the marginalized and disadvantaged communities. SAARC countries have signed several conventions on trafficking of women and children for prostitution, promotion of child welfare, agreements on food security and other various social issues. However, the majority of SAARC member states still have to ratify the optional protocols to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Even where treaties have been ratified, implementation has been restricted by the reservations of some countries that follow a narrow interpretation of treaties relating to civil and political rights, and by a limited political commitment to implement economic, social and cultural rights (Basnet, 2013). These areas are to be well taken care of and should be the limelight for SAARC’s future plan. If SAARC fails in addressing these issues, the future of the South Asia then will be bleak.
To combat food crisis, SAARC formed the Food Bank in 2007 that would serve as a regional food security reserve for the SAARC member states, and provide regional support to nation food shortages through collective action (SAARC Secretariat, 2007). However, the bank has not been able to effectively manage the food crisis rampant in the region. As of 2010-2012, South Asia alone had 304 million populations that were malnourished which accounted for one third of the total undernourished population of the world.
Economic Sector and Trade Regime
Although SAARC has established South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) with the objective to promote and enhance mutual trade, its rational implementation is yet to be materialized. SAARC accounts for less than 2 per cent of the world’s total trade and the intra-region trade is less than 5 percent (World Bank, 2008). Compared with other trading blocs such as EU, and ASEAN which have 60 per cent and 20 per cent bilateral trade within the regions, respectively, intra SAARC trade is negligible. SAARC should remove the tariff and non-tariff barriers in trade and promote small and medium entrepreneurs (SME) in the region.
Climate Change and Environmental Vulnerability
Since South Asia inhabits one-fifth of the world’s population, due attention should be given to the adverse effects of climate change on the livelihood, sustainable development and economy. Due to the rise in sea-level the low-lying areas, long coastlines, island regions and flood plains of South Asia are in serious threat. The Himalayan region is likely to face catastrophic consequences of glacier melt, including Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF). Leaders of South Asia should take the issue of climate change seriously by reaffirming their commitment to address the challenge in the upcoming SAARC summit.
From analyzing the prevailing contexts of SAARC, there are several areas requiring immediate actions from the leaders. SAARC can learn from policies implemented by successful regional associations such as the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN encourages interaction between people in the region by making travel easier through visa-free arrangements. This has boomed tourism industry, thus, uplifting both economic and social development of the member nations (UNDP, 2013). Similarly, to ensure a better future of SAARC, it should incorporate Human Rights Policy in its Social Charter. Furthermore, SAARC should ensure food security, right to food and food sovereignty for all but with greater focus on nutrition. As production and consumption is rapidly increasing, SAARC should move towards a customs union by gradually eliminating the tariffs and non- tariff barriers and discriminatory practices in the region. An emphasis should be given on coordination in the production activities among the member countries so that greater complementariness in trade cooperation could be generated in due course of time. Adverse effects of climate change acts as an obstacle in achieving sustainable development. Therefore, combating climate change requires urgent and ambitious action, in accordance with the principles and provisions of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Finally, SAARC should emphasize on achieving gender equality and women empowerment as gender inequality is a great barrier in tackling poverty.
This piece has been authored by Netra Timsina, Coordinator of the South Asia Alliance for Poverty Eradication (SAAPE) and was published originally in SAAPE’s Bullettin No. 17, November 2014 focusing on the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).