Sridhar K. Khatri
If South Asiais to move forward at a pace that the people of the region wish to see, the vision and strategy for the third decade must include a certain degree of commitment to achieve the goals that we have become familiar with over the years. This entails not only defining new goals for the years ahead, but also strengthening the institutions that exists, like the SAARC Secretariat, and devising mechanisms which will monitor its implementations within specified timeframes. This alone could be the greatest goals SAARC could set for the Third Decade since it would make no sense to have programmes without the mechanisms to implement them.
If SAARC is to reflect in some form the meaning of a resurgent South Asia, it must prioritize its ambiguous agenda and take some concrete measure to implement them. There are many issues that can be included in the recommendations, but let me just take a handful for your consideration.
1. SAFTA and Beyond—SAFTA is a major achievement for SAARC and after two decade some concrete gains from free trade in the region heeds to be realized if regionalism is to have any meaning for people of the eight member countries. But as a recent study done by RIS( Research and Information System for Non Aligned and other developing Countries) and IFS for SACEPS ( South Asia Center for Policy Studies) underscores clearly, tariff liberalization for enhancing trade flows is not enough since until the non-tariff barriers come down there would be a major limitation on the SAFTA process. There would be significant limitation on trade unless its scope includes the service sector and adequate attention is paid for forging linkages between Investment and trade. Intra-regional investment flows can only overcome the existence of limited export supply capabilities of some of the countries of the region. In addition, hill benefits of trade can only take place only after certain infrastructures, like energy and transport, are hilly developed in the region. As the ADB report on SAARC Regional Multimodal Transport System has emphasized many of the ‘building blocks’ for a more efficient system are already in place. SAARC can help to create the environment where these blocks can be combined to support an efficient regional transport system.
2. Capacity of SAARC to absorb and implement ideas—The absorptive capacity of SAARC member governments and its institutions to digest concrete recommendations from various civil society groups and those commissioned by the governments themselves need to be strengthened. For instance, the GEP Report which was mandated by the Male Summit in 1997 never received an appropriate attention since the Council of Minister requested the SAARC Secretary General to glean the Report and extract measures that could be implemented at a higher level. The Report prepared by the Secretary General and endorsed by the Standing Committee of the Foreign Secretaries were considered “inappropriate” by the Council of Foreign Minister in Nuwara Iliya and sent back to be presented again in 1998. The postponement of successive Summits therefore left the GEP Report in doldrums, with only pieces of it being taken up later. Many members of the GEP considered the recommendations a comprehensive package necessary to make the transition of SAARC from a Free Trade Area to a Customs Union and ultimately to an Economic Union, since it also was accompanied by recommendations for institutional and policy reforms to make the transition within a given timetable.
If a lesson is to be drawn from the GEP-Group of Eminent Persons- Report it is simply that SAARC has yet to develop any institutional mechanism to absorb ideas that reach the governments, let alone to implement them. Three former SAARC Secretary Generals and the author recommended in an article some time ago that SAARC might consider setting up an Advisory Committee of Experts selected by member governments to provide an independent feedback to the Council of Ministers on salient programmes and policy which might need priority consideration)’ This option is still a viable one today.
3. Institutional mechanisms—SAARC’s institutional mechanisms, in particular the Secretariat, need to be made more professional to meet the requirements that naturally flow from greater integration in the region. A recent study conducted by SACEPS on policies and programme of SAARC gives a dismal report on the performance of the organizations in the past two decades.
Despite good intentions of SAARC Summits and the declarations that come out in its aftermath many commitments by governments go unfulfilled. Food security reserves have never been used even during times of crises and there are no delivery systems in place for it to be viable during times of need. The Convention on Terrorism exits only on paper since there are no national enabling mechanisms in place or bilateral extradition treaties that can give it meaning. There have also been no actions taken on controlling abuses of drugs and psychotropic substances, nor have there been serious regional follow up on trafficking of women or promotion of child welfare. Even NGQs working on these issues have been marginalized or obstacles have been created in their functioning.
In the last few years, the organization has called for an official review of SAARC Integrated Programme of Action (SIPA), but there are no independent reviews of the work, aside from the work undertaken by SACEPS recently. The common problem identified by the study include: lack of coordination of activities; non-participation in meetings; lack of resources to implement programmes; lack of sectoral cooperation; and non-implementation of decisions.
The 13th Dhaka Summit called for the creation of Expert Committee to submit to 14th Summitin New Delhion specific measures that need to be taken. The Committee met a few months ago and will be submitting recommendations to the 14th SAARC Summit. If the recommendations are to have any meaning it must include proper mechanism for the SAARC Secretariat to monitor the progress of the organization’s activities, including their implementations. This will entail restructuring the Secretariat and giving it a new shape to make it more professional. It will also mean taking hard decisions for institutional reform needed for strengthening the Secretariat as was once made by the SEP Report.
4. The peoples of South Asia—An essential ingredient for a vision of South Asiafor the Third Decade is the people of the region. As one of the participants in a FESconference on SAARC, in New Delhi, put it very eloquently “SAARC needs to be brought to the level of the people since what the masses feel will count for the government.”
The flaw of the present SAARC process is that although the governments in theory represent the people no questions have been raised as to how far they have remained accountable in achieving the objectives of the organizations. There are many civil society groups that have been active in raising some fundamental issues before the SAARC governments, but their voice have had minimal impact since it has failed to develop a strong constituency, which is essential if any body politic is to get anything done.
One of the major achievements of SAARC in this context is the SAARC Social Charter, and the supplementary Citizen’s Social Charter formulated by SACEPS, which makes government accountable to economic and social welfare of the people of the region. The Social Charter is the first document of the nature where citizens have a right under an international agreement to monitor the progress made by governments in their respective countries. A preliminary work done by SACEPS in monitoring the Social Charter in five South Asian countries has not been promising since many countries have yet to examine and set up mechanism to implement their obligations.
5. Open dialogue—An excellent paper prepared by a retired Indian diplomat and a former secretary in the External Affairs Ministry has called for some ‘fresh’, if not radical measures, needed for improving the lives of the people of this region. He argues that if SAARC has not achieved its objective then ‘it is time to consider improving it or even (consider) an alternate and workable model of regional cooperation...’ even if it means ‘reformulating’ the SAARC Charter to bring it in line with people’s aspirations in the context of South Asian resurgence and globalization. He suggests that if we can dream of a South Asian Economic Union then future steps might include discussion on security and foreign policy issues, free movement of people and even setting up a South Asian Regional Forum on the ASEAN ARF line. Not all of you might agree on such measures for SAARC, but a future vision of SAARC in the Third Decade must not avoid discussion on salient issues that have a bearing on the region. Our newly found confidence in South Asian resurgence will have little meaning without the ability to explore all possible options.
The author is the Executive Director of SouthAsiaCenterfor Policy Studies, SACEPS
[Excerpts from the author’s paper presented at an Institute of Foreign Affairs, Nepalon March 27, 2007-ed.]