After almost 32 years of its establishment, and seventeen summits, the organization of the countries making up the largest group of people in the world called SAARC still remains to be seen by itself and the world as a successful and vibrant socio-economic regional organization. Nearly one-quarter of the world population lives in this eight member countries, but account for only two percent of global GDP. And the majority of that economic activity takes place in just one country, India. People living in the same region haven’t been able to contact each other freely. Political differences and lack of trusts between its two largest economies has marred the progress and achievement of this region. The most talked about topic of this region is poverty and poor. Self criticisms of this sick organization gave itself a nick name “The Talking Shop”.
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is an economic and political organization of eight member countries in South Asia. With a population of around 1.6 billion, SAARC is supposed to have the largest sphere of influence than any other regional organization. It was created formally in December 08, 1985 after the Bangladesh President Ziaur Rahman proposed the creation of a trading group consisting of South Asian countries in the late 1970s. The original seven South Asian countries, included Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
The objectives of the Association as defined in the Charter are to promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and to improve their quality of life: to accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region and to provide all individuals the opportunity to live in dignity and to realize their full potential; to promote and strengthen collective self-reliance among the countries of South Asia; to contribute to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another’s problems; to promote active collaboration and mutual assistance in the economic, social, cultural, technical and scientific fields; to strengthen cooperation with other developing countries; to strengthen cooperation among themselves in international forums on matters of common interest; and to cooperate with international and regional organizations with similar aims and purposes.
However, the SAARC has grossly failed to play a crucial role in South Asia which could largely be credited to the political and military rivalry between India and Pakistan. It is due to these economic, political, and territorial disputes that South Asian nations have not been able to harness the benefits of a unified economy. Over the years, SAARC’s role in South Asia has been greatly diminished and is now used as a mere platform for annual talks and meetings between its members. SAARC has intentionally laid more stress on core issues mentioned above rather than more decisive political issues. Political dialogue is often conducted on the sidelines of SAARC meetings.
On the economic front, India has been selective amongst the countries of the SAARC in signing free trade agreements. Similar free trade agreements with Bangladesh and Pakistan have been stalled due to political and economic concerns on both sides. As a result, the trade amongst member countries is insignificant. Intra-SAARC trade makes up less than 5% of the region’s total gross domestic product, and only 3.7% of its global trade. In the areas of exports, for a number of commodities SAARC member countries compete intensely with one another in all international markets. Market share of SAARC countries in the non oil producing countries is only around 4%. SAARC countries have to look no further than its closest regional organization ASEAN which is vibrant, dynamic and progressive all through. It has now covered a mileage which will soon disappear from the site of SAARC in terms of economic progress.
On the social front, SAARC has failed to connect with the masses. Its promotion of people-to-people contact is restricted to judges, diplomats and the parliamentarians even after 32 years of its establishment. If the countries try to undermine regional interests for their narrow political advantage then members can resign themselves to this forum becoming a mere talking shop.
Each country joined SAARC to forward its interests or to avoid getting sidelined. Pursuing national interests is desirable but to pursue it under the cloak of regionalism is a recipe designed for the failure of SAARC. A regional identity is essential for the success of SAARC.
Political differences and deficits of trusts amongst the member countries are the major obstacles to the advancement of this group. The two largest economies of the group, India and Pakistan, should take the credit for its failures. Every neighboring country in the world may have fought some sort of war(s) (as India and Pakistan do) and history may have been little bitter, and people of those generations have already paid in life and properties those time. Just histories do not justify keeping 613 million of its people in poverty. Most would agree that people living in poverty across the region do not care about their political history. SAARC will have the same fate to expect if the political differences between India and Pakistan do not recede. Efforts of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka haven’t been able to make a difference in the region simply because of the two differing blocs in the same organization.
In spite of all the misgivings, and non-implementation of various agreements and conventions, SAARC provides greater regional visibility to smaller countries and provides them with the opportunity and responsibility to contribute to the region in a meaningful way. For them even a failed SAARC is more attractive as a platform than being restricted to bilateralism in an India-dominated region.