Thursday, November 27, 2014

Daily Times Editorial Nov 28, 2014

SAARC realities The 18th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Kathmandu, Nepal, seems to be playing out to the old, tired script. All eyes were focused on whether the Pakistani and Indian prime ministers would meet on its sidelines to nudge their stalled interaction forward. Unfortunately, far from this desirable outcome, reports indicate they did not even make eye contact or exchange normal courtesies, not even a handshake. This lingering friction between the two largest and mutually conflicted countries of South Asia has once again put paid to hopes for the SAARC summit yielding agreements amongst the eight member countries to push the agenda of cooperation, integration and mutual benefit that underlies the whole concept of the regional grouping. In fact, the first fruits of this disappointing alienation of Pakistan and India from each other appeared when three agreements on sharing railways, highways and energy failed to achieve consensus. And the likelihood of such consensus being achieved, even in the retreat that the eight leaders will enjoy, seems distant. This lack of outcome is doubly depressing since if the speeches of the leaders are anything to go by, conceptually they all appear on the same page. For example, Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif in his address to the summit underlined the need for the region’s countries not to fight each other but rather fight together against poverty, illiteracy, disease, malnourishment and unemployment. He emphasised his vision of a dispute-free South Asia. The PM advised the SAARC countries to build convergences, minimise divergences and augment complementarities in order to bridge the gap between the promise and reality of SAARC. Nawaz Sharif, amongst other points, underlined the need to invest in youth (given the demographic bulge in South Asia), energy, communications, connectivity and integration. On tapping into youth’s creative energy, the PM pointed out that South Asia boasted amongst its population of 1.5 billion one-fifth of people between 15 and 24 years of age, which is the highest proportion of youth in any population in the world. Their potential is undeniable, as is the absence of sufficient focus on this resource, both within the SAARC countries and in the region as a whole. The regret expressed by Nawaz Sharif was informed by the fact that South Asia represents only six percent of world GDP on purchasing power parity basis, just four percent of world trade and a measly three percent of foreign direct investment. A quarter of global humanity in South Asia remains mired in poverty and its concomitant fallouts, prominent amongst them being disease, illiteracy and the lowest human and social indicators. What this means is that South Asia has not been able to take advantage of its cultural affinity, shared geography and history and its unique synthesis of cultures and traditions. Nawaz Sharif would like the region to engage in an interactive process that would reveal the beauty and strength of the true South Asian identity. Expanding on the need for building on the inherent strengths the region possesses, Nawaz Sharif wants SAARC to effectively address common issues such as socio-economic disparities, women’s empowerment, health and education, without losing sight of the worst affliction: widespread poverty. Estimates speak of 43 percent of the population of South Asia living below the poverty line. In terms of numbers, this is a staggering sea of deprived humanity, around 645 million souls. Of course, as Nawaz Sharif pointed out, this requires a high level of coordination at the national and regional levels, which is nothing if not conspicuous by its absence. By now, there is hardly anything left to argue about as far as the potential of South Asia is concerned. Its traditional strengths, including agriculture, now stand poised to take off with the help of the growth of industry, commerce and technology that permeate the South Asian scene today. However, none of the strengths and potential of the region can be taken advantage of so long as some states, particularly Pakistan and India, remain prisoners of history, ancient and relatively recent. If SAARC is to be nudged off the rock on which it seems stuck, Pakistan and India first and foremost will have to show statesmanship and vision of an extraordinarily high calibre to get beyond the things that divide them, embrace the things that do or could unite them in cooperation, and through their mutual extending of the hand of friendship, bring the enormous benefits of a new South Asian order to all the countries of the region.

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