South Asia’s citizens can succeed where governments failed
The unfortunate postponement of the 19th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has led to a complete deadlock on potential agreements on energy, trade, transit and investment. While many see this as the result of political frictions between India and Pakistan, it is important to note that the other six members — Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka — have also not made much progress in taking the agenda forward.
sector, academia, the media, and civil society organizations to keep the Track 1.5 and Track II dialogue open, through which leaders from the eight countries can continue to meet and demand early government-level engagement. Unfortunately, the frequency of such people-to-people and business-to-business meetings has also seen a decline recently. This is not an encouraging development for South Asia, which is home to 21 percent of the world’s population and more than half of the world’s poorest of the poor.
A good starting point would be for policy think tanks and civil society organizations to advocate holding the SAARC heads of state meeting at the very earliest opportunity. As this is Pakistan’s turn to host, the government should be persuaded to formally invite all heads of state to Islamabad. For this, Pakistan can ask the observers in SAARC — Australia, China, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Mauritius, Myanmar, the US and the EU — to play a role in getting the member governments around the table.
Individuals and private organizations must work together across borders in light of the political deadlock caused by the postponement of the recent SAARC summit.
Dr. Vaqar Ahmed
While such diplomatic efforts get underway, there are certain procedural measures governments can take on their own, provided that political will is mobilized to move toward a more connected South Asia. First, all member countries should liberalize the visa regime for businesspeople, academics, the media and civil society organization representatives. Second, electronic, print and social media organizations should play their role in providing an alternate narrative, focusing on the prosperity that closer SAARC engagement could bring to the region. Third, policy research think tanks across the region should make an effort to host parliamentarians from all member countries for Track 1.5 meetings at neutral destinations. This will hopefully allow the treasury and opposition benches across the region to get educated regarding each other’s viewpoint.
Business in South Asia must not suffer at the hands of political frictions, as a loss of merchandise exchange directly impacts livelihoods. For this reason, it is important to keep trade and investment cooperation in the region independent of any strategically difficult negotiations. The air, land and sea routes for trade and transit of goods must remain open.
Trade in the region also suffers from tariff and non-tariff barriers. The latter includes: Weak trade logistics; missing information regarding export and import procedures in several economies; difficulties with customs processing; technical barriers to trade and sanitary and phytosanitary measures; lack of financial intermediation; and, in some countries, a lack of cross-border telecom connectivity.
One fifth of the population in South Asia is between the ages of 15 and 24 and this youth segment should not pay the price of diplomatic disconnect. Initiatives like the Fellowships in Governance, Security and Justice are laudable achievements that need to be expanded. Youth exchange programs across the eight member states should be upscaled. From the perspective of cultural exchange, it is disappointing to note that the South Asian Games — a biennial multi-sport event held under the auspices of the South Asian Sports Council — has been held hostage to political developments in the region. The event is rarely held as per the council’s calendar.
Two additional casualties of the breakdown in the SAARC process has been the curtailment of religious pilgrimage and medical tourism. Several countries in the region lack decent medical facilities and require access to relatively better facilities in India and Pakistan. This provision has unfortunately not expanded due to substantial restrictions on the movement of people across land routes.
Even the developed world allows expedient visa and travel processing on sympathetic grounds when it comes to visiting patients. In the interests of the welfare of the people of South Asia, governments in the region should reconsider their stance and allow the trade in health services to be liberalized.
This entire set of proposals will require political will. However, it now falls on the citizens of South Asia to show how they can shape this political will in favor of deeper connectivity and cooperation in the region.
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The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.