Thimphu: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh led South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) leaders in introspecting on the progress made by the eight-member regional association in its 25 years of existence. “We have created institutions for regional cooperation, but we have not yet empowered them to be more proactive,’’ Dr. Singh said in his opening statement at the 16th SAARC summit which began here on April 29.
In a candid speech, Dr. Singh said SAARC members must acknowledge that the glass of the bloc’s accomplishments is half empty as compared to the progress made by similar blocs in East and South-East Asia. On the positive side, new forums of cooperation such as a development fund, food bank, free trade agreement and a university are finding their feet and are poised to grow in maturity.
Maintaining that declarations do not amount to regional cooperation, the Prime Minister said SAARC’s potential would be fulfilled only when freer movement of people, goods, services and ideas begin taking place. In other words, the region must be better connected, empowered, fed and educated.
While SAARC members are able to cooperate individually as members in international fora, it is unfortunate that the people of South Asia do not have the voice they “should and could have’’ in the global polity. At home, regional cooperation could exponentially increase the ability of member states to improve the quality of governance in managing natural resources, preventing land and water degradation and strengthening food, water and energy security.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pointed out that one of the main focuses of SAARC — intra-regional trade – languished in single digit figures as a proportion of global trade of member countries. She suggested new initiatives to boost people-to-people exchanges by harmonizing education standards and mutual recognition of degrees.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with Bhutan’s Prime Minister Jigme Thinley at Paro Airport outside Thimphu, Bhutan, Bhutan hosted the 16th SAARC summit on April 28-29.
Prime Minister of Bhutan Jigme Thinley felt SAARC was losing focus. The unrestrained proliferation in the areas of cooperation marked by nearly 200 meetings annually was not matched by results. Though SAARC’s journey has not been one of astounding success, he acknowledged the achievements. Some of which may be less tangible, but more meaningful, which has resulted in unfaltering faith in SAARC by its members.