Thimhu, April 29: 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,” he said in his opening statement at the 16th SAARC summit, which began here on Wednesday.
In a candid speech, Dr. Singh said SAARC members must acknowledge that the glass of the grouping’s accomplishments was half empty compared with the progress made by similar blocs in East and South-East Asia. On the positive side, new fora of cooperation such as a development fund, food bank, free trade agreement and a university were finding their feet and poised to grow in maturity.
Maintaining that declarations did not amount to regional cooperation, the Prime Minister said the SAARC’s potential would be met only when freer movement of people, goods, services and ideas took place. “In other words, the region must be better connected, empowered, fed and educated.”
While SAARC members were able to cooperate individually in international fora, it was unfortunate that the people of South Asia did 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 of in managing natural resources, preventing land and water degradation and strengthening food, water and energy security, he said.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pointed out that intra-regional trade, an important area of SAARC cooperation, languished in single-digit figures in proportion to global trade of member-countries. She suggested new initiatives to boost people-to-people exchanges by harmonising education standards and mutual recognition of degrees.
Prime Minister of Bhutan Lyonchhen Jigmi 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 the SAARC’s journey was not an astounding success, he acknowledged the achievements — some of which might be less tangible but more meaningful — which resulted in unfaltering faith in SAARC by its members.