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SAARC's 25th anniversary: Time to reassess focus?

Dec 08, 2010

As the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) celebrates its silver jubilee today, it is perhaps time to revisit its priorities given the unique development challenges the region faces.

When the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) was established in the mid-Eighties, Cold War tensions were high, but in the East-West context the buzz about “security and cooperation” was getting louder following the Helsinki process, albeit with a greater accent on “security”. The Saarc Charter of 1985, on the other hand, eschews any mention of that word.

In the past 25 years, however, Saarc’s evolution has had to cede much space to the looming shadow of “security”. Conventionally speaking, there are several factors to consider — such as diverse national threat perceptions and the means to address them with available means in the given regional and global contexts. The international security environment, which has gone through historic transformations, has also impacted the attitudes, perceptions and approach of South Asian countries to security.

The facts on the ground for the Saarc region have another tale to tell: about a billion-and-a-half people in South Asia have been held back while other regions of the world prospered. This is the world’s most populous and least connected region. It has two nuclear weapon states within its periphery, two more in its immediate neighbourhood, and fleets and bases of another in its maritime environment. The only global military alliance of the day, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), is actively engaged here. In terms of the rift between the rich and the poor, most poor people in the region live on less than one dollar a day. There is disease and the endemic scarcity of life’s essentials like water, air, food, health, education and energy. On top of these is globalisation which intertwines the lives of South Asians with one another and the rest of the world.

There can be two ways to view security from Saarc’s perspective. One, to continue to analyse and shape it, business-as-usual, in terms of military balance, advanced weapon systems and force multipliers, Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), and the old-fashioned system of deterrents and alliances. The second approach could be to look at the region’s burning problems, and the real threats which impact people’s lives and habitats and are responsible for the most damage to human development. The second approach is also born out of the incapacity of the first to make any dent into the roots of popular threat perceptions, anxieties and misery. The militaristic and weapons-oriented determinants of security fall short of providing real security to people. The question of security and cooperation thus needs to be addressed in a holistic fashion.

While military security proceeds from divisiveness among peoples, the holistic approach, inter alia, seeks to nourish “commonalities”. There is no reason why both cannot be mutually complementary. But the former and its trappings have somehow hogged disproportionate space. However, this approach can gradually become more difficult to adopt as the acute perceptions of danger in ignoring the holistic imperative are now rooted in scientific findings. These point to global warming and the devastations implied in it.

The tension between a globalising economy and divided global societies endangers the planet by diminishing cooperation which is sorely needed to meet challenges. The confrontational calculus of the Cold War years induced in South Asia a quasi-stability on one hand and spawned, on the other, elites reared on the inevitability of armed conflict. Although the challenges to human security in a holistic sense remain undiminished, the conjunction of events has led to an impasse in the region. A compelling need to explore how to cope with a fuller matrix of insecurities — regional and bilateral — can hardly be denied. For vast populations of South Asia such a list also includes the mounting toll on ecosystem and climate (due to global warming and indigenous activities), a demographic challenge, and the existence of large areas of extreme poverty that are untouched by globalisation and pose a risk to the region and beyond.

Cooperative forums within and across borders for addressing these problems have not been effective so far. Nevertheless, 16 summits of South Asian countries have consistently valued interdependence, engagement and cooperation, and demonstrated common understanding, determination and commitment to deal with the endemic problems of lack of development, poverty, disease and scarcity. Their statements emphasise the point that we will have to grow together and not at each other’s expense.

Stalemates in other parts of the globe, notably Europe and Southeast Asia, have changed over past decades through meticulous and steady regional endeavours. The European Union’s (EU) success in particular is so comprehensive that the other powerful institution based in Europe, i.e. Nato, suffers in comparison. Europeans find the agenda of EU much closer to their concerns than the demands of Nato’s expensive edifice. EU’s expansion — in contrast to Nato’s — creates a competitive interest among adjacent countries to join the success story.

In contrast, the long cherished goal of economic integration slips from our grasp in South Asia despite commonalities of culture, civilisation, art, language, literature and work ethos, which exceed those in other regions. Bureaucratic inertia is a hindrance in meeting Saarc objectives. If haste is not summoned, problems might assume such proportions that no degree of militaristic prowess would solve them.

Security and cooperation in South Asia cannot be ordained or gifted from outside the region. It has to emerge from among its people. Saarc summit decisions encompass a whole range of themes such as people-to-people connectivity, transport and communication, health and education, energy grid, food bank, poverty alleviation, empowerment of women, combating crime and trafficking and fighting terrorism. But it is time for action.

Given the stage of development, governance and polity in the region, seeking of security in exclusively conventional terms risks being half-baked and chimerical. Drumming up war hysteria or antagonisms can lead to catastrophic failures while the path of pursuing cooperation and understanding cannot harm anyone.

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