One of the key resolutions of 16th SAARC Summit held in Thimpu, Bhutan, in April 2010 was about the establishment of a South Asia Forum (SAF) consisting of diverse stakeholders from all member-countries, to generate ideas to further links. Pioneered by India, which emphasized the need to develop a ‘Vision Statement’, the member states of SAARC had agreed to set up SAF to “serve as a platform for the generation of debate, discussions and exchange of ideas on South Asia and its future development and will bring together eminent personalities from diverse backgrounds from the SAARC region”.
Though giving an impression of being more of the same, SAF is a unique construct, because although Track-II meetings involving SAARC nations have been held in the past, there has been no precedent of a regional forum, which is endorsed by the Heads of State and Government of SAARC Member States with participation from outside the governments.
SAF would be designed to provide inputs, based on a comprehensive understanding, for charting out the future course of SAARC in the medium and long run (the next 25 years, no less!) and recommend necessary improvements required in the existing mechanisms – including that related to the gradual removal of non-tariff barriers (NTBs), expanding the reach of the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) and implementation of related trade policies.
The idea behind the pronouncement clearly seems to be the desire to shake out of limbo a fraternity, which seems to have fallen behind – much behind – its regional counterparts such as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). As the SAARC officials themselves said, SAF could eventually be modeled on existing successful initiatives of a similar nature such as the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) based in China, the World Economic Forum (WEF) based in Davos, Switzerland and the Asia Pacific Roundtable (APR) based in Australia. Most of all, SAF will aim at hastening the fulfillment of SAARC’s cherished goal of a South Asian Economic Union.
Of all the various perspectives, sources say that the most interesting observation about the creation of SAF is that it is expected to put pressure on the inter-governmental process by drawing attention to the present SAARC shortcomings and urge governments to ensure the progression of several regional issues from the declaratory to implementation stage – thereby qualifying the widely accepted truth that SAARC hasn’t exactly been a spectacular success.
The concerned authorities, obviously, wouldn’t agree with that inference.
On 28th and 29th of April 2011, the Steering Committee for the establishment of SAF met in New Delhi and finalized the Objectives, Scope and Guidelines for the SAF. The Steering Committee comprises of one representative from government and one representative from outside of government from each Member State of SAARC and was constituted to facilitate and serve as the enabling body for establishing SAF, and to convene the First Meeting of SAF prior to the Seventeenth SAARC Summit scheduled to be held in the Maldives on 10-11 November 2011.
Opening the Steering Committee meeting, Mr. Pema L. Dorji, Director, SAARC Secretariat as Representative of the Secretary General of SAARC, in a statement delivered on behalf of the Secretary General of SAARC, underlined that:
“…unlike the perception in the wider public domain, the accomplishments of the Association are not insignificant when weighed against the limitations found in the SAARC Charter, the structure of the Secretariat, the available resources and the realities within which SAARC has functioned.”
He further stated:
“…the (South Asia) Forum must strive to overcome the limitations that has crippled SAARC and prevented it from achieving the successes that its peers in other regions of the world have achieved.”
“… (there is a) need to instill a sense of ‘South Asianness’, understanding the importance of facilitating movement of and interaction among people from all sectors and to continue to pursue ‘open regionalism’ by widening the reach of the Association with external actors.”
South Asia is not an easy region to forge partnerships. It is a region of a million conflicts, many of which often blur the geographical barriers. So, it would have been naïve for anyone to have expected SAARC to do an European Union or ASEAN by now. And yet, for an organisation which was first mooted by Bangladesh in 1977 and was formally established in 1985, it has a pretty poor report card for itself. Economic reports suggest that the intra-regional trade in 2009 was $628.9 billion, which was just five per cent of global trade. In contrast, East Asia’s comparative contribution to global trade was 32 per cent in 2006.
In a bid to address that, perhaps, an official Press Release tells us that the first meeting of SAF will be held in New Delhi on 8-9 September 2011 on the theme “Integration in South Asia: Moving Towards a South Asian Economic Union”. Based on Public-Private Partnership, the cost of which will be borne through corporate sponsorship, the first meeting of SAF would consist of an inaugural session, a stocktaking session, a business and economy session, a session on people-centric issues and a concluding session.
The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) will provide organizational back-up and the outcome of SAF will be reported to the 17th SAARC Summit to be held in Maldives in November.
Each SAARC Member State will nominate 14 participants, comprising high-level dignitaries; eminent personalities of diverse backgrounds from Governments, think tanks and research organizations, Chambers of Commerce & Industry, scholars, academia, civil society, youth, and women. One representative from the media from each Member State will also be invited to participate in the SAF. The Secretary General of SAARC and Heads of Mission of Observers to SAARC based in New Delhi will also be invited to participate in the First SAF.
But, to observers of the SAARC movement, the moot point still remains as to why all of the objectives of SAF can’t be done through SAARC. More importantly, if it could not be done for the last 26 years by SAARC, can the SAF do it?