Thursday, April 12, 2007

Selling SAARC to the World...what exactly?

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was established in December 1985 and, according to wikipedia:

is the largest regional organization in the world by population, covering approximately 1.47 billion people.

It comprises eight countries, with the latest being Afghanistan that joined at its 14th Summit in New Delhi, on April 3 and 4th.

You sometimes wonder whether these countries join for the sake of joining the organisations, or whether there is actually something fundamentally fuelling a desire to be part of a project that works. I can perhaps understand why the latter would be interested given its relative isolation in the Grand Scheme of International Politicking, but why join a grouping that doesn't seem to have a future?

If that sounds harsh, try reading Pakistan's Daily Times article,which paints a rather despondent view of the largest regional organisation in the world. The key word is...Kashmir:

India rolled forward with radical visa concessions to all including Pakistan. Pakistan sat there and watched, its outlook marred once again by an obsession with Kashmir although there was no need to be so costive about it. Pakistan can show its internal political audit that it was giving nothing away on Kashmir while going ahead with the free trade negotiations. Suddenly the inventiveness of General Musharraf is gone and Shaukat Aziz is changing his stripes. Pakistan must be the rare country that uses a banker prime minister to block trade

I quite like the idea of a visa concession. West Africa's ECOWAS has it, as exemplified by the comment on the Mali Embassy website in the US:

No visa is required for ECOWAS countries' citizens, citizens from Algeria,Cameroon,Andorra,Monaco,Chad, Gambia,Morocco, Mauritania,and Tunisia( a valid identity card or passport are acceptable

The editorial maintains Sri Lanka talking about a common currency!

It seems to me that sometimes when leaders sit in these regional organisation meetings, they scan the horizon on what is working, or seems to be working, without taking into account any practicalities for their respective region. So, because the EU has adopted a common currency, and anglophone West Africa is talking about it, it's a good idea? Not necessarily!

Besides, for all ECOWAS' problems, especially with the linguistic divide that has marred progress many a time, one thing that ECOWAS has transcended is this view espoused by some leaders of SAARC (in bold):

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz is known for his smoothness but said things quite out of character for a banker.

He said outstanding political issues should be sorted out first before free trade materialised between the two countries — a brief given by the establishment.

But he must have wondered why he was losing India’s capital investment in Pakistan along with the Arabs of the Gulf

Frankly, this attitude will get policy-makers nowhere if they want to fast-track regional integration. Harmonising laws under a supra-national authority may be problematic to some--on account of the loss of sovereignty--but ultimately, these outweigh the politics that exist within any region. Are we saying, also, that the EU is not without its political problems? Far from it! SAARC needs to move--and very quickly.

ECOBANK, the West African bank (supported by ECOWAS), has made great strides from being a regional bank to now envisaging a transformation (slow-and-sure) into a "Pan-African Bank". It made it, and is going places. That was back in 1985.

SAARC was established in the same year. Its achievements are nothing to write home about. Sometimes I wonder with distractions like ASEAN and Russia's Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, small wonder with the slow progress. Russia, for example, does not seem very enamored by the regional grouping:

The world seems to be keen on SAARC but not its old members. At the global level, some countries are realistic about the limitations of the organisation. Russia, for instance, is not keen, and is of the view that SAARC “is still evolving and has a long way to go”. In fact, Russia points to the possibility of the SAARC states pulling out of the prison of South Asia and breathing more freely in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

All that said, it is not so much a matter of SAARC wanting to move as in needing to move and very quickly. Like, now!

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