A seminar titled “Regional Cooperation in South Asia” was recently organised under the aegis of the India Office of Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (a German foundation) and CUTS Centre for International Trade, Economics & Environment (a Jaipur-based research, advocacy and networking NGO) from 7-9 May at Colombo, Sri Lanka. Apart from India, over 50 representatives from the neighbouring countries in the region namely, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka participated in the deliberations. The representatives belonged to media, academia, goverments, chambers of commerce, regional experts and intergovernmental (UNCTAD) and civil society organisations.
The theme of the seminar centred around South Asia’s position on global economic issues, its relations with other regional groupings and its response to global economic developments. It also tried to outline how new initiatives, which had become an imperative, could be launched to enhance economic cooperation among the South Asian countries. The role of regional trade agreements (such as SAFTA) in the South Asian context was also an important focus area.
Following a multi-session format, the issues discussed ranged from regional cooperation through the SAARC, a performance evaluation of SAARC and the possibility of cooperation between SAARC and other regions/regional arrangements. A key area of discussion was on providing momentum to SAFTA and legalising unofficial trade between and among South Asian countries. Despite the move to make SAFTA a reality, it admittedly, faced hurdles, primarily cross border tensions slowing the process. The seminar tried to look at changing geo-political scenarios impacting such hurdles positively. The SAARC Social Charter also formed an important area of concern, a critical analysis exposing its inability to address issues like labour, wages and gender. Other discussions encompassed the economic, social and political aspects as preconditions for enhanced trade in South Asia.
The delegates were unanimous in voicing that if SAFTA was to become a success then the involvement of civil society and media assumed great importance. A buy-in of all stakeholders, not merely politicians or bureaucracy was necessary to make trade a true vehicle for enhanced development within the region. If SAFTA was not a success as yet, it did not mean that one should re-invent the wheel and look for replacements. A more concerted effort riding the recent positive geo-political wave of goodwill was necessary in this effort.
Drawing a roadmap, it was recommended that more business-to-business engagement was essential to keep up the momentum of recent positive happenings in South Asia. It was not large business alone but small and marginal business that could also become a key driver in this exercise. It was essential to get over the widely held view that exports alone were good for an economy. A country has to accept that trade deficits could be an essential reality while exploring enhanced market access in other countries. While engaging in the move to make SAFTA a social force, visibility, through road shows, the media and personal dialogue would form as key elements in creating awareness and acceptance amongst people.
The seminar emphasised that trade not only has to be free but also fair and hence the social dimensions of trade had necessarily to be the driving force of any initiative. Enhanced trade would help in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that formed the basis of any long- term development effort. This seminar would be followed by a series of events to be conducted in different places of South Asia through 2005 and 2006. The aim is to make regional cooperation in South Asia as widely inclusive of all stakeholders as possible.