Deeper regional cooperation crucial to attain SDGs, expert

"Saarc needs to be re-conceptualised for its functional"

Dhaka, Dec 27, 2016 – With a share of around 37 percent of the world’s poor, South Asia needs renewed and deeper regional integration for sustainable economic growth, eradicating poverty and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the stipulated time, viewed Bangladesh’s leading economists.

They also observed that South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) must be re-conceptualised with strong political will of the member states to boost up regional trade relations and ensure better use of regional and sub-regional resources for the implementation of the SDGs.

The economists, however, said that there is no future of Saarc unless the political leaders show their good wills, magnanimity and maturity to revitalise this ‘wonderful cooperative platform’.

“Stronger regional cooperation is very crucial for South Asia to achieve the SDGs. A renewed regional approach to poverty elimination and a regional strategy may be the answer to the success of the SDGs in South Asia,” said DrDebapriya Bhattacharya, distinguished fellow of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD).

Speaking at a session on ‘Challenges of SDGs in the Context of South Asia’, of a recent two-day media training workshop on SDGs, he noted that the 47th session of the UN Statistical Commission held in March 2016 gave specific emphasis on the role of regional organisations in implementing the SDGs.

United Nations Foundation and Inter Press Service (IPS), an international news agency, jointly organised the programme at the city’s Cirdap auditorium on December 18-19.

DrDebapriya, said the regional issues in the 2030 Agenda has five aspects -- policy frameworks to support poverty eradication, agricultural diversity, infrastructure quality, links between urban, peri-urban and rural areas and cooperation on science, technology and innovation.

He said SDGs are important for South Asia as it has 23.7 % of the global population and 37 % of the world’s poor.

Cross-border and internal conflicts remain the biggest threat to human development in the South Asia

The CPD fellow said there is a challenge of Prioritisation the steps to attain the SDGs in the region. “The implementation challenges and delivery of the MDGs can be a lesson for the countries of the region achievement of the SDGs.”

Besides, Debapriya said Contextualising global goals with national ambitions require coordination and cooperation within institutions.

“Cross-border and internal conflicts remain the biggest threat to human development in the South Asia due to various conflicts,” he said adding that state fragility, conventional boundary and territorial conflicts (between India and Pakistan) are also obstacles to attain SDGS in the South Asia region.

Governance, peace and security are special areas that that South Asia need to focus, he pointed out.

Mentioning that compared with other sub-regions, South and South-West Asia has been slow in leveraging regional economic integration, the CPD fellow said, “Full potentials of sub-regional cooperation arrangements such as ECO, Saarc, Bimstec remain untapped.”

Debapriya said implementation of the existing regional arrangements (Saarc) needs to be expedited as it is a platform of cooperation for South Asian people and aims to promote and improve the quality of their lives.

He observed with concern that Saarc’s future seems bleak with its failure to promote the MDGs and recent cancellation of Saarc 2016 due to the unwillingness of some member countries, including India and Bangladesh.

He said the bilateral problems--such as conflict between India and Pakistan, Between India and Nepal--are affecting the function of the Sarrc and other regional platforms.

Debapriya thinks Sarrc should be re-conceptualised with mechanism as to how it will deal with the bilateral problems alongside ensuring regional development.

Another economist Mirza Azizul Islam said the main target of the SDGs is to eliminate poverty. “Creating employment, increasing investment and expanding international trade are must to eradicate poverty and hunger. Regional cooperation is very important in this regard. And Saarc can play a vital role in it.”

Contacted, Mirza Azia, a former adviser to the caretaker government (Bangladesh’s election-time administration), said bilateral problems among some countries in the South Asia region are affecting the effectiveness of different regional and sub-regional platforms.

He said when intra-regional trade among the North American countries is above 40 percent and over 70 percent among the EU countries, it is only around 5-6 percent among the Saarc countries.

The noted economist said the Saarc countries should focus on the issue and take steps for enhancing intra-regional and sub-regional trade and regional cooperation for successful implementation of the SDGs.

“If Saarc can be made stronger, it will definitely boost up the efforts of its members countries to attain the SDGs,” he added.

Talking to UNB, Hossain Zillur Rahman, executive chairman of Power and Participation Research Centre and a former adviser to the caretaker government, said lack of political will, bilateral problems, bureaucratic tangle and some countries’ hegemonic attitude are affecting Saarc’ progress. “There are also the same reasons for the very poor intra-sub-regional trade volume among the Saarc countries.

However, he is not very hopeful about the revival of Saarc as a strong regional platform for lack of good will and sincerity of the political leaders in the region alongside growing bilateral problems.

He said though regional cooperation is not a major issue for achieving the SDGs, increased cooperation and sharing of knowledge, ideas and enhancing connectivity can help the Saarc countries achieve the SDGs in time. “It is necessary to strengthen the trade relationship among the Saarc countries to strengthen the regional integration in South Asia.”

DrSelimRaihan, executive director of South Asian Network on Economic Modelling (Sanem) and also a Professor of Dhaka University’s Economics department, thinks the member countries should not abandon Saarc as it is the best platform for ensuring the regional integration, economic growth, alleviating poverty and ensuring food security.

Following a series of two-day media training workshops on the UN's post-2015 global development agenda, we will be running feature articles and oped pieces written by some of the young journalists who participated in them. Sponsored by Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency, the media workshops are supported by the UN Foundation.

The series of articles will focus on the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), approved by world leaders during the UN General Assembly session in September 2015, and the Climate Change Agreement which came into force in November 2016.

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