The 17th Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is opening today in the Addu City of Maldives. Heads of the States from South Asian countries are meeting for two days with the aim of producing a declaration on issues such as regional trade, rapid response to natural disasters, and the establishment of a SAARC Seed Bank among others.
Established in Dhaka in 1985, the SAARC brings together Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Although often critiqued as an “ineffective regional bloc”, the SAARC has produced some important initiatives for the region, such as the SAARC Agriculture Centre in Dhaka, the South Asian University in Delhi, and the SAARC Chamber of Commerce & Industry in Islamabad.
The most important initiative on food security has been the SAARC Food Bank. Despite having a detailed implementation plan, however, the bank did not become operational due to petty differences among Member Countries. If functioned properly, the Food Bank could have helped Bangladesh to cope with the 2007/2008 food price crisis and the millions of Afghanis who are now fighting the worst drought in the history of the country.
Regional trade, seed banks and rapid response to natural disasters – if based on the principle of sustainability and followed up properly – could tremendously contribute to the economic and agricultural development of the region.
The 17th Summit is taking place at a time when millions of people in the region are struggling to cope with the impacts of floods in Pakistan and Nepal, drought in Afghanistan and Nepal, and rising food prices throughout the region. Above all, more than 500 millions are plunged into the miseries of poverty while over 330 millions are facing food insecurity in the region. The leaders of such vulnerable nations cannot afford summits that do not produce tangible and progressive results for their peoples. A robust follow-up mechanism need to be agreed to operationalise all decisions agreed in the Summit.
Moreover, the SAARC needs to open itself to civil society organisations at national and regional levels. CSOs can bring in peoples’ perspectives to the negotiating table, in addition to their grassroots and policy advocacy activities.
Without involving the civil society, the policy recommendations coming out from the Summit will only remain irrelevant for the poor and the marginalised communities of South Asia.