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SAARC opportunities and challenges highlighted
The first South Asia Economic Summit will be held in Colombo today, through Saturday, and representatives of the private sector in the region (eminent academics, economists and corporate heads) will meet government representatives and officials of the official regional organization SAARC.

Managing the food prices crisis, oil price hike, transport issues and integration, bolstering the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), trading in services, improving trade facilitation in the region and liberalizing investments, energy issues and how integration can help and strengthening the SAARC process will be the key issues that will be deliberated on.

Promoting tourism, bilateral trade agreements, the ICT sector, issues of weaker economies in the region and labour migration will be tackled in parallel sessions which will be held throughout the three day summit.

Dr. Saman Kelegama, Executive Director of the Institute of Policy Studies, spoke to the Island Financial Review about the significance of this summit.

"It has always been said of the South Asian region that the second track, comprising academia, economists, private sector, have always been a step ahead of the official process, which is SAARC, in terms of strengthening regional integration.

"Interaction of the private sector, between the business chambers, economists and researches of the member countries have been quite intense because they would like to see an integrated region, which is the largest in the world in terms of population," Dr. Kelegama said.

He said the region’s human resources development was at satisfactory levels.

"But the region is not harnessing its full potential," he said.

Dr. Kelegama said that the main objective of the Summit would be to have a strong dialogue, where academics, economists and the private sector of the region can address government officials of the region.

"This can be an opportunity to feed the officials with the thinking of the private sector on the need to deepen and strengthen regional integration."

The summit will also discuss contemporary hot topics such as escalating food prices, the oil price hike and connectivity, which includes integration in transportation, IT and energy.

Strengthening the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), integrating trade in services, investment liberalisation and the need for better trade facilitation mechanisms will also be focused on.

"The importance of promoting people to people connectivity is also essential and this can be done through tourism, which will be looked at during the summit.

The idea to hold a regional economic summit, on the lines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, was mooted in 2000 by the South Asia Centre for Policy Studies (SACEPS) based in Nepal.

"This was debated on and the idea was floating around all these years. The Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) took the initiative to oraganise the first economic summit for the region to and demonstrate that it can be done," Dr. Kelegama said.

IPS is joined by Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS) of India, South Asia Watch on Trade, Economics and Environment (SAWTEE) and SACEPS, both of Nepal, the UNDP, ADM, the World Bank and the Commonwealth Secretariat in bringing the technical and financial assistance for the summit.

The Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Sri Lanka (FCCISL) is partnering IPS in organising the summit.

The 8th SAARC Trade Fair will kick off today as well at the BMICH and will feature over 600 exhibitors from the region. This fair is organised by the FCCISL.

Dr. Kelegama said that RIS of India were inspired by Sri Lanka’s initiative and have agreed to host the 2nd South Asia Economic Summit in India next year.

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