SAARC continuing to be dogged by unfinished business
As is usually the case with SAARC Heads of State and government summits, it is the efforts to resume or revive the Indo-Pakistani dialogue on the ‘sidelines’ of the meet that generate the most media interest. This is on account of the ‘news value’ that is seen to reside in the lingering tensions between the regional giants and the just concluded summit in Bhutan did not fail the international media on this score. Most eyes, apparently, were on the one-to-one informal meet on Thursday between the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers.
The Indo-Pakistani relationship has almost run aground since the terror attacks in Mumbai in December 2008 and the point at issue currently is whether the South Asian heavyweights would mend fences or allow their ties to languish in a state of suspended animation. No dramatic breakthroughs could be expected in heads of government encounters of this kind, given the complex problems confronting the countries, but something could be said to have been achieved if the government leaders defroze inter-state ties and pledged to continue the dialogue process. Hopefully, this would indeed be the case.
The time is ripe for SAARC to prove that its annual meet is no ‘talk shop’. Unfortunately, there has been no proof thus far that the regional grouping is registering substantial concrete progress in building co-operative ties within the region, to enable SAARC to dispel this unfavourable, popular impression. The mending of ties between India and Pakistan is quite rightly seen as an essential precondition for the full and uninterrupted flowering of SAARC, but it is also clear that the regional bloc as a whole is yet to set its sights on the most pressing priorities of South Asia.
South Asia is yet to be unreservedly picked out as a prospective centre of dynamic economic growth but India is seen as well on its way to joining the prestigious fold of the world’s fastest-growing economies, alongside players, such as, China, the ASEAN and Brazil. To all outward appearances, India is outpacing the rest of South Asia on the economic growth front but poverty continues to be an embarrassing blight for her inasmuch as it is for the rest of South Asia.
In other words, South Asia is yet to make any substantial progress towards doing its part in achieving the UN-mandated Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), although some of its member states could claim First World status, in terms of internal economic growth. The truth of the matter is that what the world is witnessing in those states in this region which are claiming dynamic growth is really skewed material advancement, with only some regions and localities in these countries registering marked economic growth of any kind. Usually, it is the urban centres that prove recipients of this perceived prosperity. It is open to question whether the rural sectors of these countries could boast of any degree of equitable growth.
There is the case of Sri Lanka for instance. We are now said to be in the $2000 and above per capita income bracket and on par with even China from the point of view of accelerated growth, but how equitable is this prosperity? How successful has Sri Lanka been in closing its internal wealth gap?
Some recent dismal statistics from Sri Lanka’s educational authorities should alert the observer to the anomalies of national ‘development’. While politicians speak glowingly about Sri Lanka’s per capita income, we are stunned into disbelief on learning that 19,000 public school candidates who sat the G.C.E. Ordinary Level examination in 2009, have failed in all nine subjects. Nearly half of those candidates who offered Mathematics and Science at the same examination, have failed in them, highlighting, once again, continuing serious lapses in the secondary education sector.
One is prompted to ask in consideration of the above: economic growth there may be and even a reasonable per capita wage, but does Sri Lanka have development, in the sense in which the term needs to be understood? If the average Lankan student cannot avail of a sound secondary education which would ensure reasonable numerical, analytical and language skills, could we be described as experiencing equitable growth or development?
These statistics from Sri Lanka alone would suffice to establish that development should be correctly understood by policy and decision-makers in this region. President Mahinda Rajapaksa could not have said it better when he told the SAARC Summit in Bhutan that, ‘economic development should not be restricted to mere statistics. It should touch the community at all levels and make their lives easier, richer and more satisfying’, but he would need to probe beyond appearances to ascertain whether development has been achieved in all its dimensions in Sri Lanka.
However, the Lankan President pinpointed an essential for Third World self-assertion and material self-sufficiency when he said that: ‘We must uphold our sovereign right to decide on what is best for us. We must strive to avoid externally-induced rigid solutions. We must rally behind home-grown and intra-regionally evolved measures…’
Although it is clear that the President was having in mind Sri Lanka’s present squabbles with the West on human rights issues arising from Sri Lanka’s ‘war on terror’ when he said this, the prescription is equally applicable to South Asia’s ‘war against want’. If the vast majority of South Asians are continuing to be mired in poverty, it is because the developing countries have gone their different ways after falling under the mesmerizing ‘mantra’ of economic liberalization; abandoning in the process forums of the poor, such as, the Non-aligned Movement, which at one time kept the issue of ‘unequal exchange’ between the rich and poor countries alive.
A better order of things for the world’s poor could still be established. The key to this future could very well lie in solidarity and self-help among developing countries; a cause which was foolishly bartered away for the chimerical ‘goodies’ of neo-liberalism. Hopefully, India and Pakistan would perceive the need for this by no means new or unfamiliar development paradigm based on Third World solidarity and self-help. They need to ‘talk more peace’ with each other and realize that time and resources spent on squabbling only postpone the arrival of development, correctly conceived.