Two decades on, South Asian grouping still to prove relevance

July 31, 2008 (AFP) – South Asian leaders are set for a weekend summit in Colombo where they are expected to repeat pious platitudes, highlighting that the 23-year-old regional grouping has little to show by way of economic progress. Observers compare summits to movie productions, but the script has changed little since the first SAARC meeting in 1985 with poverty still rife in the region.

More than three-quarters of South Asia’s 1.5 billion people earn less than two dollars a day, according to the World Bank.

Modelled ambitiously on the lines of the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or SAARC is dismissed by critics as a talking shop.

Its objectives are poverty eradication, increasing economic cooperation along with forging a common South Asian identity, free trade and moving towards a common currency.

But 23 years and 14 summits later, SAARC, which groups Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, has not much to display by way of results, raising questions about its usefulness.

“Politics have hijacked SAARC’s economic agenda,” HSBC economist Arjunna Mahendran said.

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