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South Asia Summit Opens With Self-Criticism

The annual summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation has opened in New Delhi, with leaders from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka expressing frustration at SAARC's failure to achieve its central goal. VOA's Steve Herman reports from the conference site.

The summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, known as SAARC, began Tuesday, with a significant dose of self-criticism. Leader after leader chastised the group for accomplishing little of note in more than two decades of existence.

Although the organization was set up to promote regional cooperation, intra-regional trade makes up less than five percent of the region's total gross domestic product.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the host, acknowledged that the organization is a talking shop that makes declarations, but achieves little of substance.

"We need SAARC to be an efficient instrument implementing what we member states seek," he said. "After several years of effort, the time has come to move SAARC from a declaratory phase to action and implementation."

Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz says the member nations have been too involved in conflicts to think about regional cooperation.

"The reason why we have been slow in catching up with the other regional organizations is evident," he said. "The political environment in South Asia has been impacted by disputes and trust deficits. We have remained mired in conflict management."

Sri Lanka's president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, called for immediate action to help the rural poor, who make up a large percentage of the region's 1.4 billion people.

"We badly need to be action oriented rather than dependent on rhetoric," he said. "Merely saying good things about each other and ignoring the reality will take us nowhere."

SAARC welcomed its eighth member on Tuesday, Afghanistan. Other member states include Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives and Nepal.

The eight countries comprise nearly one-quarter of the world's population, but account for only two percent of global GDP - and the majority of that economic activity takes place in just one country, India.

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