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South Asian Leaders Set Ambitious Goals for SAARC Summit

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Officials from eight South Asian nations have outlined an ambitious set of goals for the 15th SAARC summit, underway in the Sri Lankan capital.  From Colombo, VOA correspondent Steve Herman reports the group is hoping to transform itself from a reputation for a lot of talking, but little action. 

Poverty alleviation, ensuring food security, tackling energy shortfalls and fighting terrorism are all on the agenda of the 15th Summit of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation.  There is skepticism the organization, known as SAARC, can tackle such a to-do list.

The group has a reputation for issuing declarations with little follow-up, and that is when the summit has actually been held.  Some years the leaders have failed to gather, due to the hostilities or disagreements between member nations.

Sri Lanka's foreign secretary, Palitha Kohona, says that is now in the past.

"Over the last year or two the countries of the region have left their bilateral issues aside in order to achieve the common good," Kohona said.

But all is not calm.  Border incidents and simmering tensions among SAARC countries, including between Pakistan and SAARC's newest member, Afghanistan, threaten to overshadow this year's gathering and its goals.

The 15th Summit is dedicated to making a difference in the lives of the region's residents.  The South Asian countries have the largest number of people living in poverty.

Summit spokesman, Sri Lankan Ambassador Prasad Kariyawasam, says leaders this year are serious about moving SAARC to the implementation stage.

"Implementation means you reach the people and you work with people to make something meaningful and to feel it in the ground," he said. "So, for 20 years we were more on declaratory process and now we are transforming ourselves into implementation."

SAARC, which was established in 1985, includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Noting the decades of evolution it took for such bodies as the European Union or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to achieve effectiveness, the head of the Center for Policy Alternatives, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, believes it may be premature to expect much from SAARC.

"Arguably SAARC is ahead of its time," he said. "The level of development and maturity in terms of political institutions and institutionalization of democratic culture - that has yet to happen in sufficient measure."

SAARC officials say ministers of state have agreed on nearly everything to be included in the summit declaration, which will be endorsed by the heads of government on Sunday.

The leaders are to sign an agreement establishing a regional development fund.  India is pledging to fund one-third of the $300 million fund, which will be dedicated to eradicating poverty. 

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