Summit: In view of a deteriorating enabling environment for SAARC-based regional cooperation, postponement of the 19th SAARC Summit, and emergence of other sub-regional cooperation arrangements like BBIN, the political leadership in South Asia is not ready to implement the 2030 sustainable development goals (SDGs), it was pointed out at the ninth South Asia Economic summit held in Dhaka, Bangladesh on October 15 and 16.

Speakers from different think-tank groups stressed the need for addressing bilateral problems in the region in a legitimate way to enhance regional cooperation for implementing the 2030 agenda.

Moderating the plenary session titled ‘Is political leadership in South Asia ready for implementing the SDGs?’ under the summit’s theme of Re-imaging South Asia in 2030, Bangladesh’s Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), distinguished fellow Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya said that if South Asia fails to contain bilateral issues in the region, it will continue to struggle with the particular situation. “Therefore, addressing the bilateral issues in a certain legitimate way has become very important,” Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya said.

Bangladeshi MP Saber Hossain Chowdhury said that today there are two major challenges in regional cooperation: “How do we move from conflict to consensus and how can we move from competition to cooperation and collaboration?”.

Noting that political promises about regional cooperation remained unrealised and has become uncertain with the postponement of the 19th SAARC Summit, which was scheduled to be held in Islamabad in November this year, SAE recommended to establish a group of eminent persons to reconceptualise South Asian regional cooperation. Such an initiative will widen the ownership of SDGs and encourage issue-based politics, which are essential, it was pointed out.

“Unless SDGs are owned by high level political leadership of South Asia and allowed federal-level outreach, they will only remain targets,” it is recommended.

Bhutan’s National Assembly member Choida Jamtsho said that while there exists close ties of friendship, cooperation and trust between and among different countries in the region, unfortunately, there are some teething problems. “Political rivalry fueled by some mistrust, suspicions and competition for self-supremacy and various other factors, is a challenge,” he said.

MP Choida Jamtsho added that there is no conducive environment to come together to work as a team and resolve the challenges. “As pointed out by many, the recent pulling out of the 19th SAARC Summit is an obvious testimony. Therefore, I would say political leadership in South Asia is not ready for implementing the 2030 agenda.”

The new 2030 SDG agenda adopted by the United Nations in September 2015 is the global blueprint for addressing the challenges faced by the world. The SDGs’ core missions are to eradicate poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and tackle climate change by 2030.

Noting that lack of optimism and mutual trust hinder regional cooperation, it is also recommended that confidence be restored and reinforced in the region. “There should be a regional platform for private-public dialogue to address the existing lack of trust and formulate more collective policies,” research director of CPD, Bangladesh, Dr Fahmida Khatun said.

As usual the summit was dominated by the India-Pakistan conflict, which have overshadowed other regional issues in the media. Editor-in-chief of Mediascape Pvt Ltd, Shekhar Gupta, who is known for hosting Walk the Talk, said that regional cooperation in the next two to three years will be determined by the India-Pakistan relationship.

The editor and publisher of The Daily Star, one of the leading English newspapers in Bangladesh, Mahfuz Anan, who also chaired the session on ‘Role of media in promoting South Asian Identity’, said India and Pakistan have their own problems, which will take time to solve. However, he suggested media of the other countries find a way to solve the problem.

The experts and various speakers also discussed and shared their concerns on climate change impacts in South Asia. Experts stressed that lack of political will is one of the reasons why regional policy makers cannot combat climate change.

The recommendations of SAES IX for taking concrete policy initiatives and practical steps towards sustainable development, include shifting from eradicating extreme poverty to reducing poverty, risk-proofing the vulnerable groups just above the poverty line and focus on the SDG issues where South Asia lags the most behind like  gender inequality, child marriage and human rights.

The summit was conceived as a platform to discuss and debate issues perceived critical to advancing the cause of deepening regional cooperation and integration in South Asia. Five leading think tanks of South Asia took the lead in 2008 to hold the SAE summit. The 10th summit will be held in Kathmandu, Nepal, next year.

Rinzin Wangchuk | Dhaka