The United Nations High-Level Political Forum is the most important gathering to talk about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the ambitious blueprint that, if implemented, would make the planet greener, less polluted and more inclusive and just.
Besides having numerous member nations of the United Nations presenting their achievements, challenges and future plans to achieve the SDGs, the so-called Voluntary National Reviews, the Forum saw a multitude of side events organized by governments, civil society organizations, corporations and regional groups this year. Each of them was focused on certain aspects of the SDGs.
It was a great opportunity to showcase achievements but also to brainstorm, through partnerships, about what is needed and what it takes to put in place the Agenda 2030 upon which the SDGs are founded.
Did the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) organize any of these side events? Was it involved in any official presentation on the “status of play” related to the achievement of the SDGs in South Asia? As far as I know, the SAARC or its Secretariat made no such efforts.
We always hear that this regional bloc is stuck and idle, unable to move forward with a coherent and ambitious agenda due to bumpy bilateral relationships between Pakistan and India. Yet, I truly believe that there are plenty of opportunities where the SAARC Secretariat could play a better, more incisive role on the world stage, irrespective of the status of relationship between the two regional players.
That’s why this is a call for action for the SAARC, a call that would position the regional association as an important soft power player that, unable to display much of any unity among its leaders, at least, can keep reminding the world about a “South Asian Perspective” with a unique point of view in areas starting from, for example, poverty alleviation around which the first of the seventeen SDGs is centered.
SAARC can survive
Potentially SAARC could become a bit like the Commonwealth, totally irrelevant geopolitically but still an organization that can be considered a powerhouse in terms of an ambitious people-focused agenda, displaying the skills to promote youth, gender or even sports for development.
That’s why I believe Esala Ruwan Weerakoon of Sri Lanka, the current Secretary General of SAARC, should be encouraged to play a much more active role in the international arena by proactively displaying the work that SAARC regional centers have been carrying out. There are a number of them: SAARC Agriculture Center based in Bangladesh, the SAARC Disaster Management Centre in India and the Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS Centre here in Kathmandu just to mention some of them. We should not forget the South Asia Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC), an apex body of SAARC also based in Kathmandu, that has been very active in promoting policies for safeguarding children’s wellbeing throughout the region.
That’s why the SAARC, as an institution, can still thrive provided that it finds the right niches where the best knowhow and best practices can shine.
The High-Level Political Forum was one of them also because the Fourth South Asia Forum on the Sustainable Development Goals was held virtually last December. There was a lot of scope to enable a broader discussion at global levels about the challenges the pandemic has created among all the members of SAARC.
There is a big reason for not giving up on SAARC. The Secretariat can do its own work, with more ambition, determination and a much stronger communication strategy.
Do you remember the virtual Covid Summit initiated last year right at the beginning of the pandemic by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi? While there was no real follow up from the highest political level, why cannot we continue the discussion around it from experts and civil society perspective?
If the leaders of the region are too busy in power games, why not facilitate more outcome-oriented and practical work that could be handled by experts and civil society members without infringing upon the existing diplomatic sensibilities and rivalries?
Would Prime Minister Modi or Prime Minister Khan object if the SAARC Secretariat deals with the nitty-gritty of policy making in areas that can be instrumental in advancing the wellbeing of the people of the region? Perhaps they would not.
China and SAARC
These days there have been a lot of discussions about China’s plan to create a China-South Asian Countries Poverty Alleviation and Cooperative Development Center. I do not understand why there is a big fuss about it. China is a regional and global power that has an impressive track record in poverty alleviation. It is totally legitimate for China to exercise its own influence by taking on poverty alleviation.
This new initiative is hopefully going to be useful to those nations who are going to sign it up and at the same time it is going to be instrumental for Beijing to enhance a stronger geopolitical role in the region.
So let China work regionally in the area of poverty alleviation but also use this new Chinese “venture” to re-energize and revitalize the SAARC from whichever angle of policy making that does not require Khan’s and Modi’s approval.
If China can teach the region something about SDGs, why not harness other approaches that have already been successfully tested and scaled through the SAARC?
How many people are aware of the existence of the SAARC Development Fund (SDF)? How effective and successful has it been? Are there ways to make it more impactful and relevant?
Why not think about ways to ensure that the civil society of the region can better contribute to the SDGs? Yes, major decisions related to SAARC are dependent on member countries’ leaders but civil societies can do much. There is a big reason for not giving up on SAARC. The Secretariat can do its own work, with more ambition, determination and a much stronger communication strategy.
Simone Galimberti is the Co-Founder of ENGAGE, an NGO partnering with youths living with disabilities. Views are personal. He can be reached at [email protected].