South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC): Challenges & Prospects

Shahid H. Raja
7 min readMar 6, 2024

Background
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), an intergovernmental organization, was established in 1985 by the seven founding member states, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The historical background of the SAARC can be traced back to the broader context of globalization and the trend towards regional integration around the world.

SAARC’s formation was influenced by the success of the European Union (EU), which served as a model for regional cooperation and integration. Additionally, the formation of the African Union and the emergence of various trading blocs globally further contributed to the momentum behind regional initiatives. Recognizing the benefits of regional integration, countries around the world began to form regional groupings to address common challenges and promote shared prosperity.

While SAARC’s journey has faced numerous challenges and its achievements have been limited, its formation reflected the growing awareness of the potential benefits of regional integration in an increasingly interconnected world. SAARC represents an important stage in the evolution of governance, transitioning from nation-states to regional groupings, and it aligns with the broader trend towards a more interconnected and interdependent global community.

Reasons for Formation:

The formation of SAARC stemmed from a recognition of the shared cultural, historical, and geographical heritage among South Asian countries. The region’s leaders realized that addressing common challenges collectively would be more effective than pursuing individual efforts. The need to promote peace, stability, and economic development in South Asia, which was plagued by conflicts, poverty, and underdevelopment, catalyzed the establishment of SAARC.

Aims and Objectives:

The stated aims and objectives for the establishment of SAARC are as follows

  1. Promoting Regional Cooperation: SAARC seeks to foster cooperation among member states through dialogue, collective action, and policy coordination. It aims to address regional challenges such as poverty, illiteracy, and public health issues through joint initiatives and cooperation in various sectors.
  2. Economic Integration: SAARC aims to enhance economic integration among member states by fostering trade, investment, and connectivity. It promotes intra-regional trade, reduces trade barriers, and encourages the development of regional infrastructure projects to facilitate economic cooperation.
  3. Social and Cultural Development: SAARC recognizes the importance of social and cultural exchanges in fostering understanding and harmony among member states. It promotes cultural exchanges, joint research and educational programs, and collaboration in areas such as health, agriculture, and tourism.

Successes of SAARC:

Since its establishment, SAARC has had some notable successes to its credit

  1. Institutional Framework: SAARC has successfully established an institutional framework comprising various specialized bodies, including the Secretariat, Programming Committee, and Regional Centres, which facilitate the coordination and implementation of regional initiatives.
  2. Regional Cooperation: SAARC has facilitated dialogue and cooperation among member states, leading to the formulation and implementation of several agreements and frameworks. These include the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA), the SAARC Social Charter, and the SAARC Development Fund, among others.
  3. Sectoral Cooperation: SAARC has made significant progress in promoting sectoral cooperation in areas such as agriculture, health, education, and culture. Collaborative initiatives like the SAARC Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS Centres have yielded positive outcomes in addressing public health challenges.

Failures and Challenges:

On the other hand, SAARC has some significant failures in its bag

  1. Limited Progress in Economic Integration: Despite the establishment of SAFTA, progress in economic integration among member states has been slow. Intra-regional trade barriers, political tensions, and insufficient infrastructure have hindered the full realization of the economic potential of SAARC.
  2. Political Differences and Bilateral Conflicts: The presence of political differences and bilateral conflicts among member states, such as the India-Pakistan dispute, has hindered effective decision-making and cooperation within SAARC. These conflicts have impeded progress on regional initiatives and hindered the achievement of the organization’s objectives.
  3. Inadequate Implementation: SAARC has faced challenges in implementing its decisions and agreements at the national level. Limited financial resources, bureaucratic hurdles, and the lack of political will have undermined the effective implementation of regional initiatives.

SAARC has played a crucial role in fostering regional cooperation, promoting economic integration, and addressing common challenges in South Asia. While the organization has achieved some successes, such as establishing an institutional framework and promoting sectoral cooperation, it has faced significant challenges in achieving its aims and objectives. Political differences, bilateral conflicts, and limited progress in economic integration remain key hurdles for SAARC. Despite its limitations, SAARC continues to serve as a platform for dialogue

Causes of Failure of SAARC

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has encountered several challenges throughout its existence, resulting in limited progress and a perceived failure to achieve its objectives.

  1. Too Ambitious Project: SAARC’s goals and aspirations were ambitious, aiming to promote regional integration, address economic disparities, and foster cooperation across a wide range of sectors. However, the diversity in political systems, economic conditions, and historical animosities among member states posed significant challenges to achieving such ambitious objectives.
  2. Baggage of History Too Heavy: The South Asian region carries heavy historical baggage, including unresolved territorial disputes, cross-border conflicts, and long-standing hostilities. These historical issues, rooted in the partition of British India and subsequent events, have hindered trust-building efforts and undermined cooperation within SAARC.
  3. India’s Dominance: As the largest country in the region, India’s dominant position within SAARC has been a double-edged sword. While India has the potential to drive regional initiatives, its dominance has sometimes led to perceptions of unequal power dynamics and limited decision-making autonomy for smaller member states. This has resulted in discontent and hindered the organization’s effectiveness.
  4. Failure of India as a Big Brother: India, being the largest country and having significant regional influence, was expected to play a constructive role as a big brother within SAARC. However, the failure to effectively assume this role and address the concerns and aspirations of smaller member states has led to a sense of disillusionment and hindered the organization’s progress.
  5. Rivalry Between Pakistan and India: The longstanding rivalry between Pakistan and India has significantly impacted SAARC’s functioning. The deep-rooted political differences, historical conflicts, and security concerns between the two countries have overshadowed regional cooperation efforts and often derailed the organization’s decision-making processes.
  6. External Influence: China’s Role: China’s emergence as a major global player and its efforts to promote its own regional organization, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), have exerted influence in South Asia. China’s growing presence and investments in the region have sometimes overshadowed SAARC’s initiatives, diverting attention and resources away from the organization.

The failure of SAARC can be attributed to a combination of factors. The organization’s ambitious nature, historical baggage, dominance by India, the failure of India to fulfill its role as a big brother, the rivalry between Pakistan and India, and external influences, particularly China’s role, have all contributed to its limited progress and inability to achieve its objectives fully. Overcoming these challenges requires a concerted effort by member states to address historical grievances, enhance trust and cooperation, and ensure that the organization’s decision-making processes are inclusive, transparent, and reflective of the interests and aspirations of all member states.

Recommendations for Strengthening SAARC

The lack of success within SAARC can be attributed to several factors which have collectively hindered the organization’s progress and its ability to fully realize its objectives. Overcoming these challenges necessitates a collaborative effort among member states to address historical grievances, foster trust and cooperation, and ensure that decision-making processes within the organization are inclusive, transparent, and representative of the interests and aspirations of all members.

  1. Let Time Play Its Part: We must recognize that regional integration takes time and patience. Rather than expecting immediate results, member states should embrace a long-term perspective and allow for gradual progress. Building trust and cooperation requires continuous efforts and a commitment to sustained engagement.
  2. Go for Incremental Improvement: Instead of pursuing grandiose initiatives, focus on incremental improvements that can yield tangible outcomes. Member states can identify specific sectors or areas where cooperation is feasible and prioritize small-scale projects that can generate confidence and build momentum for further collaboration.
  3. Ease Visa Restrictions and Promote People-to-People Contact: Facilitating greater people-to-people contact by easing visa restrictions can enhance cultural exchanges, promote tourism, and foster understanding among the people of South Asia. Streamlining visa processes and implementing visa-free travel for certain categories of individuals, such as students, professionals, and tourists, can significantly enhance regional connectivity and people-to-people interactions.
  4. Political Commitment of Leadership: Strong political commitment from the leadership of member states is vital for the success of SAARC. Leaders should demonstrate a genuine desire to resolve bilateral disputes, prioritize regional cooperation, and actively engage in dialogue and decision-making processes within the organization. Regular high-level summits and bilateral meetings can help build trust and foster a sense of shared purpose among member states.
  5. Encourage Businessmen to Play a Larger Role: Businesses and entrepreneurs can be powerful drivers of regional integration and economic cooperation. SAARC should encourage private sector participation and establish mechanisms for business leaders to engage in dialogue and contribute to the formulation of regional economic policies. Promoting cross-border trade, investment, and joint ventures can stimulate economic growth and enhance regional integration.
  6. Engage Civil Society Organizations: Civil society organizations play a crucial role in fostering dialogue, promoting social cohesion, and addressing common challenges. SAARC should actively engage with civil society organizations, including academia, think tanks, non-governmental organizations, and community-based groups. These organizations can contribute valuable insights, expertise, and innovative ideas to regional initiatives, and their participation can ensure that the organization remains responsive to the needs and aspirations of the people of South Asia.

Conclusion:

To make SAARC an effective organization, member states should adopt a patient and pragmatic approach, focusing on incremental improvements, fostering people-to-people contact, ensuring strong political commitment, leveraging the potential of the business community, and actively engaging civil society organizations. By implementing these recommendations, SAARC can overcome its challenges and emerge as a vibrant platform for regional cooperation, fostering peace, stability, and economic prosperity in South Asia

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