A meeting of experts from South Asian nations aimed at preparing a comprehensive blue-print outlining the SAARC Development Goals (SADGs) for the next five years will begin in the Maldives on June 8. Specialists from the seven member countries will chalk out a strategy on tackling poverty, lack of education, health and environmental issues, among others. The Independent South Asian Commission on Poverty Alleviation (ISACPA), the authorised panel to prepare a framework on the said issues, will then submit the identified Goals to the next SAARC summit to be held in Dhaka in 2005, before being adapted by the seven countries as part of their development goals.
The alliance of the South Asian nations in the past has entered into agreements on a range of lofty subjects but with little success on the execution front. Anti-terrorism, anti-human trafficking and trade have been readily agreed upon by all the member nations as common issues. Signing a draft framework treaty on the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) was a notable achievement as the new arrangement seeks to bring down tariff and non-tariff barriers between and among member states in order to promote intra-regional trade and investment. Experience, however, has it that the projected goals and agreements reached have largely remained on the paper. For example, Nepal needs to investigate how it can make the transition to the said trade accord, and whatever benefits Nepal can derive from it is still a matter for further study. It needs to cut down on customs duty by almost 30 per cent by around 2008 when the SAFTA becomes fully operational. Very little homework, it seems, is being done to prepare for the transition. And there is nothing to suggest that the SADGs will not succumb to a similar trend. Hence, the challenge for Nepal is to be more realistic vis-a-vis accords. Mere expression of support for similar projects will do little good.
Although the Goals are yet to take shape, they will, however, not be realised unless a serious action-plan regarding its implementation is simultaneously drawn up by the member nations including Nepal. It is understandable that all the agreements are difficult to implement as intended at the Summits, since bilateral realities are too complex to be abruptly sidelined. Only setting pragmatic policies that will indeed change the lives of the poor will serve the real purpose of the venture. Given that a few agreements that have been discussed time and again at different SAARC summits have yet to be fully realised, the new Goals have to be pragmatic enough to appeal to the funding agencies. The policy framers and the ISACPA will do well to keep this reality in mind, lest the target guidelines get buried in the dust.