The heads of state or government at the 14th SAARC summit in New Delhi have stressed the need to make a joint attack on poverty. Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s opening speech, too, reflected this when he said, “We should put our heads together in reducing poverty”, adding that SAARC could be instrumental. The Delhi declaration will surely incorporate the necessity of combating poverty in a region with one-fifth of global population and the biggest concentration of the world’s poor, as well as of concerted regional efforts. This is not a new thing. The past summits have never failed to emphasise this need. The 13th summit in Dhaka declared 2006-2015 the SAARC Decade of Poverty Alleviation and the establishment of a SAARC Poverty Alleviation Fund. In fact, one of the most important reasons for launching SAARC 22 years ago was to lift the peoples of the region out of the morass of poverty.

Indeed, regional cooperation could go a considerable way in making this task easier for the member states through a number of measures — by boosting intra-regional trade, developing the important resources of the region, including water, improving the health and education of the masses, and taking other steps in mutually reinforcing ways. The member states have also embraced the UN Millennium Development Goals, such as halving poverty by 2015. But it has become more or less clear that those goals are mostly unattainable for most of the developing countries, including the ones in South Asia. Special programmes aimed at making frontal assaults on poverty could also be helpful. But, regional programmes important as they are can only supplement the efforts of individual nations. The fact is that in most of the SAARC countries, fundamental faults in governance have contributed to the prevalence of poverty on such a massive scale.

Take the case of Nepal. Priority has been given to economic growth and anti-poverty programmes since the inception of planned development efforts 56 years ago. Huge foregin grants and loans under various names and programmes poured into the country but the country has incurred a five-digit per capita debt burden in the process. Politicians and bureaucrats have always depended on rhetoric or tried to juggle statistics. Each time, they have found scapegoats in places other than themselves. They have hardly seen causes in the appalling rate of corruption and abuse of authority, combined with a state of virtual impunity, nor in the conspicuous lack of rewarding merit and punishing non-performance. Nor has the failure to inject transparency into the dealings of all branches of government and to make their members accountable been seen as serious causes of Nepali’s underdevelopment. In fact, the main reason why most Nepalis are poor is the failure to establish a modicum of good governance. For decades, the people have been fed on hopes of an improvement in their living conditions in terms of mere economic growth rates and the sporadic anti-poverty programmes. The interim government needs to go beyond this mindset if it seriously wants to reduce poverty as rapidly as possible.