Still to connect

  • The 18th Saarc Summit should reconsider the theme of connectivity instead of wasting time looking for a new one
- Gopal Thapa
Still to connect

Sep 8, 2014-

The 18th Saarc Summit is almost at our doorstep. Naturally, the city is preparing for the event on a war footing: roads are being widened and the Summit venue is undergoing restructuring and renovation. This is one aspect of the Summit preparation that will provide visitors with a glimpse into our time-honoured tradition of hospitality.

The second aspect involves preparing for substantive issues of regional significance, which includes selecting a ‘Summit theme’. Once a theme is selected, it is then proposed for consideration and endorsement by all member states. The theme is supposed to capture the vision of the Saarc Charter and to resound with burning issues that have a profound bearing on Saarc countries. Accordingly, each past Summit has had noble and visionary themes proposed and adopted, ranging from poverty eradication, building bridges to enhancing connectivity, to name a few.

Failed themes

About a month back, I came across a Facebook post by one of the Saarc Advisory Committee members. He proudly announced that his proposed theme, ‘Connectivity for shared prosperity’, had been recommended by the Committee as the central theme for the 18th Saarc Summit in Kathmandu. Soon after, I stumbled upon yet another piece of news about several new themes, which had reportedly been floated by experts other than the Advisory Committee members. The new suggestions included energy, deeper economic integration and strengthening democracy. The Advisory Committee’s recommended theme of ‘connectivity’ was reportedly dubbed as ‘repetitive’ and ‘redundant’, as it had already been considered by the past summit in the Maldives.

I have no knowledge about further development on this issue, but I am a little surprised to observe such an overt fixation on the summit theme among experts on regional cooperation. People with fecund minds may wish to take a close look at the theme of past summits to refresh themselves. Many commitments were made by member states based on the Summit themes, only to be consigned to oblivion after a while. Some efforts towards implementation were definitely made but they lagged far behind in terms of accelerating the pace of regional cooperation as desired.

Eradication of poverty, for example, continues to be one of the most appropriate themes for the region. But efforts towards that have never left the ground. Decades since the establishment of Saarc, a great majority of people in the region continue to suffer from poverty, underdevelopment and lead lives of privation. Regional cooperation through Saarc has failed to make a difference to their lives.

Similarly, we have failed to ‘build bridges’ in consonance with the lofty visions of connectivity that figured in the theme of the 14th Summit held in India. Thus, the ‘connectivity’ theme remains even more pertinent today for rapid regional integration in all sectors.

Still relevant

South Asia is among the least integrated regions in the world and continues to be characterised by great disconnect, owing to deeply entrenched distrust between and among member countries. Of course, energy, the environment, poverty alleviation and deeper economic integration have an enduring appeal for regional cooperation. Work on these spheres would greatly benefit from greater connectivity. Truth be told, Saarc, more than any other region, needs physical, cultural, intellectual, and human connectivity to dispel the distrust prevalent among member countries. Against this backdrop, a repeat of the theme ‘connectivity’ becomes all the more pertinent.

Additionally, there is a marked difference between repetition and redundancy, both in meaning and substance. Wherever possible, redundancy has to be obviously dispensed with. But repetition, which in other words also means reiteration, may be required to reinforce the centrality of a concept as well as to achieve the intended objectives inherent therein. Explaining the reason behind repeating the theme, Bhekh Bahadur Thapa, chief of the Advisory Committee, has rightly said, “Previous Saarc summits have raised the issues of connectivity for economic prosperity in the region several times but since it has not been implemented, we decided to push for it again.” I think his explanation correctly reflects the reality.

Given its relevance and appropriateness, the theme, ‘connectivity for shared responsibility’ shouldn’t be considered redundant. Rather, connectivity should remain the central theme for many more future summits, so as to  unlock the potentials of the region for the greater good of the people. Research has shown that connectivity through overland roads, railway lines, waterways and airways is crucial to facilitating the movement of people, ideas, technology and goods and services between and among the countries and peoples of the region. This concept alone can help build bridges, connect our best and brightest scientists, environmentalists, trade, economic and tourism development experts and law enforcement officials to collectively search for solutions to problems with a regional dimension.

In one of his famous dramas, Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare writes, “What is in a name, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” True, a new theme would not add to any new dimension to the Summit nor will a repeat or reiteration of the old in any way detract us from the substance of the Summit. Clearly, this is not the time to lock horns and engage, as it were, in a futile search for a new theme. Wisdom would lie in repeating the most time-suited theme of ‘Connectivity for shared prosperity’ for the upcoming Summit, instead of dissipating efforts looking for a new one.

Thapa is former Chief of Protocol at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Published: 09-09-2014 09:03

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