Inaugurating the sixth South Asia Summit in the Sri Lankan capital on 2 September, Pakistan’s Minister for Planning Ahsan Iqbal in his keynote address highlighted flagging growth and the gap between rich and poor in the region, a theme revisited many times at the three-day conference.
MORE TO DO: Nagesh Kumar of UNESCAP (far right) gives the lead presentation during the special panel on "Closer South Asia: Re-energising Regional Integration and Connectivity".
Despite forging ahead financially in the last decade, the region is plagued by deep-seated inequalities: economies are ‘shining’, but large populations find themselves outside the purview of this prosperity with incomes of less than $2 a day.
Host Sri Lanka is an example of this conundrum. Four years after the end of its devastating civil war, roads cratered by bombs have given way to neat black topped highways, new high rises dominate the skyline, and international companies are lining up to start investing.
But what about those left behind? This “challenge of exclusion” should be the focus of the eight countries as they look ahead to the future, Iqbal said.
Given that all South Asian nations share many of these challenges – post-conflict rebuilding, under-nourishment, low HDI rankings – regional cooperation makes sense. Caught up with domestic fire-fighting, however, there is not as much engagement as there ought to be. It’s no wonder then that countries in the region are better connected to Europe and Southeast Asia than with one another. Land connectivity is even worse and has remained much the same for centuries.
Jagdish Sharma, former vice-chairman of Nepal’s National Planning Commission, suggested an ‘energy mix’ between countries with comparative advantages to promote greater integration and intra-South Asian trade. For instance, Bangladesh with its reserves of natural gas could swap energy with Nepal, which is rich in hydropower.
Academics, researchers, former government officials, and businessmen gathered at the conference orangised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in Colombo said the most effective way to tackle the ‘challenge of exclusion’ is through greater investment in the region’s young human capital and promotion of entrepreneurship by easing the process for individuals or groups to start their own business.
One-fifth of South Asians are between the ages of 15-24. More than half of India’s 1.2 billion people are under 25. South Asia’s youth have strength in numbers and can influence politics. Those currently living under autocratic regimes have the potential to steer their countries to the track towards democracy.
However, the challenges of dealing with this demographic currently outweigh the advantages. Despite making unprecedented progress in primary education, the quality of education and employability of young people remain poor. Schools fail to foster the kind of creativity and originality that is needed for real entrepreneurship. As a result, a staggering 90 per cent of South Asians work low-skill jobs in the informal sector.
The solution lies in rebuilding our education systems so that when young people graduate from schools and colleges they are equipped with skills that matter to the economy and provide competent human capital for the region. States will also have to work on streamlining heavily politicised education and combating malnutrition that affects millions of children every year and inhibits their performance in school and eventually the workforce.
South Asian countries will also be tested on how they handle their migrant labour population. Governments seem to be using foreign employment as a solution to joblessness at home and to prevent dissatisfaction from spiraling into instability. Experts suggest that the eight countries in the region band together to build migrant policies: a more cohesive, common South Asian identity that will not only ensure our workers’ strength and safety but also promote investments back home.
In reality, even cooperation within trade and business – which should theoretically be easier to deal with than politics – is littered with barriers. The private sector, surprisingly, is reluctant to let go of its domestic market. Strict regulations impede the movement of goods, money, ideas.
A suggestion for the next summit in Delhi in 2014 was to invite policy makers so that deliberations lead to concrete strategies that pave the way for a stronger, more collaborative South Asian union that exists beyond the conference room.
Trishna Rana represented Nepal as the World Bank Youth Delegate at the South Asia Economic Summit 2013.