Monday, April 12, 2010

Regional integration in South Asia: Learning from Africa

M. Serajul Islam
Published in The Daily Star, April,10th , 2010

A very thought provoking and stimulating seminar was held recently at the Policy Research Institute (PRI). The topic was 'Regional cooperation in Africa: Lessons of experience and implications for South Asia.' The keynote presentation was made by Mr. KY Amoako, the founder and President of African Centre for Economic Transformation (ACET) and a former vice president of the World Bank. Mr. Praful Patel, also a former vice president of the World Bank assisted Mr. Amoako in his presentation.

Mr. KY Amoako and Mr. Praful Patel placed facts in their presentations that amazed many of the participants at the way Africa in general and West Africa in particular is integrating, highlighting in the process how South Asia is lagging behind. One hears of Africa, particularly West Africa, in the context of wars, civil conflicts, and human rights violations, courtesy of the international news media. Very rarely, one hears of the region in the light in which the two presenters represented West Africa at the Seminar. Some of the key elements that emerged from the presentations were extremely interesting. In the western African experience, the region is moving towards regional integration which is qualitatively a paradigm shift from regional cooperation, the stage where South Asia is stuck since the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), was formally launched in the Dhaka Summit of the South Asian Heads of State/Government in 1985.

In West Africa, the countries have been historically disintegrated. South Asia, in contrast, was once integrated and then disintegrated because of British colonization and is now trying to move back to where it was before the British left. There is thus a significant difference in the background of the two regions that, overtly, should have made integration easier in South Asia. However, British colonization left in South Asia certain fundamental problems that have so far proven almost insurmountable in integrating the countries of South Asia. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were identified as three South Asian nations where legacy of history has stood formidably against integration. In case of India and Pakistan, the two were encouraged to seek and own nuclear weapons for protection against each other.

Terrorism was discussed as a new factor that is complicating regional integration in South Asia. The Adviser to the Prime Minister strongly placed before the audience the initiative of the Bangladesh Prime Minister to tackle the curse of terrorism. He highlighted the commitment made by Sheikh Hasina during her state visit to India in January to fight with India jointly the scourge of terrorism. He said that Bangladesh soil would not be allowed to carry out terrorism into neighboring countries. The Adviser's point was well taken as a positive move towards integration but Bangladesh's commitment notwithstanding, participants in the seminar identified terrorism as another formidable obstacle in the path of integration together with legacy of history from South Asia's tryst with the British colonizers.

There were a few other issues that were raised by the two keynote speakers resulting in a great deal of vibrant discussions. Among the major achievements that Mr. Amoako identified towards regional integration in West Africa is the visa free travel among the members of Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS). In that context, the role of Nigeria was also mentioned. Mr. Amoako said that in achieving regional integration in West Africa, the Pan-African vision of such great African leaders as Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere played a key role; such elements have never been present in South Asia's move for regional integration. The visa free travel is an instrument that has helped these countries significantly towards integration. Mr. Amoako said that while there was favourable reaction from the smaller western African nations for visa free travel all along, Nigeria, the largest and economically the most well placed country in the region, was steadfast in its objection for a long time. The visa free travel among the West African countries became a reality only after Nigeria withdrew its objection.

Participants regretted that in South Asia where the need for visa free travel is extremely important to start the process of integration, the concept has not yet found any favour. Some of the participants were critical about India. They felt it could play the role in the region that Nigeria has played in western Africa. The participants felt that terrorism in the region would cause inordinate delay in South Asia's move for visa free regime. India's size, both physical and economic, and its mindset in not living up to its natural dominance in the region were considered by a few participants as serious impediments to regional integration.

Mr. Praful Patel introduced water as an issue for integrating nations in South Asia. He gave the example of the agreement reached on sharing the waters of the Nile that involved 15 countries where conflicts and differences were overcome for common benefit of the signatory countries. He also spoke on the Senegal River development as another success story for achieving the region's economic integration. He provoked the participants to consider the tremendous benefits that could accrue for 700 million plus people in the flood plains in Nepal, India, Bhutan and Bangladesh if the four countries cooperated together for managing rivers, rain water, and water from melting snow of the glaciers in the Himalayas. Participants agreed that cooperation for successful management of the region's water resources could leap-frog the region towards regional integration and economic development. Mr. Patel identified lack of political will as a main reason for lack of cooperation in the management of the region's water resources.

Africa is achieving significant results towards integration that will allow it a paradigm shift in their integration and development efforts. South Asia unfortunately is still stuck, struggling to cooperate. In South Asia, legacy of history, terrorism, India's dominant but less positive role are some formidable obstacles that are holding South Asia from integrating which is a key element for regional approach to poverty alleviation in the region. The abundance of water resource in the region, particularly in its northeast, where nature's blessings are being wasted, could be a very important factor for integration. The message that emanated from the PRI seminar is that politics and lack of political will is holding back South Asia from regional integration as opposed to the African experience and thus holding the 40% of the world's poor from breaking out of the vicious circle of poverty. The African experience has rich lessons for South Asia.

The author is a former Ambassador to Egypt and Japan and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

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