Excellent prospects for South Africans at the 17th SAARC summit
By Dr Srimal Fernando, South Asia Correspondent for Foreign Exchange
South Asia is home to nearly 1.5 billion people or about 22 percent of the world’s population. South Asian region includesthe countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, Bhutan and The Maldives. The regions economy has grown dramatically largely as a result of opening up its economies to the rest of the world and adopting market-oriented policies. According to the World Bank report of 2011, South Asia has experienced a long period of robust economic growth, averaging 6 percent a year over the past 20 years. Most of the countries in South Asia are close to graduating from least developing country status to lower middle income countries. The significance in socio-economic development of the South Asian countries has been recognized since the inception of SAARC.
In late 1970's President Ziaur Rahman of Bangladesh proposed, creation of a trade bloc consisting of South Asian countries. The Bangladeshi President’s proposal was accepted by India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in 1981 during a meeting held in Colombo. The heads of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives signed the charter to establish the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) on December 8th, 1985. The SAARC regional grouping charter serves as a solid foundation in achieving the legal and institutional framework to promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and to improve their quality of life through accelerated economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region. Afghanistan was admitted to the regional grouping on 13th November 2005 as their eighth member.
In recent years, the member countries had formulated the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) which created a framework for the establishment of a free trade area within the region. During the last five years intra-regional business had gone up to US$5billion (Est 2010). The regional summit has moved beyond declarations to covering cooperation in a range of areas including trade, development, education and culture. In its 25 years of existence Food Bank, Free Trade Agreement, Development Fund and South Asian University were significant achievements by the regional grouping.
The SAARC member countries have been cooperating in the development of sports. The governing body of these games is the South Asian Sports Council (SASC) formed in 1983 that oversees the bi-annual sporting event known as the South Asian Federation Games or SAF Games held among the athletes from South Asian countries. The 12th SAF Games is an upcoming major sporting event, scheduled to take place in Delhi in 2012.
Faced with the constant threat of disasters, the regional countries have worked hard on disaster response and risk reduction .The SAARC Disaster Management Centre (SDMC) was set up in October 2006 in New Delhi. The SDMC works on various dimensions of disaster risk reduction and on management in South Asia.
Over the years, there has been a growing interest among many countries to associate with SAARC. Currently Australia, China, USA, European Union (EU), Iran, Japan, Republic of Korea, Myanmar and Mauritius are the nine observers to SAARC. Even though South Africa has participated in previous meetings, the country is yet to become an observer. The Maldives will be the host nation for the 17th SAARC summit in 2011. Pre-SAARC Summit work currently being carried out in the Hulhudhoo Island or Addu City. The construction of the convention centre is expected to be completed by October to host the summit in November.
The historical links between South Asia and South Africa dates back to 19th century. Today about two per cent of the South African population are descendents from South Asians. South Asian region and South Africa have a 150-years old strong cultural relationship which added towards strengthening the economic and trade relationship with both regions. Since 1994 the bilateral relations between the South Asian countries and South Africa have been progressing gradually. The recent years have witnessed the rapid development in the relationship of friendly cooperation between South Africa and the SAARC regional grouping. The two-way flow between South Africa and regional countries has also been on the increase. South Asian countries view South Africa as an important strategic partner in the African continent with tremendous potential to offer. It is important to create a deeper longstanding dialogue between South Africa and the SAARC regional grouping in the upcoming 17th SAARC summit, scheduled to take place in the Maldives in November this year.