Regional Cooperation Critical for Sustainable Development in South Asia

Regional cooperation in South Asia - home to one of the world’s poorest and deprived populations - will be critical to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a high-level United Nations policy dialogue on 6 October in New Delhi concluded.

Organized by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) Subregional Office for South and South-West Asia, in collaboration with leading South Asian think-tanks, the Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS) and the South Asia Centre for Policy Studies (SACEPS), the Policy Dialogue highlighted regional cooperation as one of the key strategies for South Asian countries in their pursuit of the SDGs.

Heads of policy think-tanks, governments, academia, civil society organizations, media and other key stakeholders from all eight South Asian countries participated in the Dialogue.

Dr. Nagesh Kumar, Head of ESCAP’s South and South West Asia Office, stressed that regional cooperation and integration are increasingly important in the context of a challenging external economic environment characterized by continued subdued world trade. He summarized the key findings of a new report, which showed that intra-regional trade potential in South Asia was around US$ 81 billion, of which only a third was actually realized. The high cost of trade, among other barriers, was responsible for preventing South Asia from exploiting the potential of regional value chain, resulting in lost opportunities to generate employment and deliver welfare gains to the poorest sections of the population.

Dr. Kumar further noted that the success of the SDGs critically depends on the progress made by South Asia, given that the subregion accounts for a major share of the world’s population living in poverty.. He emphasized the need to promote connectivity in the subregion and the urgency to create regional public goods to address shared vulnerabilities. He also called for remedying the institutional deficit for regional cooperation in South Asia, and assured ESCAP’s commitment to support it for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by providing a forum for governments, think-tanks and civil society organizations.

Dr. Puspa Raj Kadel, Vice-Chairman, National Planning Commission, Nepal, said that South Asia’s prospects for meeting the SDGs depends heavily on collective efforts of countries in the subregion to address their common developmental challenges. He emphasized the interrelationship between the SDGs and the need for a multi-stakeholder partnership approach to harness such synergies. He highlighted that in order for multi-stakeholder partnerships to flourish in South Asia, cooperation should encompass subnational, national and regional levels.

Dr. Kadel added that regional platforms for collaboration on issues of common interests provided by the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) should be fully utilized. He highlighted that the Declaration of the 18th SAARC Summit already provides the mandate to contextualize the SDGs in South Asia, and that think-tanks of the subregion should come together to facilitate this process in a meaningful way.

Dr. Mohan Kumar, Chairman, RIS, called for collective action to eliminate extreme poverty from the subregion. He said think-tanks should come forward to prevent political differences from slowing down the momentum of developmental progress in the subregion.

Professor Deepak Nayyar, Co-Chair, SACEPS, a network of think-tanks from various South Asian countries, said that the SDGs provide a suitable context to unite key actors for a common cause. He noted that regional cooperation would not only be desirable but also feasible if it is placed in the framework of the SDGs, and that the cost of non-cooperation would be very high.

Mr. Rajneesh, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Government of India called for industrial restructuring for enhancing productivity and competitiveness in the subregion. He added that regional cooperation offers a vital opportunity to foster cross-border trade and investment which would help to plan industrial restructuring in the subregion.

The Policy Dialogue also recommended the formation of a South Asia Network of think-tanks for SDGs hosted by the ESCAP South and South-West Asia Office.