Insights into Editorial: Why South Asia must cooperate
South Asia covers only about 3.5% of the world’s land surface area but hosts a fourth (25%) of its population, making it a region of significant importance for international development.
In spite of the geographic proximity countries in this region enjoy and their common socio-cultural bonds, this is one of the world’s least integrated regions.
Intra-regional trade is a meagre 5% of the total trade these countries do globally, while intra-regional investment is less than 1% of the region’s overall global investment.
South Asia’s average GDP per capita is only about 9.64% of the global average. Accounting for more than 30% of the world’s poor, the region faces myriad economic and environmental challenges.
Sustainable Developmental Goals (SDG’s):
SDGs-a follow-up on Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expired at the end of 2015-are a set of 17 goals and 169 targets covering a broad range of sustainable development issues. These goals have to be achieved by all UN member states by 2030.
One of the primary objectives of SDGs is to end poverty and hunger from the world.
SDGs also aim to promote well-being of all the people, sustainable industrialisation, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, and employment and decent work for all.
Other goals include: reducing inequality; making cities inclusive, safe and resilient; ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns; and taking urgent actions to combat climate change and its impacts.
In short, SDGs aim to bridge all forms of inequality, raise access to basic public services, ensure access to justice and promote sustainable economic development.
On SDG’s, South Asia Performs badly:
Both performance and progress towards these goals appears to have little to do with levels of per capita income or degree of development.
For Instance, in India, which is not only the largest and most diversified economy in the region but also prides itself on rapid income growth rates and hopes to emerge as a potential leader of the world economy, performs very poorly even in relation to other South Asian countries.
Bhutan and Nepal both landlocked countries at lower levels of development show better ranks and significantly higher scores.
Why is South Asia performing so badly on the SDGs?
The bigger concern is that there is no other goal that South Asian countries are even on track to meet (other than Sri Lanka for Goals 6 and 8).
Even for the goals for which the current performance is moderate and shows some improvement, the current rate of progress would be inadequate to meet the goal.
And most countries show very high incidence of stagnant or no progress for many goals, and absolute deterioration which implies moving away from the target for others.
Even with these somewhat optimistic assessments for some indicators, for the region as a whole, 14 of the 17 SDGs will be missed at the current rate of progress, around three-quarters of the targets will not be met, and for at least 12 of the targets, the current direction of change is negative.
Reducing Inequalities is key to achieve all other SDG’s:
What explains this overall poor performance, as well as the slightly better performance of some countries within this aggregate picture of South Asia?
- It could be that at least some of the answer lies in the goal for which all countries show “insufficient data” to allow for assessment: that of reducing inequalities.
- The absence of statistical indicators cannot blind us to the severely constraining role played by inequalities of income, power, access to services and citizen’s entitlements, which then play out in affecting the other goals in each country.
- This in turn highlights the significance of political processes and the orientation of governments: those governments that have been more explicitly concerned with reducing inequalities in practice (rather than simply paying lip-service to such a goal) have been more effective in ensuring better performance to several other goals and targets.
- Despite the relatively low Gini coefficients of consumption inequality in South Asian countries, the region is actually one of the most unequal in the world, because of a complex and intersectional system of hierarchy and discrimination in which caste, ethnic and gender distinctions all play roles.
- Of these, caste differences (which interestingly exist across the region, and across different religions as well) may be the most significant in terms of how they influence opportunities for employment and income, affect access to housing, basic social services of health and education, and amenities like clean water and energy, as well as political voice.
- In other words, reduction of inequalities is not just a separate goal; it is a crucial underlying factor that affects the ability of a country to move towards in progress in achieving sustainable development in general.
A regional strategic approach to tackle common development challenges can bring enormous benefits to South Asia.
SDGs related to energy, biodiversity, infrastructure, climate resilience and capacity development are transnational, and here policy harmonisation can play a pivotal role in reducing duplication and increasing efficiency.
For instance, India has formulated some pragmatic plans and initiatives to improve food and nutrition security from which many of the neighbouring countries can benefit.
To address institutional and infrastructural deficits, South Asian countries need deeper regional cooperation.
On financing the SDGs in South Asia, countries can work towards increasing the flow of intra-regional FDI. The private sector too can play a vital role in resource mobilisation.
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the platform for regional economic cooperation in this region, has become moribund and remains unsuccessful in promoting regional economic cooperation.
If the countries of South Asia, the fastest growing region of the world, can come to a common understanding on regional integration and cooperation in achieving the SDGs, it can unleash a powerful synergistic force that can finally make South Asia converge.
A stable and effective balance of power has to be achieved across our eastern shores in South and South-East Asia to meet challenges posed by all types of social, economic and political issues.
A convergence towards achieving a common socio-economic agenda gives hope that no one in South Asia will be left behind in the journey towards eradicating poverty and enduring dignity to all.