The SAARC Summit and its multitude of benefits
The 15th SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation)
Summit was successfully concluded in Colombo and was attended by a
pantheon of South Asian leaders as well as other dignitaries from
Observer States. The proceedings and other concomitant engagements of
the one week high profile international Summit were conducted with a
great degree of efficacy, finesse and coordination.
It may be reasonable to state that almost all of the leaders of South
Asia, dignitaries from Observer States, delegates, foreign media and
diplomatic corps as well as invitees, both foreign and local, were
impressed of the competence and capacity to organise a major
international Summit of such scale. It may further be stated that the
15th SAARC Summit in Colombo was held under exacting circumstances and
vicissitudes, particularly with regard to security.
The theme of the SAARC Summit was “SAARC Partnership for Our People”,
which closely correlated with the theme of the last year’s SAARC Summit,
which was ‘Connectivity’. Indisputably, the Colombo SAARC Summit
enhanced the profile and the stature of the country not only regionally
but internationally as well. Sri Lanka assumed the Chairmanship of the
world’s most populous and one of the most endowed regional blocs i.e.
The assumption of the Chairmanship of the SAARC would cogently
reflect the pro-active engagement of the country in geo-political and
geo-economic issues in the region, in particular and the world, in
It may also be noted that Sri Lanka took over the mantle of the Chair
of SAARC from its most endowed and largest member i.e. India.
The Chair of the SAARC would probably be one of the highest
international offices she has ever assumed in the world. As the Chair of
the SAARC, Sri Lanka has the privilege to articulate and accentuate
positions and issues, on behalf of the SAARC, with other regional blocs
and groupings such as the EU, NAFTA, ASEAN, GCC, Mercusor, OIC, G-8,
G-15, Commonwealth, IOR-ARC and APEC among others.
The very fact of comprehensive and constructive engagement with the
leaders of South Asia and other Observer States such as the US, the EU,
China, South Korea, Mauritius and Iran has evolved Sri Lanka as a
country which plays a pivotal and central role vis-a-vis regional and
global dynamics and developments.
The Chair of the SAARC and the Chair of the SAARC Council of
Ministers lever a significant degree of influence, regional might and
due deference, which in turn could be executed to achieve the objectives
of the country as well as of the region.
Almost all the members of the SAARC as well as some of the Observer
States are confronting the nefarious and heinous acts of terrorism.
Today, terrorism has become ubiquitous and omnipresent, and as the Chair
of the SAARC, it offers Sri Lanka a vantage and a unique opportunity to
address terrorism in all its manifestations.
The signing of the Agreement on Mutual Assistance on Criminal Matters
would be most beneficial to the region of SAARC as well as to Sri Lanka.
The execution of this Agreement could amass conspicuous benefits to Sri
Lanka, with regard to terrorism.
It would have been noted that most of the addresses of the Heads of
State/Government and Observer States vehemently condemned terrorist
activities unconditionally and unequivocally.
It may further be noted that such concerted and unison addresses,
with regard to countering terrorism, at the zenith of respective
Governments, would no doubt, be beneficial to Sri Lanka as well.
On a different note, one can state that well over 20 bilateral
meetings between the leadership of Sri Lanka, including the President
and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka, and Member States of
SAARC and Observer States took place in Colombo, on the margins of the
The leaders of the other countries too called on and met their
counterparts in Colombo, thus extending publicity and enhancing the
profile of the country as a “meeting place”. It was interesting to
observe that over 25 - 30 such meetings between Heads of
State/Government, Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Leaders of
Delegations had taken place in Colombo.
It is needless to state that such meetings on the side lines of the
SAARC Summit in Colombo would convincingly reflect the stability, peace,
safety and capacity of the city of Colombo and the country. Many of
these high profile meetings were transmitted in foreign electronic media
and published in print media.
Given this premise, one could elicit the fact that the best and most
efficacious course of action to counter, so called travel advisories
issued by certain countries would be to globally demonstrate the
stability and safety of the country than to counter them with responses
One could further perceive the fact that hosting a Summit with such
aplomb and meticulousness would stimulate economic and commercial
activity as well.
Generally, the two-day Council of Ministers Meeting of SAARC exceeds
the allocated time and the officials often used to work till late in the
night, in order to have a comprehensive consensus.
The success of the Summit, which is attended by none other than the
Heads of State/Government, would reflect the success and mutual
accomplishments of the Council of Ministers Meeting.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa along with the Foreign Minister forged
and intensified political relations with the respective counterparts,
which in turn could be transcended and transformed into political and
The presence of a large number of media personalities, not only from
the region but also from other parts of the world, extended extensive
coverage of the Summit as well as meetings and parleys between the
Many a persons raise the crucial issue of the economic benefits and
utility, the country garnered from the SAARC Summit. Being an
international corporate executive and entrepreneur, I am of the
conviction that this question is most reasonable and deserved to be
expounded, in detail.
The Summit discussed measures to establish the physical connectivity
between and among the capital cities as well as other major cities of
the SAARC region. Physical connectivity, which was the theme of the last
year SAARC Summit held in New Delhi, addressed not only air connectivity
but land and sea as well.
It would be presumptuous to impress the benefits of greater
connectivity, in the economic dimension, since connectivity would
stimulate economic and commercial activity ranging from trade, services,
food security, tourism, oil and natural gas, foreign direct investments,
foreign institutional investments, merges and acquisitions and
international joint ventures among others.
The concept of connectivity, if and when transformed in to physical
connectivity, could markedly alleviate poverty from the region as well.
We are well aware that the region of SAARC has one of the highest levels
It is correct to state that the rapid development and advancement of
the EU was physical connectivity and it is not alien to many a regions,
which have developed, in the world. Connectivity along with the theme of
this Summit i.e. SAARC: Partnership for our People, could create a
strong kinetic synergy between and among the peoples of the SAARC
The establishment of the SAARC University in New Delhi would benefit
the region and would enhance the quality of the human resources.
It is envisaged that this University would be on par with some of the
most elite academic institutions in the world. Needless to state that
Sri Lanka would be a beneficiary of the establishment of University of
such scale and calibre.
The Charter on SAARC Development Fund (SDF) was inked at this Summit.
This could be considered as a momentous step towards development of the
region since the SAARC Development Fund consists of USD 300 million.
The SDF would primarily be used to develop and rehabilitate the
infrastructure and alleviate poverty in the region. The Colombo SAARC
Summit also discussed and deliberated Food Security and Power & Energy.
Both these issues have become indispensable elements for development of
the country as well as the region.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa stated in his eloquent address to form a
Food Bank, which would yet again be beneficial to the entire region.
The Agreement on South Asian Regional Standards Organisation was also
signed at this Summit. The intrinsic benefits of this initiative would
be that the standards of the goods and services would be consonant with
each of the countries, thus increasing bilateral and multilateral trade.
Also, the standardization would reduce the cost of production as well.
The Summit addressed and mapped out the operational aspects and other
related dynamics of the SAFTA as well. The region of SAARC,
unfortunately, is less integrated than many a regions in the world.
As we are aware, the total intra-regional trade is still a mere 5.3%
where as other similar regional blocs have intra-regional trade ranging
from 25% - 65%. Despite the SAARC region, which consists of 24% of
global humanity, the share of the global GDP is yet a mere 2.8%.
These bold facts are stated in order to project the opportunities and
economic vistas the region, as a whole, could share and develop given
the enormous natural endowments she possesses. Having stated this,
Iran-Pakistan-India trilateral gas pipeline and hydropower projects
which are in the anvil, would be beneficial to Sri Lanka once they
The newest member of the SAARC i.e. Afghanistan, would offer
unprecedented opportunities for development of the country, particularly
in the construction sector. Sri Lanka could leverage these opportunities
and could offer employment to Sri Lankans to be engaged in the
construction sector in Afghanistan.
One should appreciate the fact that since Sri Lanka holds the office
of the Chair of SAARC, it would be much easier for Sri Lanka to duly
leverage and mutually exploit such opportunities not only in the region
but with other regional blocs as well.
Minister Bogollagama, being the Chair of the Council of Ministers,
could contact any of his counterpart Ministers in the region as well as
the Observer States and discuss issues of relevance and significance.
At this era of globalisation, regionalism and economic liberalisation,
it is vital for a nation to be actively engaged in the region and
preferably play an instrumental role in forging and moulding economic
issues in particular, if the nation were to be advanced and developed.
It would also to be pertinent to state that vibrant and congenial
economic and commercial activity would dilute any political differences
between and among countries.
The Foreign Minister, in particular, has often accentuated the
imperativeness of connectivity and development of the region of SAARC.
The total cost of the SAARC is estimated to be in the vicinity of US$
30 million. It is important to note that 86% of the total budget of the
SAARC was expended for capital expenditure.
The Colombo SAARC Summit rehabilitated and restored select roads and
highways as well as institutions such as the BMICH and the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs among others. And 75 per cent of the total budget was
spent for security and security related matters and investments.
One may note that the security too would be strengthened with such
capital investments. As an international observer, I have come across
many a persons who used to ask “what have we received from the SAARC
I often used to respond that it was the intangible benefits which
cannot be quantified and not the tangible benefits which can be
quantified. In other words, it could be equated to somebody who hosts a
galaxy of major global investors, industrialists and entrepreneurs for a
lavish reception and then somebody asks “what have you gained by
entertaining such major investors and entrepreneurs?”.
The fact of the matter I wish to accentuate, with deep conviction, is
that the relations and friendship as well as the trust the host would
establish with the so called ‘guests’ i.e. global investors, could not
be quantified but could be used in many a ways such as investments, FDIs,
FIIs, international joint ventures, mergers and partnerships and
promotion of trade among others.
Given this premise, one could quantify the cost and benefit of the so
called reception only after a limited length of time.
On the same note, it may be germane to state that the Government and
the Foreign Minister astutely initiated and convinced the former Chair
of the SAARC i.e. India, to consider Sri Lanka to host the 15th SAARC
Summit, since Maldives was eager to host it next year.
The immediate tangible economic results of the hosting of the Summit
are already lucid and visible since tourism has increased, a sense of
stability and predictability have been restored and the Summit
enunciated the positive profile of the country, regionally as well as
Let me conclude by raising a rhetorical question as to what could be
the economic and political price one would place on reinforcing,
bolstering and strengthening the relations with the leadership of the
SAARC region as well as with other leaders of the Observer States.
It would be opportune for one to pay cognisance of the sagacious
saying of one of the senior Statesmen in South East Asia that “a nation
could choose its friends but not its neighbours”. In the annals of
economic and political history, nations have developed in blocs or
regions and rarely in isolation.
Given this context and dynamics, the leading international economic
think tanks state that the fulcrum of political and economic activity is
shifting in an inexorable manner towards Asia and away from the
traditional and conventional centres of North America and Europe, the
assumption of the Chair of SAARC, at this juncture, is most propitious
and has increasing potentiality to Sri Lanka.
The writer is the President of the Federation of Chamber of Commerce
and Industry of Sri Lanka and the Vice President of the SAARC Chamber of