UPDATE: A Research Guide on the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)

By Md. Toriqul Islam and Dr. Md. Ershadul Karim

Md. Toriqul Islam is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Law, University of Malaya, Malaysia, and Assistant Professor at the Department of Law and Justice, Bangladesh University of Business and Technology (BUBT) in Bangladesh.

Dr. Md. Ershadul Karim is a Senior Lecture at the Faculty of Law, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and a non-practicing lawyer enrolled with Bangladesh Supreme Court.

Published September/October 2019

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1. Introduction

The regional organization, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), was established in Dhaka on December 8, 1985. In the Organisation, there were initially seven-Member States that are mainly located in South Asia, i.e. Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In April 2007, at the Association's 14th summit, Afghanistan became its eighth member. The combined area of the SAARC region is nearly 2 million square miles, which is equivalent up to 3% of the world’s geographical expansion, whereas the population among the SAARC nations is over 1.7 billion, which is about 21% of the total population of the world. The Headquarter of SAARC is based in Kathmandu, Nepal. His Excellency Mr. Amjad Hussain B. Sial, a Pakistani diplomat, is the present Secretary General of the organization since March 1, 2017.

2. History

The idea of establishing SAARC is not a recent phenomenon; it is rather rooted in the historical past. It is a result of at least three conferences: the Asian Relations Conference, New Delhi, April 1947; the Baguio Conference, Philippines, May 1950, and the Colombo Powers Conference, Sri Lanka, April 1954. Particularly, at the end of the 1970s, seven South Asian countries, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka acceded to form this geopolitical, regional, and intergovernmental union. Later, the then-President of Bangladesh, Ziaur Rahman formally attempted to establish the SAARC, and for this, he tried to communicate with the Heads of the Governments of the region. The proposal of Bangladesh was immediately supported by other countries save India and Pakistan, as both these countries remained dubious initially. India worried about all bilateral issues anticipating that their smaller neighbors may internationalize them, and even these nations may be organized against the interests of India. Pakistan, on the other hand, anticipated that the idea was an Indian tactic to sell their products to consolidate and strengthen their economy against Pakistan. In the course of series of diplomatic deliberations by Bangladesh in between 1979 to 1981, finally, India and Pakistan conceded to become members of the SAARC at a conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 1981.

In August 1983, the leaders adopted the Declaration on South Asian Regional Cooperation at a meeting which was held in New Delhi, India. During the next two years, the South Asian nations committed themselves to form this South Asian alliance and the process culminated in the First SAARC Summit held on 7-8 December 1985 in Dhaka, Bangladesh where the Heads of State or Government of the initial seven countries adopted the Charter establishing the SAARC.

More information about the history of SAARC can be found in the Official Website of the SAARC.

3. Membership

4. SAARC Charter

The SAARC Charter, appears as the Constitution of this regional organization, contains provisions on the missions, visions, objectives, principles, structure and functions of the organization, and so on. The member states are legally bound to follow the provisions of this Charter. However, one of the most important policy issues of the Charter is that it deliberately excludes bilateral and contentious matters from the discussions. For additional information on the SAARC Charter, visit the Official Website of the SAARC.

4.1. Objectives of SAARC

According to Article I of the SAARC Charter, the Association has the following objectives:

4.2. SAARC’s Principles

According to Article II of the SAARC Charter, the Association has the following principles:

4.3. General Provisions

According to Article X of the SAARC Charter, the Association will function based on the following two general provisions:

4.4. SAARC Charter of Democracy

A SAARC Charter of Democracy was drafted by a technical committee in September 2010 and approved by the standing committee comprising of the foreign secretaries of all SAARC nations in February of 2019. The idea for such a Charter was mooted by Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh during the 16th SAARC Summit held in Thimphu, Bhutan in 2010. The thinking behind the Charter was to recognize and reaffirm the commitment of all South Asian nations to democracy.

The SAARC Charter of Democracy has encapsulated many important provisions that recognize the supremacy of the respective constitutions, guarantee the independence of the judiciary, and renounce unconstitutional measures adopted in changing the head of a state.

More information on the SAARC Charter of Democracy can be found in the Global Summitry Project.

5. Organization Structure

5.1. Council of Ministers

Council of Ministers (CoM) comprises of the ministers of foreign/external affairs of the member states. As provided in Article V of the Charter, the Council undertakes the following functions:

The CoM is mandated to meet twice a year as well also to hold its extra-ordinary session (by agreement among the member states).

More information about the Council of Ministers can be found in the Official Website of the SAARC.

5.2. Standing Committee

The Standing Committee comprises of the Foreign Secretaries of the SAARC member states. As provided in Article V of the SAARC Charter, the functions of the standing committee are as follows:

The Standing Committee is mandated to meet as often as necessary. Generally, they meet prior to the sessions of the CoM, i.e. during the summit, and in between two summits. The committee reports to the CoM on regular matters and asks for the specific decision on policy matters from the Council, if needed.

More information on the standing committees can be found in the Official Website of the SAARC.

5.3. Technical Committees

Technical Committees, consisting of representatives of member states, are responsible for the implementation, coordination and monitoring of the programs in the respective areas of cooperation. These Committees generally have the following terms of reference:

The Technical Committees shall submit periodic reports to the Standing Committee, and use the following mechanisms and modalities when considered necessary:

Apart from determining the potential and the scope of regional cooperation in agreed areas, Technical Committees are involved in the formulation of programs and preparation of projects. They also coordinate the implementation of sectoral programs and assess the implementation regularly.

The following Technical Committees work on the respective areas to provide support to SAARC activities:

More information on Technical Committees of SAARC can be found in the Official Website of the SAARC.

5.4. Programming Committees

The Fifth Session of the Standing Committee (Dhaka, December 1985) set up the Programming Committee, to assist the Standing Committee on matters relating to:

It generally meets prior to the sessions of the Standing Committee. It is also mandated to convene on stand-alone basis to coordinate the implementation of the approved SAARC programs and activities.

More information on the Programming Committee can be found in the Official Website of the SAARC.

5.5. Secretariat

The SAARC Secretariat is based in Kathmandu, Nepal. It coordinates and monitors implementation of activities, prepares for and services meetings, and serves as a channel of communication between the association and its member states as well as other regional organizations. The Secretariat is headed by the Secretary General, who is appointed by the CoM from member states in alphabetical order for a term of three years. His Excellency Mr. Amjad Hussain B. Sial from Pakistan is the current Secretary General. The Secretary General is assisted by eight Directors on Deputation from the member states.

More information on SAARC Secretariat can be found in the Official Website of the SAARC.

6. SAARC Agreements

In its initial stage, SAARC concentrated on non-controversial issues only, e.g., population, health, communications, postal, agricultural and rural development and so on. Subsequently, SAARC began to focus on some other important matters like finance, economy, trade, energy, climate change, transport etc. Nearly over three and a half decades, SAARC adopted numerous legal instruments covering both agreements and conventions in regulating mutual collaboration and cooperation in some common areas of interests. Some of its agreements are as follows:

7. SAARC Conventions

More information on SAARC Agreements and Conventions can be found in the Compilation of SAARC Charter/ Conventions/ Agreements (1985-2016).

8. SAARC Summits

The meetings of the Heads of the States or Governments of the member states known as the Summit is the highest decision-making forum of SAARC. Generally, SAARC organizes Summits biennially through its member states in alphabetical order, and the hosting country of the Summit assumes the Chair of the Association. The key outcome of a SAARC Summit is a Declaration containing decisions and directives of the leaders to strengthen and consolidate regional cooperation in different areas being pursued under the auspices of SAARC. The Declaration is adopted by the leaders at the concluding session of a Summit. The Summit also considers and approves reports of the CoM and Ministerial Meetings. During the Summit, policy statements on regional cooperation under SAARC are made by the leaders. The Summit is also addressed by Heads of Observer delegations and by the Secretary-General.

The Charter provides that the Heads of State or Government "shall meet once a year or more often as and when considered necessary by the member states" (Article III). However, the Summit has generally been convened at an interval of one and a half years or so. The 19th SAARC Summit was catalogued as a diplomatic conference to be held in Islamabad, Pakistan between 15–19 November 2016. Because of the terrorist attack in Uri, and succeeding increased diplomatic tensions, India boycotted the Summit alleging Pakistan's involvement in the attack. Subsequently, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives also showed the reluctance of joining the Summit resulted in an indeterminate adjournment of the summit.

The next, i.e. Twentieth Summit of the Heads of State or Government, would be held at Colombo, Sri Lanka in 2020. Summit Declarations provide directives and mandate for regional co-operation. Following are the past SAARC Summits:

More information on SAARC Summits and Summit Declarations can be found in the Official Website of the SAARC.

9. Areas of Cooperation

9.1. Agriculture, Rural Development

The SAARC region comprises low-income or low-middle income nations in global parlance. While poverty and hunger are among the major challenges of the region, agriculture appears to be the potential sector of the region’s economies. According to the 2017 statistics of the World Bank, the total population of South Asia is 1.788 billion, and among them , 66% are living in rural areas. Nearly half of the total workforce is engaged in the farming sector, and 42% of the land property of the region is used for agricultural purposes.

Considering this factual reality, regional cooperation on agriculture and rural development has been in the focus of SAARC from its inception. In 1990, two separate technical committees on agriculture and rural development were established and a number of specialized programs and projects were initiated by the member states through these technical committees under the auspices of the SAARC Integrated Programme of Action (SIPA). Later, these two technical committees were merged into one. The reconstituted committee, which is called ‘Technical Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development,” started functioning in July 2000 with additional mandate to consider livestock and fisheries matters. The functioning of this technical committee has been helpful in bridging the knowledge gap, sharing experience and expertise, identifying areas for pursuing regional actions and projects etc. In addition, a wide array of activities have been going on encompassing this area in the region over the years.

Food Security and SAARC Food Bank: Establishing a ‘food reserve’ to ensure the food security of the region was one of the first regional cooperation mechanisms set up by SAARC. In 1988, the Agreement on Establishing the SAARC Food Security Reserve entered into force. However, due to some technical difficulties, the reserve has not been utilized by the member states. In January 2004, the CoM recommended the establishment of a Regional Food Bank which was endorsed by the twelfth SAARC summit held in Islamabad between 4-6 January 2004. India prepared a Concept Paper for the Food Bank – which was discussed over several rounds of meetings of the Food Security Reserve Board and the Technical Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development (TCARD). The thirteenth SAARC summit held in Dhaka between 12-13 November 2005 reiterated the establishment of the Bank.

The SAARC Food Bank was established initially to provide emergency supply to a nation facing crisis resulting from production shortfall or a natural calamity like the cyclone, floods, draught, earthquake and such other factors. The fourteenth SAARC summit held in New Delhi in 2007 approved the move to adopt a common approach to collective food security of the region and since then, the institutional progress and policy guidelines have much walked ahead to give it a functional character. The SAARC Food Bank is now operational and now the question is how to make it broad-based and responsive to the challenges of disaster mitigation that a member state may suffer from any of the calamities.

By March 2007, an Inter-Governmental Expert Group (IGEG) finalized the text of the Agreement for the establishment of the Food Bank and the Agreement was signed at the fourteenth SAARC summit in New Delhi in April 2007. At the time of establishment of the Food Bank, the total quantity of food grain was finalized at 241,580 metric tons from the original signatory member states. At that time, the contribution of Afghanistan was left to be added as it was about to join SAARC. At the first meeting of the Food Bank Board held in Colombo in October 2008, Afghanistan agreed to set their contribution at 1,420 MT of wheat. Thus, the total quantity stood at 243,000 MT. At present 153,000 tons in India, 40,000 tons each in Bangladesh and Pakistan, 4,000 tons each in Nepal and Sri Lanka, 1,200 tons in Afghanistan, 200 tons in Bhutan, and 180 tons in the Maldives -- are available with the SAARC Food Bank.

The fourth Board Meeting of the SAARC Food Bank was held in Dhaka between 27-28 October 2011. This was a follow-up of the earlier three meetings, the first and the second of which were held in Colombo in October 2008 and February 2009 respectively, and the third one in Kabul in November 2009.

Meanwhile, as per the decision of the Eighth Food Bank Board meeting (Malé, 2-3 September 2015), SAARC Food Bank Information System (SFBIS) has been embedded in the SAARC Agriculture Centre (SAC)’s website. Additionally, “A Guide to the SAARC Food Bank” was published containing relevant data and references. For more information about regional cooperation on agriculture, rural development and food security, visit the Official Website of the SAARC.

SAARC Seed Bank: Since 15 June 2016, SAARC Seed Bank has come into force through the endorsement process in the Maldives. A Board was formed with the delegates from all the member states, who sat for its first meeting in Dhaka on September 27-28, 2017. In line with the directions of the third meeting of the SAARC Agriculture Ministers, the Board has been working for identifying the crops following the SAC program of adaptive trials. It is also operating the strategic action plan, SoP, and a protocol for facilitating the exchange of seeds among the SAARC nationals. The second meeting of the Board is likely to be hosted Afghanistan, or Bhutan.

Funding Mechanism: The South Asian Development Fund (SADF), a funding mechanism in SAARC, was formed in 1996 merging the SAARC Fund for Regional Projects (SFRP) and the SAARC Regional Fund. SADF’s objectives were to support industrial development, poverty alleviation, protection of the environment, human resource development and promotion of social and infrastructure development projects in the SAARC region.

The South Asian Development Fund (SADF) was found to be inadequate when the SAARC Member States considered instituting various sectoral funding mechanisms, e.g. Poverty Alleviation Fund, Infrastructure Fund, South Asian Development Bank, Media Development Fund, Voluntary Fund for the Differently Able Persons during 2002-2005. In September 2005, the SAARC Financial Experts looked at the entire gamut of issues relating to funding of SAARC projects and programs; and, amongst others, agreed that in lieu of proliferating sectoral financing mechanisms, the SADF be reconstituted into the SAARC Development Fund (SDF). Furthermore, SDF would have a permanent Secretariat, with three windows (Social, Economic, and Infrastructure). The thirteenth SAARC summit held in Dhaka on 12-13 November 2005 finally decided to reconstitute the SADF into SDF to serve as the “umbrella financial mechanism” for all SAARC projects and programs.

To learn more on agriculture, rural development and food security, visit the Official Website of the SAARC.

9.2. Environment, Natural Disasters and Biotechnology

Biotechnology: The need to promote cooperation in the area of biotechnology has been recognized by the Heads of States at various SAARC summits since 1990. A Working Group on Biotechnology was established in 2004 as a part of the restructured SAARC Integrated Program of Action (SIPA) to coordinate regional cooperation in the area of biotechnology. The Working Group has met several times and in their third meeting, they considered and finalized a concept paper on a program of cooperation in the field of biotechnology between SAARC member states. The program provides for collaboration in the areas of medical biotechnology, agricultural biotechnology, environmental biotechnology, animal biotechnology, marine biotechnology, bioinformatics, plant tissue culture, genetically modified organisms and bio-safety, marker assisted selection, bio-fertilizer and bio-gas, vaccine production, genomics and proteomics, nano-biotechnology, RNA interference technology platform, stem cell research and Industrial biotechnology. In line with the guidance of the Fourth Meeting of the Working Group on Biotechnology (Colombo, 27 April 2011), each member state submitted the State-of-the-Art Reports on Biotechnology. It is noteworthy that Pakistan remains the Chair of the existing Working Group on Biotechnology since January 2012.

Environment, Climate Change and Natural Disasters: The environment has been an area of serious concern within the SAARC member states. Therefore, the Heads of States of SAARC nations have been reiterating the need for cooperation in this area. Some significant headway has also been achieved in this regard over the last two decades. A Regional Study on the Causes and Consequences of Natural Disasters and the Protection and Preservation of the Environment was commissioned by the leaders in 1987 and the study was completed in 1991. A Technical Committee on Environment was established in 1992 to examine the recommendations of the regional study, identify measures for immediate action, and to decide on modalities for their implementation.

SAARC Environment Ministers have been regularly meeting to further enhance regional cooperation in the area of environment, climate change and natural disasters since 1992. SAARC Environment Action Plan adopted by the Third Meeting of the SAARC Environment Ministers (Male, 15-16 October 1997) identified some of the key concerns of member states and set out the parameters and modalities for regional cooperation. Another Ministerial Meeting on Climate Change was held in Dhaka on 3 July 2008 adopted the Dhaka Declaration and SAARC Action Plan on Climate Change.

The establishment of regional centers such as the SAARC Coastal Zone Management Centre in the Maldives, the SAARC Forestry Centre in Bhutan, the SAARC Disaster Management Centre in India and the SAARC Meteorological Research Centre in Bangladesh constitutes a framework of SAARC Institutions which address diverse aspects of the environment, climate change and natural disasters.

Since then onwards, SAARC has had numerous important initiatives, action plans, statements and so on. They are, inter alia, SAARC Environment Action Plan (1997); Dhaka Declaration and SAARC Action Plan on Climate Change (2008); Delhi Statement on Cooperation in Environment (2009); Thimphu Statement on Climate Change (2010); SAARC Convention on Cooperation on Environment (2010); SAARC Agreement on Rapid Response to Natural Disasters (2011) etc. Additionally, SAARC has signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with various bodies including the South Asia Cooperative Environment Programme (SACEP) in July 2004; United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in June 2007; the United Nations International Strategy on Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) in September 2008 and Asia Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC). Moreover, SAARC performs the role of an accredited Observer of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) since COP 16 (Cancun, Mexico, 29 November-10 December 2010), and accordingly, presented SAARC’s positions on global climate change.

More information on regional cooperation on environment, natural disasters and biotechnology within the SAARC region can be found in the Official Website of the SAARC.

9.3. Education, Security and Culture

Education: The SAARC principles recognize literacy as one of the major fundamental human rights that can be obtained through education. Hence, in numerous forums, the leaders of the SAARC have emphasized to enhance the literacy level by a quarter by fostering quality education. The leaders of the region declared 1996 as the 'SAARC Literacy Year'. The SAARC leaders emphasized especially on vocational education and training, and accordingly directed their education ministers to prepare useful strategies for ensuring the quality education having aims of raising the standards of South Asian educational systems for serving better to the youth of the region. SAARC countries have been cooperating in the development of various dimensions of human resource. SAARC Human Resource Development Centre in Islamabad used to undertake research, imparts training, and disseminates information on HRD issues and advises member states on HRD related policies and strategies. However, in its 18th Summit held in Kathmandu between 26-27 November, 2014, decision was taken to close down this Centre.

At the thirteenth SAARC summit held in November 2005 in Dhaka, India proposed to create a Centre of Excellence, in the form of South Asian University, which can provide world class facilities and professional faculty to students and researchers drawn from every country of the region. With this aim, South Asian University (SAU) was established by the eight-member nations of SAARC in New Delhi, India. SAU started its operations from the academic year 2010. The university now offers post-graduate and doctoral programs in various disciplines that include Development Economics, Computer Science, Biotechnology, Mathematics, Sociology, International Relations and Law. SAU attracts students from all member nations and its degrees are recognized by all the eight SAARC countries.

Moreover, the SAARC Chair, Fellowship and Scholarship Scheme were instituted in 1987 which facilitate the exchange of ideas through interaction among students, scholars and academics in the SAARC countries. For additional information on SAARC Chair, Fellowship and Scholarship, visit the Official Website of the SAARC.

More information on regional cooperation on education within SAARC region can be found in the Official Website of the SAARC.

Security Aspects: Regional cooperation in the areas of security among the SAARC member states has seen significant development. A good number of milestones have been achieved through successful coordination among the SAARC member countries in the fields of drug and drug related crimes, terrorism and police matters. In particular, SAARC has identified widespread security-related challenges ranging from terrorism to cyber-crimes, trafficking of drugs, child and women to transnational organized crimes etc. Terming them as the common social evils, SAARC always endeavors to find out the effective solutions to those problems for ensuring safety, security, economic and social growth, and principally, the future of all ages in the region. To eradicate these social challenges from the region, SAARC is continuously trying to increase the system for monitoring, exchange knowledge, technology and so on. The leaders of SAARC declared the year 1989 as the ‘SAARC Year for Combating Drug Abuse and Drug Trafficking’.

For more information on regional cooperation on security aspects within SAARC region, visit the Official Website of the SAARC.

Culture: The Heads of States at the thirteenth SAARC Summit held in Dhaka in November 2005 recognized the role of culture in bringing the peoples of South Asia closer. They also realized that culture could play a major role in promoting relations and understanding among South Asian countries. With this backdrop, the Ministers of Culture of the SAARC member states adopted the SAARC Agenda for Culture in their second meeting on 31st October 2007 with the following activities: promotion of SAARC culture online, launching of a SAARC website on culture, production of cultural source materials on South Asia, cooperation with other organizations, establish linkage between culture and other sectors in attaining social and economic development, cooperation in the field of product development and promotion of cultural products, and SAARC exchange programs on culture.

At the 18th SAARC Summit, 2014, the SAARC leaders decided to implement its cultural agenda, and promote a cultural trail concerning the major Buddhist historical places in the region. Additionally, they also agreed to adopt appropriate means for the protection and restitution of all cultural properties, sites and heritage, and prepare a list of those along with an operating manual. They further admitted facilitating access to the persons of visiting major famous and sacred religious sites of Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and so on. However, the regional organization declared the year 2016 as the ‘SAARC Year of Cultural Heritage’ and asked the concerned body to prepare an action plan for its success.

More information on regional cooperation on the culture within the SAARC region can be found in the Official Website of the SAARC.

9.4. Economic Trade, and Finance

Economic Cooperation: One of the key objectives of SAARC is to accelerate the economic growth and social progress in the region. Keeping this in mind, SAARC leaders adopted the South Asian Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA) and South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA). The SAFTA Agreement was signed on 6 January 2004 and came into effect on 1 January 2006. The Agreement on SAPTA was signed on 11 April 1993 and entered into force on 7 December 1995. Establishment of South Asian Standard Organization, holding of SAARC trade fair in different venues of SAARC Member States, agreements on trade in services, and agreement for the avoidance of double taxation are some of the milestone achievements in trade and economic area within SAARC Member States.

At the 18th SAARC Summit held in Kathmandu, between November 26-27, 2014, the leaders of SAARC showed their firm determination to extend the regional unity for stability, prosperity and peace in the region by raising cooperation in the field of culture, finance, trade, investment, security, energy, connectivity, infrastructure, implementing most prioritized activities, programs projects in an output-oriented manner within a specified time frame. Further, the leaders affirmed their commitment to establishing the South Asian Economic Union (SAEU) by turns through a Free Trade Area. They also wished to form a Common Economic, Monetary or, a Customs Union, and achieve the prevailing preferential opportunities under SAFTA and SATIS.

The Heads of State or Government of SAARC renewed their promise toward the regional connectivity persistently through the development and renovating all sorts of communication links, namely, airways, highways, railways, waterways, energy grids and so on for ensuring the smooth transnational exchange of services, goods, technology, capital and people. They further stressed on the necessity of connecting people of this region with the people of other Asian regions and other international community as a whole. Finally, the leaders welcomed two development projects, viz, the SAARC Motor Vehicles Agreement, and the SAARC Regional Railways Agreement.

More information on regional Economic Cooperation of SAARC can be found in the Official Website of the SAARC.

Cooperation in the Field of Finance: To enhance the cooperation among the SAARC Member States regarding financial matters and economic development, the finance ministers of SAARC nations have been regularly meeting. A number of milestones have been accomplished toward greater cooperation in financial issues within the SAARC region. A SAARC-ADB Inception Workshop for the SAARC Studies on Trade, Economics and Finance was held at the SAARC Secretariat on 23-24 June 2011 with regard to the Study on Economic Integration within SAARC countries. Another SAARC workshop on Public Debt Management was held at the SAARC Secretariat on 26 December 2011. A SAARC Expert Group on Development of Capital Markets in South Asia was also held at the SAARC Secretariat on 27 December 2011.

With a view to promoting cooperation among central banks and finance ministries in SAARC member countries through staff visits and regular exchange of information, the SAARCFINANCE was established on 9 September, 1998 as a regional network of the SAARC Central Bank Governors and Finance Secretaries. Harmonizing the banking legislation and practices within the region and establishing a more efficient payment system within the SAARC region are among the primary objectives of SAARCFINANCE. With this end in view, the SAARC Payment Council (SPC) was launched by SAARCFINANCE in 2008.

The SAARCFINANCE also welcomes the sharing of opinions on the effect of the contemporary global financial crisis and their impacts on SAARC economy. Currently, SAARCFINANCE has determined to organize two meetings in a year, one is to be within the region and the second one will be at Washington during the year-end meetings of the World Bank. The highest regulatory body of SAARCFINANCE is its Chair, and the present Chairperson of SAARCFINANCE is Sri Lanka.

To learn more information on cooperation in financial issues within SAARC, visit the Official Website of the SAARC.

9.5. Energy, Transport, Science and Technology

The South Asian region is energy deficient as it does not have enough oil and gas reserves to meet its needs and thus, depends heavily on imports. Most of the member states do not have the capacity to generate sufficient electricity to meet their demands. Therefore, securing sustainable energy supplies to meet energy needs at affordable prices has become a major energy policy imperative of member states of SAARC.

The process of regional cooperation in the energy sector began in January 2000 with the establishment of a Technical Committee on Energy. The Technical Committee on Energy met twice. Thereafter, recognizing that this vital area requires focused attention, the CoM approved the creation of a specialized Working Group on Energy in January 2004.

In the thirteenth SAARC summit, it was decided to establish the SAARC Energy Centre in Islamabad to promote the development of energy resources, including hydropower; and energy trade in the region; to develop renewable and alternative energy resources; and promote energy efficiency and conservation in the region. The Centre which was established in 2006 has become fully operational. During the Eighteenth SAARC Summit, 2014, the SAARC leaders warmly greeted the SAARC Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation (Electricity). The governments of India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan have endorsed the treaty so far.

Transport: At the 12th SAARC Summit held in Islamabad in 2004, the SAARC leaders insisted on acceleration and the stable economic growth for strengthening the transport, transition and communication links over the realm. Consequently, SAARC Regional Multimodal Transport Study (SRMTS) started operating with the technical and financial aid of the ADB aiming of enhancing transport connectivity among the SAARC nations. SRMTS run on two phases; phase-I is on the operation by the national experts, regional experts, on the other hand, operate the phase-II.

Science and Technology: At the thirteenth summit held in Dhaka on 13 November 2005, the SAARC leaders decided to give priority attention to encourage regional cooperation in the areas of science and technology to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Accordingly, the first meeting of the Ministers of Science and Technology took place in New Delhi on 16 September 2008. A five-year (2008-2013) SAARC Plan of Action on Science and Technology was finalized during the meeting. The Plan of Action identifies areas of (i) Cooperation in the field of science and technology, (ii) Standardization and laboratory testing, (iii) Themes for cooperation, and (iv) Project development. The Ministers also approved a number of short-term activities to be carried out during the year 2009.

The second meeting of the Ministers of Science and Technology was held in Colombo on 24 November 2009. At that meeting, implementation of the SAARC Action Plan was reviewed, and a number of short-term activities were approved for implementation. The Ministers expressed their firm commitment for the prioritization of initiatives in Science and Technology in the region for a prosperous South Asia.

More information on regional cooperation on science and technology within SAARC can be found in the Official Website of the SAARC.

9.6. Information and Poverty Alleviation

Poverty Alleviation: Since the inception of SAARC, its Member States have been working together with a view to alleviating poverty in the region. The SAARC leaders at the sixth summit held in Colombo in 1991 established an Independent South Asian Commission on Poverty Alleviation (ISACPA) and the Commission provided a conceptual framework for poverty alleviation through social mobilization and empowerment in South Asia.

To eradicate poverty from the region through concerted efforts of the member states of SAARC, a few programs have been undertaken e.g. a three-tier mechanism, a two-tier mechanism, a Plan of Action on Poverty Alleviation, and the declaration of SAARC Decade of Poverty Alleviation (2006-2015). SAARC Development Goals (SDG) has also been introduced to set appropriate targets for the Member States and call for the attainment of those targets in the scheduled timeframe. This area of cooperation run based on the following mechanisms: (a) ministerial meeting, (b) senior officials meeting, and (c) inter-governmental expert group meeting.

Since 2017 onwards, SAARC has decided to replace the Regional Poverty Profile with the SAARC Development Report. Meanwhile, on the eve of Eighteenth SAARC Summit, the SAARC leaders repeated their firm devotion to establishing a poverty-free South Asia by implementing its action plans in the sector through its ministerial and secretary-level mechanisms.

More information on regional cooperation on poverty alleviation within SAARC can be found in the Official Website of the SAARC.

Information and Communication Technology: Communication plays a vital role in building regional cooperation. Hence, the issue of communication has been given proper importance within the SAARC framework. The Heads of States of SAARC countries have stressed the importance of developing infrastructure and adequate communications networks among member states to reinforce the process of economic cooperation during the ninth SAARC summit held in Male in 1997.

To enhance the collaboration among the Member States of SAARC with regard to communication, the communication ministers of SAARC countries have been meeting on a regular basis and a number of programs have been initiated. A Plan of Action on Telecommunications was adopted in the first conference of SAARC Communication ministers held in May 1998 to promote cooperation among member states in the field of telecommunication on a sustained basis.

A Revised SAARC Plan of Action on Telecommunications was adopted in 2004 with a view to promoting cooperation in the enhancement of telecommunication links, utilizing information technologies within the SAARC region and minimizing disparities within and among member states in the telecommunication field. The Working Group on Telecommunications and ICT was established by the CoM in January 2004. The working group holds several meetings and discussed various aspects of regional cooperation on communication.

The third meeting of the working group was held in Ghaziabad, India in March, 2009 and the group made deliberations on up-gradation of regional telecom infrastructure and agreed in principle that the capacity of the existing inter-country links needs to be increased; that the maximizing the use of terrestrial system such as optical fiber, micro­wave link and that the growth of telecom traffic, both voice and data meant for SAARC countries will require to remain within the region.

The group also discussed issues like cross-border interference of radio signals, revision of accounting rates and collection charges among SAARC countries, multilateral utilization of terrestrial communications routes among SAARC countries, and cyber security etc.

More information on information and communication technology can be found in the Official Website of the SAARC.

9.7. Social Affairs

Acceleration of social progress through active collaboration and mutual assistance amongst member states was a primary objective of SAARC. Focus on social affairs titled as “the Health and Population Activities” was one of the five primary areas of cooperation recognized by the SAARC from its very inception. Moreover, some other regional projects are progressing through the SAARC Development Fund (SDF) for facilitating social development programs in the region. SAARC promotes social agenda in the region mainly through cooperation in the following areas:

For more information on Social Affairs, visit the Official Website of the SAARC.

9.8. Human Resource Development and Tourism

Regional cooperation in the tourism industry is one of the innovations of SAARC. The Heads of States of SAARC countries during the second summit held in Bangalore in 1986 underlined that concrete steps should be taken to facilitate tourism in the region. A Technical Committee on Tourism was created in 1991. During the first meeting of the Technical Committee on Tourism held in Colombo in October 1991, an Action Plan on Tourism was formulated. The twenty-fourth session of the CoM held in Islamabad on 2-3 January 2004 approved the establishment of the Working Group on Tourism.

The Working Group on Tourism prepared a Plan of Activities which includes the promotion of SAARC as a common tourist destination, to encourage the private sector in promoting regional cooperation in tourism, human resource development, promotion of South Asian identity through tourism, and cultural and eco-tourism development. The Working Group was authorized to periodically review the implementation of this Action Plan.

The last Ministers’ Meeting was held in Kathmandu in January 2011, which preceded the Fourth Working Group Meeting. The second meeting of Tourism Ministers (Bangladesh, 2006) adopted the SAARC Action Plan on Promotion of Tourism, which continued since then. The Action Plan includes a joint pro-active marketing or promotional campaign of the SAARC landmass as a composite destination in the international markets. The Action Plan also emphasizes on the role of the private sector of the SAARC region for promotion and development of tourism both intra-regionally and internationally. The Fifth Working Group on Tourism which was held in New Delhi on 25-26 November 2015, among others, insisted on the implementation of SAARC Action Plan on Promotion of Tourism in the region.

SAARC attaches a high priority to the promotion of people-to-people contact in the region and to foster mutual understanding and goodwill among the peoples of South Asia. While it is an inter-governmental Association, successive Summits have emphasized on the importance of promoting people-to-people contact at all levels outside the State sector. In order to realize this objective, a number of initiatives have taken place. With a view of enriching and supplementing inter-governmental regional efforts in promoting socio-economic and cultural development in SAARC Region, the association encourages interface and interaction across the region among professional bodies, private corporate sector, civil society groups and creative artists. To further facilitate and acknowledge their work, the Association grants formal recognition to these bodies under two specific categories i.e. SAARC Apex Bodies and SAARC Recognized Bodies. Currently, there are six SAARC Apex Bodies and eighteen SAARC Recognized Bodies.

More information on regional cooperation on human resource development and tourism within SAARC can be found in the Official Website of the organization.

10. Designated SAARC Decades and Years

10.1. Designated SAARC Decades

1991-2000: SAARC Decade of the Girl Child

2001-2010: SAARC Decade of the Rights of the Child

2006-2015: SAARC Decade of Poverty Alleviation

2010-2020: SAARC Decade of Intra-regional Connectivity

10.2. Designated SAARC Years

1989: SAARC Year of Combating Drug Abuse and Drug Trafficking

1990: SAARC Year of Girl Child

1991: SAARC Year of Shelter

1992: SAARC Year of Environment

1993: SAARC Year of Disabled Persons

1994: SAARC Year of the Youth

1995: SAARC Year of Poverty Eradication

1996: SAARC Year of Literacy

1997: SAARC Year of Participatory Governance

1999: SAARC Year of Biodiversity

2002-2003: SAARC Year of Contribution of Youth to Environment

2004: SAARC Awareness Year for TB and HIV/AIDS

2006: South Asia Tourism Year

2007: Green South Asia Year

11. SAARC Regional Centers

With a view of strengthening and promoting regional cooperation, SAARC aimed at establishing a good number of regional centers since 1989 with certain specific agendas and mandates. These regional centers perform the scheduled activities and always endeavor to establish themselves as the centers of excellence in their concerned fields. Generally, these centers run by the governing boards holding delegates from all the member nations, including the Secretary-General and the Ministry of Foreign/External Affairs of the host nation of the SAARC. Whereas the director of each center serves as the member secretary to the governing board, which submits reports to the programming committee. The following are the regional centers of the SAARC.

SAARC Agriculture Centre (SAC), Dhaka: This was the first-ever center established by SAARC in 1989 in Dhaka, having aims of providing up-to-date, appropriate and free access to information and learning resources to all the agriculture professionals of the region for achieving the desired goals by sharing the agricultural experience and information through the adoption of the proper ICT technologies, administration practices and standards.

SAARC Energy Centre (SEC), Islamabad: The SAARC Energy Centre was founded in 2006 in Islamabad, aimed at envisaging as a motivation for economic cooperation and growth in the SAARC region through the launching, coordinating and promoting regional, joint, and combined initiatives encompassing energy. The center would facilitate technical support to the SAARC Working Group on Energy, and it will promote stimulating the synthesis of energy policies within the region by offering related information, cutting-edge technology and proficiency.

SAARC Cultural Centre (SCC), Colombo, Sri Lanka: The SAARC Cultural Centre was established in 2009 in Colombo having the mandate of promoting regional solidarity by way of cultural integration and intercultural conversation for the preservation of the cultural heritage of the region as a part of the SAARC Agenda for Culture.

SAARC Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS Centre (STAC), Kathmandu: This particular centre was set up in Kathmandu in 1992 with the vision of preventing and controlling the disease tuberculosis in the SAARC region through the combined efforts of the member states. Additionally, the centre would exchange the relevant information, conduct research, try building capacity and execute projects, and assemble, organize, investigate and disseminates knowledge on the newest advancements and findings on tuberculosis of the region and beyond.

SAARC Disaster Management Centre (SDMC), India: This center was re-built in November 2016 for exercising the extended roles through merging some four preceding SAARC Centers viz. (1) SAARC Disaster Management Centre (SDMC – New Delhi, India); (2) SAARC Meteorological Research Centre (SMRC – Dhaka, Bangladesh); (3) SAARC Forestry Centre (SFC – Thimphu, Bhutan); (4) SAARC Coastal Zone Management Centre (SCZMC – Male, Maldives), having the mandates of supporting the member states in the initiatives of disaster risk reduction by the application of latest scientific and technological knowledge, multiple disciplinary skills, and sharing of best practices, capacity, joint research, networking in line with the global and regional priority list.

In its 18th Summit held in Kathmandu between 26-27 November, 2014, decision was taken to merge SAARC Forestry Centre in Bhutan, SAARC Disaster Management Centre in New Delhi, SAARC Coastal Zone Management Centre in the Maldives and SAARC Meteorological Research Centre in Dhaka and to set up the SAARC Environment and Disaster Management Centre.

For additional information on this issue, visit the Official Website of the SAARC.

The following regional centers are presently in function:

12. SAARC Visa Exemption Scheme

The SAARC Visa Exemption Scheme was introduced in 1992 with the view of encouraging people-to-people contact among the SAARC member states. The leaders at the fourth summit which was held in Islamabad in December 1988 decided that certain categories of dignitaries should be entitled to a special travel document, which would exempt them from visas while travelling within the region. It was decided that twenty-four categories of entitled persons, which include dignitaries, judges of higher courts, parliamentarians, senior officials, businessmen, journalists, sportsmen, etc. will be entitled to avail this visa exemption facility.

Later in February 2011, a meeting of the SAARC foreign ministers revisited the scheme approved a proposal to exempt 24 categories of people from visa requirement and agreed on a liberalized scheme under which select journalists, businesspersons and sportspersons can be given long-term multi-entry visas after prior clearance.

Usually, the respective member states issued this visa sticker to the privileged classes of persons for a term not exceeding one year. All procedures and their implementation are examined and monitored regularly through the immigration authorities of the concerned nations of the SAARC.

13. Awards and Scholarships

A number of awards have been instituted under the auspices of SAARC to encourage individuals and organizations in furthering the objectives of SAARC. SAARC Award was instituted at the twelfth SAARC summit held in Islamabad in January 2004 to recognize and encourage outstanding individuals and organizations within the region. The SAARC Award comprises a gold medal, a letter of citation and a purse of USD 25,000.

The SAARC Youth Awards Scheme was introduced in 1996 with a view to promoting extraordinary young talents and encouraging the overall development of the youth in the region. This awards scheme is open for all nationals of the SAARC region between 20-35 years age group during the time of selection. The Award consists of a citation in English, a Gold Medal, and a cash prize of USD 3000.

SAARC Regional Award for Young Scientists and Senior Scientists were introduced respectively in 1982 and 1997 to encourage young and senior scientists of the region working in the field of Meteorology. The Award comprises a citation, a medal made by bronze, and a sum of money worth about US$ 500. So far, 14 young scientists from the different nationals of the SAARC region have been able to receive the award.

For information on SAARC Awards and Youth Awards, visit the Official Website of the SAARC.

Scholarship: Started from 1987, the SAARC Chair, Fellowship and Scholarship Scheme aims at providing increased cross-pollination of thoughts through an effective interaction among academics, scholars, students and so forth in the region. From the very inception of the scheme, scholars from various fields of the SAARC region have been benefitting through these scholarships. Other than these, sometimes individual states and numerous bodies of SAARC offer multiple scholarships for the SAARC nationals under the name of SAARC. Among all these scholarships, SAARC Agriculture PhD Scholarship by the SAARC Agriculture Centre, and South Asian University Scholarships/Financial Support Program are notable, and both of them are usually offered each year for the SAARC nationals.

For additional information on SAARC Scholarships, visit the Official Website of the SAARC.

14. SAARC Observer States

SAARC has nine observer countries, who can, on the invitation, attend the opening and closing sessions of SAARC summits and engage themselves into some productive, demand, and objective oriented cooperation in several priority areas ranging from communication, connectivity, agriculture, public health, energy, environment to economic cooperation. Currently, the following nations are the SAARC observers:

15. Relationship Between SAARC and Other International/Intergovernmental/Regional Organizations

15.1. UNCTAD

SAARC-UNCTAD Memorandum of Understanding on the Trade Analysis and Information System (TRAINS) was signed on February 1993. Under this agreement, UNCTAD provides the SAARC Secretariat, on a regular basis, an updated copy of TRAINS CD-ROM containing the latest data on trade control measures prevailing in developed and developing countries. The SAARC Secretariat in turn updates trade control measures prevailing in the SAARC Member States on a regular basis and forwards the same to UNCTAD Secretariat, on computer floppies for incorporation in the updated versions of TRAINS CD-ROM.

15.2. ESCAP

A Framework Agreement for Cooperation between SAARC and ESCAP was signed in February 1994. The agreement provides for cooperation on development issues through joint studies, workshops and seminars and exchange of information and documentation in poverty alleviation, human resource development, trade promotion, foreign direct investment, environmental protection and prevention of drug trafficking, infrastructure development, etc.

15.3. UNICEF

A Cooperation Agreement between SAARC and UNICEF was signed on 10 December 1993. The agreement envisages cooperation in implementing the relevant SAARC decisions relating to children through an annual agenda, which includes joint studies, exchange of documentation and monitoring of implementation.

15.4. APT

A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by SAARC Secretary-General and Executive Director of Asia Pacific Telecommunity (APT) on 4 February 1994 to initiate cooperation between the two organizations with a view to accelerating economic and social development in the region through the promotion of telecommunication. SAARC and APT will exchange information, publications and documents on their respective activities in this field. They will also exchange technical and operational details of plans for improvement of the national, regional and international telecommunications network.

15.5. UNDP

A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between SAARC and UNDP was signed by the SAARC Secretary-General and Administrator of UNDP in July 1995. The MOU embodies a general agreement for broad-based collaboration with the aims and purposes of promoting sustainable human development for attaining poverty elimination, preservation and protection of environment, regeneration of natural resources, employment creation, and the goals of women in development; undertakes periodic consultation for joint activities, publishing studies on priority concerns, and exchanging relevant reports.

15.6. UNDCP

SAARC Secretary-General and United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) Executive Director signed an MOU on 18 August 1995 to coordinate their efforts in combating drug trafficking and drug abuse in the region. The memorandum contains provisions for mutual consultation and exchange of information between the two organizations. In addition, the two organizations have agreed to seek each other's technical cooperation in pursuing their respective drug control activities in areas of drug supply and demand reduction to assist in the development and implementation of activities, such as human resource development, improving regional cooperation on drug intelligence through the SAARC Drug Offences Monitoring Desk, establishment of a networking arrangement among existing institutions in drug abuse prevention, etc.

15.7. Colombo Plan

SAARC has also entered into cooperation arrangements with the Colombo Plan Bureau for promotion on the role of SAARC NGOs in anti-narcotic activities. In this context, representatives of NGOs from seven countries attended a meeting of the SAARC Forum on the role of NGOs in Drug Demand Reduction in Dhaka on 10-13 April 1995. Efforts are also underway to establish a working relationship between the SAARC Secretariat and the Colombo Plan Bureau on training facilities in the region.

15.8. ITU

A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between SAARC and International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has been finalized and signed accordingly.

More information on SAARC’s relationship with other international/intergovernmental/regional organizations can be found in the Archived Document of the SAARC.


16.1. Association of SAARC Speakers and Parliamentarians

The speakers of the parliaments of SAARC Countries first met in Sri Lanka in June 1992 and resolved to set up an association of SAARC speakers and parliamentarians. They met in Kathmandu in November 1992 and The First South Asian Festival held in India (October 1992) with participation from all member countries was a unique event which focused on the rich cultural heritage of South Asia formally launched the "Association of SAARC Speakers and Parliamentarians" and adopted the charter of the association. The Speakers Council, which is the apex body of the association, finalized and ratified the draft rules of the Association prepared by the Parliamentary Secretaries-General in January 1994. Since then they have met periodically and addressed issues of common interest to member countries. The Heads of State at their seventh summit held in Dhaka in April 1993 welcomed the initiative of the Speakers of Parliaments of SAARC Countries in forming the Association.

16.2. SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCI)

The SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCI) was recognized by SAARC in December 1992. The establishment of SCCI is a significant development and it will act as a dynamic instrument for the promotion of regional cooperation in the areas of trade and economic relations. SCCI has its headquarters at Karachi and national units in seven SAARC countries.

The SAARC Chamber has been instrumental in disseminating the information about the content, scope, and potential of the Framework Agreement on SAARC Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA) among the business community in the region.

In view of expanding activities of the SCCI in the field of promoting trade both within and outside the SAARC region, SAARC has decided to continue its recognition to SCCI for a period of five years.

More information on SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry can be found in the Official Website of the SAARC.

16.3. SAARCLaw

SAARCLAW - an Association for persons of the legal communities of the SAARC countries, established in 1991 with its headquarters in Colombo was recognized by SAARC as a regional apex body in July 1994. Established with the twin objectives of bringing together the legal communities within the region for closer cooperation and developing law as a source towards social change for development, SAARCLAW has been convening periodic conferences covering important areas of common interest to member countries. Since the establishment, SAARCLAW has organized regional conferences in different parts of the region. More information on SAARCLAW can be found in the Official Website of the SAARC.

17. Key Documents

18. Concluding Remarks

Since its establishment in 1985, the SAARC has aimed to enhance economic integration among all its member states, even though they have achieved few of their desired goals compared to some other regional organizations, such as the EU or ASEAN; regardless of having the geographical proximity, or common membership of WTO.

There remains another stumbling block in the SAARC Charter itself, which states, “Bilateral and contentious issues shall be excluded from the deliberations.” History reveals the most pressing issues in the region have often been excluded in the past on this ground, and unsurprisingly, they may also be excluded in the days to come. Moreover, due to the shaky political and economic ties among the nations, most of the SAARC countries try to pursue their expected goals bilaterally avoiding the common goals of the organization.

Thomas Thornton rightfully argued that the success of a regional organization depends significantly on the balanced relations among its members. Due to the lack of balance in power, in most of the cases, SAARC’s achievements are found only on paper. Based on this reality, SAARC appears to be nothing important, just a symbolic organization. Hence, it must not avoid struggling for getting rid of its misery. Nonetheless, SAARC still has the potential to emerge as an efficient and result-producing regional organization, which can be achieved by the common intentions, action plans and the effective implementations of all schemes and projects thereof.

See, for more detailed discussion, Thomas Perry Thornton, Regional Organization in Conflict Management, 518 The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, (1991), p. l36.

19. Selected Bibliography



20. Useful Links