Implacable Failures of the SAARC

Implacable Failures of the SAARC

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The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is one of the major regional organizations operating today. It occupies a land area greater than the EU and ASEAN, and enjoys superiority in terms of population over the two. In terms of GDP, it stands second to the EU. SAARC was set up by a Bangladeshi initiative in the 1980s. India and Pakistan, the two largest powers of SAARC were initially very suspicious of the organization. However, they too were to later join SAARC.

SAARC enjoys several advantages that boost its significance. It is home to approximately 22.5% of the world’s population; this gives it an edge over more successful organisations such as the Although it has a large source of human capital, it is marred by high levels of illiteracy, poverty and unemployment.


South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation 1,467,255,669
European Union 500,900,000
ASEAN 558,812,200


It is a regional organization that gives its participants a platform to interact. It is a wholly indigenous project not introduced by an outside power and this makes the regional forum free of foreign interference. Unlike the European Union and the ASEAN which were formulated as US-aided, localized resistances to outside hegemons like Russia and China, SAARC came into being out of a genuine need for regional integration. It has survived numerous disputes between its two leading member states India and Pakistan, and boasts a concentrated focus on socio-economic development. However, despite such promising statistics, SAARC appears to be failing in its stated aim. It came into being to promote intraregional connectivity through trade but intra-SAARC trade stands at a meagre 5%.

It came into being to promote intraregional connectivity through trade but intra-SAARC trade stands at a meagre 5%.

Despite its existence since the 1980s, SAARC has been unable to achieve its objects due to several reasons. It has not been able to increase trade between the member states despite the promulgation of SAFTA or the South Asian Free Trade Agreement. Many of the SAARC members’ largest trade partner is not a fellow South Asian nation but the People’s Republic of China. SAARC has been unable to implement its plans for regional welfare leaving much of the population in adverse socioeconomic conditions. The region is home to the world’s 400 million poor people, which means nearly 30 per cent of the region’s population lives below the poverty line. All the SAARC countries have a rather low ranking on the human development index (HDI), which according to the Human Development Report 2016 is: Sri Lanka (73), the Maldives (104), India (130), Bhutan (132), Pakistan (147), Bangladesh (142), and Nepal (145). The HDI ranking is based on achievements in terms of life expectancy, education, and real income. The low HDI ranking reflects poorly on these vital indicators in the region. Tensions between member states leaves space for external powers to intervene in South Asian politics.

The region is home to the world’s 400 million poor people, which means nearly 30 per cent of the region’s population lives below the poverty line. All the SAARC countries have a rather low ranking on the human development index (HDI)

It can be asserted that much of the SAARC’s failures are rooted in a variety of reasons which are listed below.

1. Internal Threat

SAARC, as stated before, was a wholly indigenous project and not initiated by a foreign power. It was also not caused by the menace of an outside hegemonic power. However, the bitter reality is that the hegemon is not outside the SAARC but inside it. India is the largest member of SAARC and dominates the South Asian region due to its size and population. It borders nearly every landed member except for Afghanistan and is the nearest to the island members of Sri Lanka and Maldives.

This makes India the local hegemon or the “core state” in the words of Barry Buzan. India has used its power to forward its hegemonic designs often at the expense of the SAARC. The recent postponement of the Islamabad SAARC conference through Indian machinations is an example of how SAARC has paid the price for Indian ambitions.

2. Indo Pak Inertia

While SAARC has survived the various Indo-Pak crises it has not escaped the ill effects of the enmity between its two largest states. The tensions between the two leading powers of South Asia have caused great damage to SAARC, often stunting its growth and development. The lingering Kashmir dispute has become a great obstacle in its path to progress as complications arising from Indo-Pak tensions tend to have a negative impact on the organization. Other issues like Sir Creek and Indo-Pak mistrust often hamper efforts for greater regional integration.

3. Focus on Socio-Economic Development

SAARC was developed as a platform with a deep focus on socio-economic development. All contentions and bilateral issues between member states are not discussed in the SAARC. Its share in the global GDP is less than 3 per cent. The poor trade performance of SAARC stands in marked contrast with that of the neighbouring regional alliance – the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). The ASEAN countries account for merely 8.4 per cent of the total world population. However, their share in total world trade is nearly 7 per cent. ASEAN’s contribution to Asia’s total trade is 23 per cent.

This was asserted to be a boon but has instead become a bane. The incapability of SAARC to provide a platform for conflict resolution has become its greatest weakness. As low politics is a domain exclusive to the SAARC, it is often held hostage by high politics which in turn weakens its performance.

4. Lack of Connectivity

The lack of connectivity among member states is another weakness of the SAARC. This ties in with the lack of a proper infrastructure of member states. This infrastructure deficit in turn leads to reduced connectivity among the SAARC nations. South Asia needs to invest up to $2.5 trillion to bridge its infrastructure gap over the next ten years, says a 2014 World Bank report. Women, the poor, and marginalized social groups are particularly affected by the region’s infrastructure gap.


In the end it can be concluded that while SAARC has had a lot of significance, a variety of internal issues have led to an undermining of its effectiveness and performance. It is vital for the region that the organisation is strengthened. Whatever the flaws of the SAARC so far may be, it is the only platform where the local leaders meet and discuss issues of a region containing 1.6 billion people. It is up to the SAARC leaders to work together for a developed, peaceful and prosperous South Asia.

Jawad Falak
is an M. Phil scholar in the discipline of International Relations at the NDU. Previously he has attained a Gold medal in M.Sc IR and wrote a thesis on the evolution of Militant Hindutva. He is also an ACCA member. Currently Jawad looks after the academics of the CSCR.

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