SAARC Social Charter
Detractors of SAARC argue that it has not done much
for South Asia. These cynics compare it with the European Union
and other similar blocs. While SAARC has to climb to that
elevation some day, we cannot expect the region to achieve this
What is encouraging is that SAARC leaders are gradually
proving their detractors wrong by implementing various
collective measures for the benefit of SAARC citizens. One such
initiative is the SAARC Social Charter.
Trade and development are important and SAARC has taken steps
in this regard, but social development is even more important.
This is the aim of the Social Charter.
Sri Lanka on Thursday presented its Action Plan under the
SAARC Social Charter. Sri Lanka does lead South Asia in terms of
many social indices and even comes close to the developed world,
but this does not mean we can rest on our laurels.
In this context, the Government deserves plaudits for
including ambitious targets such as a 25 per cent poverty
reduction and providing drinking water to 80 per cent of the
population by 2010 under the Action Plan.
The targets are to be achieved in the areas of poverty
eradication, population stabilisation, women empowerment, youth
mobilisation, human resource development, promotion of health
and nutrition and the protection of children.
Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayaka has asserted that the
Government has the political will and commitment to reach these
noble goals. The Government’s 10-year vision Mahinda Chinthana
tallies with the SAARC Social Charter and the UN Millennium
There is every possibility that these goals will be achieved
on time, as Sri Lanka’s Human Development Index (HDI) is already
high. Its HDI rank is 99 out of 177 countries.
Impressively, these gains had been made while fighting one of
the world’s most ruthless terrorist groups. The conflict has
sapped our resources and finances, but successive Governments
continued investments in health, education and social welfare.
One can only imagine the potential for social development in
all areas of the country if peace is established. The East is
already witnessing a resurgence and a similar programme has been
envisaged for the North as well. Equitable distribution of
resources and development will be the key to Lanka’s prosperity.
Sri Lanka will be in the SAARC limelight next year as it
hosts the SAARC Heads of State and Government meeting next year.
The SAARC Social Charter and other SAARC activities are likely
to receive a boost under Lanka’s Chairmanship. After all, Sri
Lanka had played a major role in its preparation and adaptation.
Social development must be a priority for all SAARC States.
With one-fifth of the world’s population, SAARC remains a poor
region although some individual countries have made vast strides
Drinking water, sanitary facilities, healthcare, electricity
and education are still out of reach for millions of people in
the region. Granting them access to these facilities will be a
Herculean task and some SAARC economies cannot cope with the
required financial allocations.
Eradicating poverty can thus be seen as a major challenge
confronting SAARC. Sri Lanka’s Samurdhi and Bangladesh’s Grameen
Credit programme are two initiatives which have helped the poor
to extricate themselves from the poverty trap. The poor need to
be made self-reliant, not dependent on handouts.
Women and children are marginalised in some SAARC countries,
much to the detriment of their future. The emancipation of these
two sectors is vital if SAARC is to prosper.
It is through education that SAARC can hope to become a force
to be reckoned with in the world in the generations to come.
Empowering women, politically and socially, is also essential.
Further integration should be a priority for SAARC, so that
existing social disparities can be collectively addressed. A
SAARC-wide free trade agreement is being implemented.
Likewise, SAARC needs to think seriously on the possibility
of having a common currency and ‘borderless’ movement of goods
and people. There is already a proposal for a SAARC railway
system and a call for more ferry services and flights to
increase people-to-people contact.
Eight countries, one goal: Equality and prosperity for all in
South Asia. With the Social Charter, SAARC has taken the first
step in that direction. The challenge now is to deliver the
goods on target.
SAARC will not fail in this endeavour if the political
leadership in individual countries strive to achieve the
ambitious goals in line with their own development programmes.
If there’s a will, there’s a way.