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SAARC’s political will facing test

Financial Express, Bangladesh

SAARC’s political will facing test

By Qazi Azad

28 April 2007

The SAARC countries are now striving to set a uniform product standard for the group after years of complaints by the weaker ones among them about non-acceptance of their national certifications of product quality by their stronger counterparts. It has persistently posed as a difficult non-trade barrier that has obstructed bilateral trade. Clearly, the countries of this regional block are handling a ticklish issue which calls for demonstrating their individual political will.

A two-day meeting of the SAARC Standard Co-ordination Board was held for this purpose in the third week of this month in Dhaka. The meeting of the board comprising representatives of the SAARC countries, was the follow-up of its first meeting, which was held in Katmandu. It reportedly sought to reach an agreement among the SAARC countries on uniform quality standardization within the region and to prepare the draft of the proposed agreement. The meeting also endeavoured to adopt a work-plan for implementing it.

The English proverb that would appropriately fit with this delayed effort of the SAARC countries is: Before marry, be sure of the house wherein to terry. However, it is well known that almost every young man of this country marries first and then looks for the house wherein to terry. So the default of a delayed search for a common product standard long after signing the SAPTA and the SAFTA is in accord with the usual Bangladeshi habit. But the cost of it in terms of lost export opportunities in the absence of the basic rule of serving the primary purpose of the SAARC, as businessmen here have periodically complained, has been quite substantial.

All regional as well as bilateral preferential and free trade agreements usually contain one clause about mutual recognition arrangement (MRA). It binds the parties to any such accord to a pledge to mutually work out an agreement on the equivalence of their individual national certifications about standard of their products. This provision underlines that the parties to a trade accord should be in a position to have unhindered access of their respective export products to the market of every of the partner countries. Weaker economies should prefer to negotiate and agree on this common arrangement prior to signing any such agreement in order to escape the likely embarrassment of being considered as less equals among equals by partners. If so done, it ensures that they would not lose in the operational stage of a trade agreement due to non-acceptance of their certificates about product standard by any or all of the partner countries.

But both the SAPTA and the SAFTA were signed and made operational by this country without agreeing on the MRA. It can be a question now whether this could happen because of lack of foresight of relevant ministries or of the negotiators. Perhaps, one can say, the reversal suffered in the form of trade losses in the absence of the MRA itself is indicative of what led to this grave lapse. The misunderstanding generated among partner countries in the intervening time centering the non-trade barriers can be described as another direct cost of it.

The first meeting of the SAARC Standard Co-ordination Board was held in Katmandu in 2006. The Dhaka meeting, which was its second, is reportedly the last one of 2007. As negotiators of bilateral and regional trade agreements are usually found tardy in completing their tasks, for whatever reason, one may anticipate that the Dhaka meeting was the second of a long series which would find the negotiators flying intermittently from capital to capital within the region, like confounded travellers in a desert chasing a mirage, in their search for ways to agree on the MRA. A differing views of one of them may frustrate the agreement of the rest to keep on the negotiation process. The money loss of each country in purchasing air tickets for its negotiators and in providing them with travelling and daily allowances would be substantial.

The 14th SAARC summit, held early this month in New Delhi, stressed on political will of member countries as a critical factor for advancing the SAARC process. An agreement on the MRA is a critical subject that calls for demonstrating this political will. If there is enough fund of this will in the more advanced SAARC countries, the desired agreement on the MRA and a work-plan on how to implement its various clauses can be worked out in one long meeting within this half of 2007. Would the advanced SAARC partners display it soon to let it happen?

The New Delhi summit spoke about opening investment and service sectors to partners. Prior to opening the service sector, the issue of service-related MRA must be settled. There must be an arrangement under which all academic and professional degrees of a partner— like that of an engineer, physician, nurse, a university degree holder or any other professional, would be recognised by all of the SAARC countries as the equivalent of their degrees.

This arrangement, when worked out, may require to make changes in academic syllabi and training facilities alongside further standardization of teaching in some of the SAARC countries. But every investment on it would bear fruit under the pressure of group race to attain perfection for purpose of successful competition.

The negotiations to take place in this regard will help a member state in discovering its existing weaknesses in a particular area and would encourage it to take immediate actions for overcoming them. Competition on an equal footing is the first ingredient of a level playing field, without which no race is ever perfect.