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Make Trade, Not War in South Asia: Toward Regional Integration

Elizabeth Howton's picture

Can economics trump politics in South Asia, a region fragmented by decades of strife? Will greater regional cooperation and lowering barriers to trade bring harmony along with economic growth?

Those were the questions on the table Thursday as a panel from across the region discussed “Breaking Down Barriers: A New Dawn in Trade and Regional Cooperation in South Asia.”

Most panelists expressed optimism about trade’s pacifying abilities. Moderator Barkha Dutt, an Indian television journalist, opined that “What trade does, in its very ordinariness, is modulate the emotions.” Teresita Schaffer, former U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka, agreed that “Trade can provide another conversation… and provide reasons why rivalries should not be allowed to get out of hand.”

But which comes first, the chicken or the egg? asked another panelist, Nepali journalist Kanak Dixit. Clearly, he said, it’s the chicken (commerce), because other things have been tried and have not worked. He said that “chicken” will lay two “eggs”: peace and prosperity.

Others were not so sanguine, pointing out the formidable barriers that have made South Asia the least integrated region in the world. World Bank Vice President for South Asia Isabel Guerrero, who introduced the panel, pointed out that unlike many other regions of the world, there are no large-scale power-sharing agreements in South Asia, though some smaller ones are under way, including an India-Nepal power line funded by the Bank.

Ultimately, said panelist Gowher Rizvi, director of the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation, “Trade is like the ballast in the ship – it keeps it on balance. But the ship needs politics to make it go.”

The panel was one of three events sponsored by the South Asia vice presidential unit during the Bank’s spring meetings. The first, “Leveraging Partnership and Technology to Promote Equity in South Asia,” gave a sneak preview of the region’s next flagship report.

The final event, “Pakistan: The Untold Story,” will feature panelists including Pakistan’s finance minister, Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, and ambassador to the United States, Sherry Rehman. It will be Monday, April 23 at 9 a.m. in room I 2-250, at 1850 I St. NW. An RSVP is required to gain admittance to the building.