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Regional Cooperation on Trade, Climate Change and Food Security in South Asia

A two-day seminar on Regional cooperation on trade, climate change and food security in South Asia: Some reflections and way forward was organized by South Asia Watch on Trade Economics and Environment (SAWTEE) in collaboration with Oxfam and Swedish Standards Institute (SIS) in Kathmandu on 13-14 March 2014. Experts from various South Asian countries underlined the need for regional cooperation to expedite trade, address climate change concerns and overcome food insecurity at the two-day seminar.

Addressing the inaugural session of the seminar, Dr. Dinesh Bhattarai, Advisor to the Prime Minister of Nepal, reiterated that increasing intra-regional trade is essential to accelerate economic growth in South Asia. He highlighted that given South Asias vulnerability to climate change impacts, well-coordinated efforts at national, regional and global levels are necessary.

Mr. Shanker Das Bairagi, Officiating Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Nepal, highlighted the need to promote more investment in agriculture to address food insecurity. He also stressed that SAFTA should expedite work to address non-tariff barriers (NTBs) for significant progress has already been made in reducing tariffs and eliminating quantitative restrictions. Mr. Bairagi urged the participants to provide informed inputs to strengthen regional cooperation in South Asia, which will be taken by the 18th SAARC Summit to be held in Kathmandu in November.

As the Chair of the session, Dr. Posh Raj Pandey, Executive Chairman, SAWTEE, appreciated the positive developments that have taken place in South Asia over the past few years, mainly in terms of increasing economic growth and reducing poverty. However, true potential of regional cooperation is yet to be realized. Mr. Puspa Sharma, Research Director, SAWTEE stressed the need to prioritize food security, while highlighting that non-operationalization of the SAARC Food Bank is a testament to the regions lack of concern over growing food insecurity.

In the first working session, participants discussed about the role of Aid for Trade (AfT) and the Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF) in providing assistance and support to least-developed countries (LDCs), including in South Asia, for the implementation of trade facilitation measures and commitments under the Trade Facilitation Agreement of the WTO. Dr. Ratnakar Adhikari, Executive Director of the EIF Secretariat in Geneva highlighted that at present, nearly 82 percent of the total AfT funding for trade facilitation in South Asia is concentrated in Afghanistan, and therefore, there is a need to increase and diversify the funding to other South Asian countries. In the following session, participants highlighted the decisions taken at the 9th WTO Ministerial in Bali that relate to agriculture and food security. In particular, the discussion focused on the declaration on public stockholding for food security and its impact on South Asian countries.

In the third session, participants dwelled upon the issue of non-operationalization of the SAARC Food Bank, and viewed that the mechanism, as it exists, is more beneficial for the smaller economies of the region. However, even to make it work for them, there is a need to make changes in some of the operational procedures. Subsequently, a draft paper on “Developing Regional Transit in South Asia: An Empirical Investigation” was presented. The paper aims to assess potential gains of a regional transit arrangement and removal of trade barriers at the border in South Asia. The paper received very useful feedback from the participants, which will be incorporated to improve it further.

The second day of the seminar focused on the issue of climate change in South Asia, agriculture adaptation practices in South Asia and the importance of standardization to promote inter- and intra-regional trade. Talking about regional cooperation on climate change, the effectiveness and implementation of the “Thimphu Statement on Climate Change” was thoroughly discussed, and discussants exchanged views regarding the importance of climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts in the region. In this regard, participants stressed the need to exploit available funding sources such as the SAARC Development Fund, which thus far has not received any proposal directed towards addressing climate change in South Asia.

In another session, various agriculture adaptation practices in South Asia, mainly in India and Sri Lanka, were presented. Discussants and participants stressed the need to bridge the existing gap between knowledge of adaptation practices and the implementation of such known practices. Many also expressed the need to share such adaptation practices among SAARC Member countries, while working to make farmers climate smart.

With regard to standardization, a comprehensive presentation was made on the topic of standardization, its methodology and the benefits of standardization in trade promotion. Discussants and participants were of the view that technical barriers to trade were a major trade impediment in South Asia, and thus there is a need to fully harmonize standards among the countries in the region. Some participants also stressed the need to consider the possible impacts and the practicality of standardization. They argued that since many businesses in South Asian countries lack the resources needed to meet high standards, standardization might force many businesses in South Asia to shut down.

In the closing session, Mr. Scott Faiia, Country Director of Oxfam GB in Nepal appreciated SAWTEE’s work and the collaboration SAWTEE has had with Oxfam to work on areas such as farmers’ rights, food security, trade, climate change, among others. Additionally, he encouraged the participants to actively advocate on the range of issues discussed in the seminar. Without advocacy, all the research and discussions will be fruitless, he stressed.

Future work agenda for regional cooperation on trade, climate change and food security in South Asia were also discussed in the closing session.  

About 50 participants from different South Asian countries, representing governments, civil society, private sector, academia and the media participated in the seminar.

Programme Agenda

Programme Report

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