ESCAP proposes Master Plan to strengthen connectivity in South and South-West Asia

Poor transport connectivity has been identified as a barrier holding back the potential of South and South-West Asian countries to advance their development and regional economic integration, according to participants in the Policy Dialogue on Strengthening Transport Connectivity among countries of South and South West Asia, held in Dhaka from 26-27 June 2013.

Organized by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific (ESCAP), in collaboration with the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS), the policy dialogue included participants representing governments, business organizations and other stakeholders of eight countries within South and South-West Asia, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Nepal, Pakistan and Turkey. Representatives from the secretariats of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), the World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB), AusAid, and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) also participated.

Delivering opening remarks at the inaugural session, chaired by BIISS Chair, Ambassador Munshi Faiz Ahmad, ESCAP Chief Economist Dr. Nagesh Kumar said that “The South and South-West Asian sub-region is still better connected with Europe and North America than with itself. As a result, trade costs are high and benefits of geographical proximity and contiguity are not available to intra-regional trade in the region”. The participants agreed that enhancing transport connectivity was essential for economic and trade development, closing development gaps, economic and social integration, and enhancing competitiveness. A consensus was also reached on the vital importance of transport connectivity as a means to harness the benefits of regional cooperation.

In his keynote address at the inaugural session of the Policy Dialogue, Economic Affairs Adviser to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Dr. Mashiur Rahman emphasized the “need for connectivity in the context of long-term cooperation among South and South-West Asian countries, to advance progress towards a common economic space”. Dr. Rahman also made the case for large cross-border investment in relatively smaller economies.

Missing links on road and rail networks, substandard cross-border infrastructure, and a number of non-physical barriers, continue to impede cross-border and transit transport in South and South-West Asia. The experts felt that determination of transit fees, security and smuggling concerns, and lack of mutual trust, have also been significant causes of perception biases which have slowed progress towards seamless connectivity within the sub-region. This in turn would further impede connectivity with other sub-regions in Asia-Pacific and beyond.

Addressing the inaugural session, Defence Adviser to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Gen. Tarique Ahmed Siddique, said that there was a consensus that “facilitation of connectivity could further promote economic development within the sub-region”. He added that a “psychological barrier was preventing further regional connectivity” and that it needed to be addressed.

To deal with the multi-dimensional challenges for transport connectivity, the experts expressed their full support for the ESCAP proposal to develop a Master Plan for the sub-region, in consultation with all relevant stakeholders. They further suggested that momentum created by the dialogue should be sustained to enhance transport connectivity to benefit all people in the sub-region.

Delivering his remarks at the concluding session of the dialogue, International Affairs Adviser to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Professor Gowher Rizvi, invited ESCAP to play an important role in strengthening regional connectivity through a policy campaign in support of, and in preparation of the Master Plan, among other initiatives.

In his closing remarks, Dr. Kumar noted that ESCAP plans to organize similar policy dialogues in a number of countries, to advance the agenda of transport connectivity in South and South-West Asia.

The policy dialogue was jointly organized by the New Delhi-based South and South-West Asia Office of ESCAP (ESCAP-SSWA) and the ESCAP Transport Division based in Bangkok, Thailand in collaboration with the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS).