SAARC -South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation | SAARC Countries, Objectives and Functions

By Shubhra Anand Jain|Updated : November 2nd, 2022

SAARC stands for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. SAARC is an economic and political organisation of eight countries in South Asia. SAARC was formed in 1985 with Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan as the heads who adopted the charter formally. Afghanistan joined as the 8th member of SAARC in 2007.

The headquarters and secretariat of the SAARC are in Kathmandu, Nepal. The main objective of SAARC is to promote economic growth, social progress and cultural development within the South Asia region. SAARC also aims to promote the welfare of the people; accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development; and strengthen collective self-reliance. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation also seeks to contribute to mutual trust and understanding among the member countries.

Table of Content

What is SAARC?

SAARC is the acronym for South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, which was established on December 8, 1985, when eight countries – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal, and India signed the sharp charter in Dhaka.

  • The SAARC headquarters are located in Kathmandu, Nepal. 
  • Mr Weerakoon, a Sri Lankan diplomat, is the 14th Secretary-General of the SAARC. He assumed charge in March 2020.

SAARC summits are usually held biennially and hosted by member states in alphabetical order. The member state hosting the summit assumes the Chair of the Association.

South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation Highlights

for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) for the IAS Exam preparation. 

SAARC Full Form

South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation

SAARC Established 

On December 8 1985, in Dhaka, Bangladesh

SAARC Countries

8 Countries – India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Pakistan.

Observers SAARC Members

9 Observers – Australia, European Union (E.U), Iran, Japan, Mauritius, South Korea, United States of America (USA), China, Myanmar.

SAARC Headquarters

Kathmandu, Nepal

SAARC Structure - Important Bodies

South Asian University (SAU) – India

South Asian Regional Standards Organization (SARSO) – Dhaka

SAARC Development Fund (SDF) – Bhutan

SAARC Arbitration Council (SARCO) – Pakistan

1st Secretary General of SAARC

Abul Ahsan (Bangladesh)

Current Secretary-General of SAARC

Esala Ruwan Weerakoon (Sri Lanka) – Took office from 1st March 2020.

Last SAARC Member

Afghanistan (April 2007)

Last SAARC Summit

19th SAARC Summit in Pakistan (Cancelled)

SAARC - Latest News 

Over the years, SAARC has strived to promote economic collaboration, cultural cooperation, and technological development in the South Asia region.

Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, a Coronavirus Emergency Fund was set up by the SAARC member countries to mitigate the risks associated with the pandemic in the South Asian region. This was done in March 2020 during a video conference of the SAARC Heads of State.

India led the SAARC member countries in the fight against the pandemic and hosted a virtual health-secretary-level meeting with the member nations on February 18 2021, to discuss the Covid-19 crisis. It also contributed Covid vaccines to several member nations.

In today's era, as the world is undergoing a major change in every aspect, regional associations are fast becoming an important and effective stage for political and economic interaction. Nations' regional, political, and religious blocks now provide platforms for several countries to exert power in global affairs. SAARC strives to attain sustainable economic growth by respecting territorial integrity, sovereign equality, and national independence.

SAARC

History of SAARC 

The concept of regional, political, and economic cooperation in South Asia was first conceived in 1980. Though the idea was discussed in three major conferences (the Asian Relations Conference, the Baguio Conference, and the Colombo Powers Conference) between 1947 and 1954, Ziaur Rahman (the ex-President of Bangladesh) made a formal proposal on May 2 1980, to establish SAARC.

  • In 1985, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was founded in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The SAARC aimed to promote economic activities and alleviate poverty in South Asia.
  • The SAARC was formed under Article 52 of the United Nations Charter.
  • It provided regional arrangements or agencies for dealing with matters related to maintaining international peace and security.
  • SAARC has been dormant for several years due to regional tensions; tangible measures have been taken to fight against the ongoing viral outbreak.

The SAARC member countries differ greatly in land area, GDP (Gross Domestic Product), and population, although they share a similar human and economic development level. They also share an unusual feature of having a common border with another member country.

Functions of SAARC

The functions of SAARC, as defined in its charter, are as follows:

  • To promote the welfare of the South Asian population by improving their quality of life.
  • It helps boost economic growth, cultural development, and social progress and allows everyone to live their life with full dignity and potential.
  • To strengthen and promote the concept of self-sustenance among South Asian countries.
  • To help the member countries develop coordination and cooperation with other developing countries.

SAARC Countries

During SAARC's foundation, seven SAARC countries are mainly located in South Asia, i.e. India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Maldives, and Sri Lanka. 

  • Afghanistan became its eighth member in April 2007 at the SAARC's 14th summit.
  • SAARC is a grouping modelled on the European Union that came into being in the mid-1980s – but has little to show for itself by way of regional or economic integration.

There are 8 founding members and 9 observer members of the SAARC:

Founding SAARC Members

The 8 founding members are-

  1. India
  2. Afghanistan
  3. Bangladesh
  4. Bhutan
  5. Nepal
  6. Pakistan
  7. Sri Lanka
  8. The Maldives

Observer SAARC Member Countries

There are currently nine Observers of SAARC, namely:

  1. Australia
  2. China
  3. EU
  4. Japan
  5. Mauritius
  6. Iran
  7. Republic of Korea
  8. Myanmar
  9. The United States

The SAARC region lies in the southern Himalayas, surrounded by the Hindu Kush mountains. The SAARC region is a landmass of 3.3 % of the world and has one-fifth of the population. The present SAARC countries can be categorized into different groups.

  • Land-locked countries (3) – Bhutan, Nepal, and Afghanistan
  • Islands countries (2)- Sri Lanka and the Maldives
  • India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which have the Indian Ocean in the South and South West and the Indo-Gangetic plains stretching along with these countries

Principles of SAARC

The cooperation within the framework of the SAARC states that:

  • The principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, non-interference in the affairs of other states, and political independence are to be respected.
  • Bilateral and multilateral cooperation is not to be replaced by such corporations, but it should be a component of their own.
  • Such corporations won't be inconsistent with multilateral and bilateral obligations.

Objectives of SAARC

The organization aims to promote economic growth, social progress, and cultural development in South Asia. Each decision taken by SAARC and every policy framed by it is guided by the overall objectives it had set for itself in the charter. Following are the SAARC Objectives and Functions as defined in its charter:

  • To improve the quality of life of people in South Asia.
  • Providing every individual with the opportunity to live with dignity and fulfil their potential by accelerating regional economic growth and cultural development and maintaining social progress.
  • To strengthen and promote South Asia's collective self-reliance.
  • To improve mutual trust and understanding among the member countries and appreciate the solution to the problems.
  • Actively promote mutual assistance and cooperation in the economy, society, technology, and culture.
  • Boost cooperation with other developing nations.
  • Build up cooperation among themselves in international forums on matters of common interest.
  • Cooperate with international and regional organizations having common aims and objectives.

Structure of SAARC

The member countries of SAARC have collectively constituted four specialised bodies of SAARC. The following are the specialised bodies of SAARC-

  • SAARC Arbitration Council- Pakistan: This is an intergovernmental body based in Pakistan to perform legal work within the region to provide a fair settlement of industrial trade, commercial banking, or any other dispute.
  • SAARC development fund- Bhutan is a Bhutan-based funding body whose primary purpose is to fund collaborations in social sectors like development and poverty reduction.
  • South Asian University- India: The South Asian University is situated in India, where the South Asian University awards degrees and certificates.
  • South Asian Regional Standard Organisation- Dhaka: The South Asian regional standards organisation is based in Dhaka. It was established to enhance and achieve cooperation and coordination among the member countries to develop harmony within the region to facilitate inter-regional trade and access to the global market.

Specialized Body

Location

Country

SAARC Arbitration Council (SARCO)

Islamabad

Pakistan

SAARC Development Fund (SDF)

Thimphu

Bhutan

South Asian University (SAU)

New Delhi

India

South Asian Regional Standards Organization (SARSO)

Dhaka

Bangladesh

Achievements of SAARC

SAARC is accredited with the following achievements of launching:

  • SAARC Agreement on Trade in Services (SATIS): SATIS is following the GATS-plus' positive list' approach for trade in services liberalization.
  • SAARC University: Establish a SAARC university in India, a food bank and an energy reserve in Pakistan.
  • SAPTA: South Asia, the Preferential Trading Agreement for promoting trade among member countries came into effect in 1995.
  • SAFTA: A South Asia Free Trade Agreement confined to goods but excluding all services like information technology was signed to reduce customs duties of all traded goods to zero by 2016.
  • Free Trade Area (FTA): The member countries have established a Free Trade Area (FTA), which will increase their internal trade and considerably lessen some states' trade gap.

Importance of SAARC

As the largest regional cooperation organization, SAARC's importance in stabilizing and effectively transforming the region is becoming increasingly self-evident. Other than this, SAARC holds the following importance:

  • The SAARC is a very important body as it consists of 21% of the world's population, 3% of the world's area, and 3.8% of the global economy, equal to 2.9 trillion US dollars.
  • There is a synergy among the member countries of SAARC as they have some common grounds in tradition, dress, food, and political viewpoints.
  • SAARC countries have very c problems, like poverty, technology, backwardness, illiteracy, malnutrition, employment, industrial backwardness, poor GDP, socioeconomic conditions, etc. These can be sorted at this level by welcoming some common solutions provided by the member countries.
  • SAARC has significantly contributed to the development of civil society and track-two initiatives.
  • SAARC members are among the top troop-contributing countries to UN peacekeeping missions. With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, a joint peacekeeping force from the SAARC region under the UN aegis could be explored to fill the power vacuum that terrorist and extremist forces would otherwise fill.

Importance of SAARC for India

SAARC holds a geostrategic significance for India. It can counter China's OBOR initiative by engaging Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka in the development process and economic cooperation. It offers India a platform to showcase its leadership in the region by taking up extra responsibilities.

SAARC will be a game-changer for India's Act East Policy. Linking South Asian economies with South-East Asia will bring further economic integration and prosperity to India, mainly focusing on the services Sector. SAARC will thus provide primacy to the country's immediate neighbours and help create mutual trust and peace within the region.

SAARC's Impact on the Indian Economy

SAARC countries and most people residing there depend on agriculture. They often have poor education, lack science and technology, and suffer from overpopulation.

  • The agriculture-based economy is likely to persist and dominate in years to come for the SAARC countries. The economic development model revolves around food for the growing population, fodder for livestock, raw material and market for industries are likely to remain the main market goods.
  • Most of the SAARC countries depend on developed countries for aid and trade. In this regard, the South Asian Free Trade Association (SAFTA) came into operation on January 1, 2006.
  • SAFTA aims to remove trade barriers, establishment of a ministerial-level mechanism for administering the treaty, the phased elimination of tariffs and dispute settlement among SAARC countries.
  • The exchange of mutual goods among the SAARC countries is more relevant, cheap, and cost-effective. This provides vast scope for mutual cooperation in various areas. 

SAARC Development Fund (SDF) 

The SAARC Development Fund is separate from that announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a video conference with the heads of government of all South Asian countries. 

  • The SDF was constituted in April 2010 by the heads of the eight SAARC Member States.
  • The fund will be utilized for-
  1. used for poverty alleviation
  2. social development focusing on education
  3. health
  4. human resource development
  5. support to a vulnerable or disadvantaged segment of society
  6. funding needs of communities
  7. micro-enterprises and rural infrastructure development

The SDF Secretariat is based in Thimphu. It is mandated to build regional integration and economic cooperation through project funding in all the eight SAARC Member States through its Economic, Infrastructure, and Social segments. Currently, SDF is implementing 90 projects in SAARC member states under its three funding windows with a total commitment of $198.24 million. 

Challenges to SAARC

The first and most important challenge that SAARC is facing is the continuous tensions between India and Pakistan over the issue of Kashmir, which is directly hampering the likelihood of SAARC. Other than this, other challenges include:

  • The annual meeting frequency of SAARC is considerably low. Ideally, the members of SAARC should get engaged on a common platform at least twice annually.
  • Because of the broad range of cooperation, energy and resources get diverted.
  • There has been a lack of satisfactory implementation of the SAARC free trade agreement.

SAARC UPSC 

SAARC holds importance in the international relations and Current Affairs section of the UPSC Exam. Both UPSC Prelims and UPSC Mains focus on SAARC. It is dealt with in GS Paper 2 of the Mains exam, and the UPSC Mains Syllabus clearly defines international institutions' importance.

To cover the topic of SAARC, one must go through the NCERT Books for UPSC and the basic UPSC Books. When a solid and firm foundation is established, a candidate must refer to the International Relations Books for UPSC to get a complete overview and critical analysis of the topic.

SAARC UPSC Prelims Sample Question

Question: Consider the following statements.

  1. The first SAARC Summit was held in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
  2. 20 SAARC Summits have been held to date.
  3. As of 20:15, SAARC comprises 3% of the world's area, 3.8% of the global economy and 21% of the world's population.
  4. 20th SAARC Summit was held in New Delhi

Which of the statements above is NOT correct?

  1. A) 1 only
  2. B) 2 and 3 only
  3. C) 4 only
  4. D) None of the above

Answer: Option C

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FAQs on (SAARC) South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation

  • The present secretary-general of SAARC is H.E. Esala Ruwan Weerakoon, from Sri Lanka, since March 1, 2020.

  • SAARC stands for South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. The motto of the SAARC organization is 'Deeper Integration for Peace and Prosperity. SAARC is a regional intergovernmental organization of countries in South Asia to promote social-economic development.

  • The SAARC was founded by Mr. Ziaur Rahman, who was the Pharma President of Bangladesh and dedicated to social, cultural, economic, and technological development.

  • India is the founding member of SAARC and is of great significance to it. The prime role of India in SAARC is to establish an interconnection between the South Asian countries, with the aim of promoting development among all the countries in the South Asian region.

  • The Headquarters of SAARC is in Kathmandu, Nepal.

  • The SAARC logo shows two hands joining together. There are seven doves in between the two hands. The two hands symbolize friendship and goodwill. Seven doves represent the seven-member nations seeking peace.

  • The emblem of SAARC consists of seven pigeons held in two hands. It is the symbol of unity, peace, and respect among the seven SAARC member countries.

  • To download the SAARC UPSC Notes PDF, refer here. Candidates must cover SAARC in detail for the upcoming UPSC Exams as it holds an important place both in the Prelims and Mains.

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