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Prospects of cooperation and development of a multilateral engagement strategy for the SAARC

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By Dr Srimal Fernando

The SAARC has adopted a somewhat neutral approach in its multilateral engagement strategy. This has enabled the organisation to forge close ties with several multilateral entities across the world including western powers such as the European Union (EU) and US, African nations, and its Asian neighbours. These Regional. blocs from various parts of the world consider the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to be a vital strategic partner due to geostrategic economic and security reasons. This article examines the prospects of cooperation between the SAARC and other blocs from various parts of the world.

Prospects of SAARC’s Engagements with Regional Blocs and Groupings.

In light of the vast economic potential and strategic importance of the South Asian region, there is a mutuality of interest between the SAARC and major western powers such as the EU and the US. Given the various challenges that have faced regional cooperation under the umbrella of the SAARC, the prospects for long-term engagements in various fields with the EU and the US are diverse. SAARC can cooperate with the EU in various fields such as the development of intra-regional trade, capacity training on the establishment of regional institutions.

The SAARC can also benefit from financial and technical assistance for the western world in other fields of cooperation such as food security, energy, and regional communications amongst others. There is also a great potential for trade in services between the SAARC and the western world such as banking, medical services, education, and technology-based services. The scope and opportunities for collaboration between the SAARC and the western world are endless. Notably, the priority areas of cooperation between the SAARC and the western world will mostly relate to economic cooperation, the promotion of human rights, and other aspects of human development.

The Asian neighbourhood is of increasing importance to the SAARC and South Asian countries, especially the Asian neighbours to the east. Over the years, the economic relationship between the SAARC and its neighbours to the east has expanded from being a mere trading partnership to one that also includes free flow of investments.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations, (ASEAN ) has particularly been a priority partner for the SAARC in this regard. This is due to the fact that ASEAN has experienced a higher rate of economic growth compared to other Asian regional organisations and its increasing economic importance is reflected in SAARC’s changing trading patterns with ASEAN.

The importance of Association of Southeast Asian Nations, (ASEAN ) to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) policy of multilateral engagement is attributed to increased trading relations that have been observed between south Asian countries and ASEAN member states in recent years. For example, Sri Lanka has entered into a free trade agreement with Singapore known as the Singapore-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (SLSFTA). India has also signed a free trade agreement with ASEAN, known as the ASEAN-India Free Trade Area (AIFTA). Such developments between ASEAN and the SAARC initiatives will open vast consumer markets and investment opportunities for South Asia nations.

Similarly, Oceania has become an important theatre for the SAARC for several strategic, economic, and geopolitical reasons. Considering the vast economic and geostrategic potential of the Oceania island nations, the SAARC foresees the potential of this region and given the foreign policy priorities aimed at promoting economic growth

The prospects for cooperation between the SAARC and Africa are based on several irrefutable similarities between both regions. Both Africa and the SAARC have a nearly similar pattern of colonial historical factors that have shaped the regions in what they are today. In the contemporary world, both regions also share some common political, economic, and security challenges that have affected the prospects of cooperation amongst countries in the specific regions. In a world that is increasingly becoming interdependent, the potential for establishing new mechanisms for cooperation and forging closer ties between the SAARC and African regional organizations is immense.

Way Forward: A New Strategic Pathway for the SAARC.

SAARC can build coalitions for solving common problems with other regional blocs across the globe. This calls for the adoption of a common strategy for engaging with African regional groupings for cooperation on a wide array of issues. The current dynamics with regard to the global impacts of Coronavirus disease (COVID-19 ) create an opportune time to re-examine the foreign policy engagements and relations between SAARC and East and West Regional blocs Importantly, the stability of the SAARC nations will determine its future in the pursuit of regional continuity, the promotion of South Asian strategic interests, and strengthening the economic prosperity while collaborating with other regional blocs.

 

About the Author:

Dr. Srimal Fernando received his PhD in the area of International Affairs. He was the recipient of the prestigious O.P. Jindal Doctoral Fellowship and SAU Scholarship under the SAARC umbrella. He is also an Adviser/Global Editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa in partnership with Diplomatic World Institute (Brussels). He has received accolades such as 2018/2019 ‘Best Journalist of the Year’ in South Africa, (GCA) Media Award for 2016 and the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) accolade. He is the author of ‘Politics, Economics and Connectivity: In Search of South Asian Union.’



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Opinion

KNDU: MBBS for the rich, crumbs for the poor

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By RAMYA KUMAR

A regular day at work. A medical student, Niluka (not her real name), comes to my office to discuss the presentation she is due to make at a research symposium. In the middle of our meeting she is in tears. Her mother, a single mother, who works as a security guard in remote Polonnaruwa, cannot afford her boarding fees as she has to cover her sister’s A/L tuition classes, as well as her brother’s medicines for a recent health issue. Niluka is unable to focus on her presentation because she is worried about her financial situation. She has a year and half to go.

This is the picture of Free Education that many do not see, of students struggling to make ends meet. Such stories are commonplace at our non-fee levying state universities; as Sumathy Sivamohan wrote recently, “free education does not serve everybody equally, but over the years and across decades, it has come to represent the hope of a vast majority for a better place in society.” However, this aspect of Free Education is obscured by images of protesting students “wasting tax-payers’ money,” constructed by the media in the service of the state. While Colombo-based elites (and others) may be duped into seeing the Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) Bill and military repression as solutions to the problems in higher education, this article explores what the Bill really means, especially its implications for medical education.

No vision, no imagination

Free Education, despite its marginalisations and exclusions, is etched in our nation’s consciousness, so much so that governments have been reluctant to overtly dismantle the public education system. Instead, they have stealthily underfunded the system, while incentivising expansion of private education. With inadequate public investment, the state universities under the UGC are floundering to service demand, while the fee-levying Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) and non-state fee-levying higher educational institutions, such as SLIIT, receive state subsidies to finance infrastructure as well as student loans.

Fee-levying universities are simply not affordable for the vast majority in this country. To flourish, they require public-financing, both for their establishment and for student loans, to make them accessible to the masses. While escalating investment in KDU and private fee-levying universities through public funds, the government has adopted a zero-investment policy for state universities under the UGC and increased admissions by a third, this year. The fallout of increasing admissions without budgetary allocations is most felt by universities in peripheral districts, already running on meagre resources.

A government’s vision for education is inextricably linked with its economic policy. While lacking a credible vision for education, successive governments have been equally unimaginative in attempts to improve the economy. Sri Lanka relies on imports for day-to-day essentials, such as lentils, pulses, and milk, with little investment in agriculture or agro-industries for value addition. Meanwhile, billions of rupees are lost in tax incentives to attract (elusive) foreign direct investment, including in education. The Board of Investment expanded its purview to include the social sector in the 1990s, essentially opening education to the global market. The latter has changed the landscape of education in the country with international schools, private colleges and other higher education institutions proliferating in the decades since, and creating parallel systems of education for students from rich and poor families.

Enter KNDU

Faced by mounting debt, the government is desperately looking for avenues to build up its foreign reserves. In 2019, the incumbent government proposed a “free education investment zone” to attract investment from “top international universities,” with accompanying tax exemptions, yet another scheme to subsidise the private sector through public funding. With COVID-19, the plans for the investment zone fell by the wayside. However, just a few years after the SAITM debacle, the government is once again looking to expand private medical education, this time through the KDU.

In 2019, the incumbent President’s manifesto, which is the government’s policy framework, stated that “steps will be taken to expand the Kotelawala Defence University” (p.22). Why KDU? Because the majority of its students are enrolled on a fee-levying basis through mechanisms outside the UGC’s Z score-based system. Although seemingly catering to the military, a closer look at the statistics presented on the website of KDU’s Faculty of Medicine, indicate that the number of medical students recruited doubled, and then tripled, once the faculty began to enroll “non-military foreign students.” As recruitment was limited to foreign students, albeit loosely defined, KDU did not encounter too much controversy.

The KNDU Bill proposes to build a parallel militarised university system, and alternatively, a change to the Universities Act of 1978 aims to bring KDU under the purview of the UGC, as a university for a “specific purpose.” Clearly, the appeal of KDU and other “specific purpose” universities is not their potential to strengthen Free Education. That these reforms will increase the military’s involvement in higher education has been the focus of debate in recent weeks, but less attention has been paid to their implications for education opportunities for students like Niluka, and their potential impact on medical education.

‘MBBS Kada’

Both the proposed KNDU Bill and the amendment to the Universities Act can be viewed as attempts to create the conditions for the expansion of fee-levying MBBS degree programmes, which have been resisted since the days of NCMC. The KNDU Bill will give legal authority for KNDU to recognise and affiliate other institutions to KNDU, bypassing the UGC as well as the Sri Lanka Medical Council’s minimum standards. The Bill will ultimately result in the proliferation of poorly regulated ‘MBBS kada,’ and a decline in the overall standards of medical education.

Even the Association of Medical Specialists (AMS), a body not averse to private education, has made the following statement regarding the KNDU Bill: “On principle, the AMS is not against quality fee levying medical education…if it is regulated and monitored by the UGC and the Sri Lanka Medical Council. However, lack of proper process and transparency will prevent the establishment of such fee levying institutions in Sri Lanka.”

Could expanding medical education in this manner present opportunities to address problems in the health sector, such as the regional maldistribution of physicians?

First, if KNDU and its affiliates aim to attract international medical students, it is unlikely that these graduates would serve in Sri Lanka.

Second, as the Bill will enable KNDU to admit local students, if we assume the current fee structure of upwards of Rs. 1 million per year for the MBBS programme, the KNDU medical students would represent the elite who are more likely to immigrate to greener pastures.

Third, if the government intends to broad-base MBBS degree programmes, they would need to offer hefty student loans to our students. Evidence from other countries suggests that medical graduates with student loans are more likely to opt for higher paying specialties rather than work in primary care, and less likely to serve in rural areas.

It is therefore unlikely that the KNDU Bill would contribute towards advancing the health sector, except perhaps through its military cadets, who would most likely work for the Ministry of Defence and not the Ministry of Health.

Student loans may have other unintended consequences. Despite private practice being widespread, many doctors, especially women non-specialist doctors, do not engage in private practice. In fact, general doctors from peripheral districts often do return to their districts, although they may remain in urban centres owing to the poor education facilities available to children in remote rural areas. These doctors make up the physician workforce in base hospitals and above, as well as in the preventive sector, in all parts of the country. Having to repay a student loan may drive such doctors to remain in districts, where private practice is more available and lucrative, intensifying the regional maldistribution of physicians.

Crumbs for the poor

What of students like Niluka in the non-fee levying state university system? A quick perusal of the website of KDU’s Faculty of Medicine indicates that brain drain may have already commenced. Imagine the fate of our non-fee levying state medical faculties with the mushrooming of ‘MBBS kada’ across the country? They will inevitably offer higher salaries, as does KDU, attracting without any outlay teachers whose training was subsidised by state universities. Furthermore, as reported in the media, KDU has already seen massive state investment, much of it in its teaching hospital, far beyond investments in any single university or faculty of medicine under the UGC. The fate of medical education at non-fee levying state universities does not need to be spelled out here. With their weakening, the demographics of students who enter medicine are sure to change, with fewer and fewer opportunities for students like Niluka, not to mention the broader implications for medical education and the healthcare system.

Let’s stand together to protect Free Education and Free Medical Education!

 

(The writer is attached to the Department of Community and Family Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Jaffna).

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Opinion

The Prophet discouraged employing domestic servants

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After reading in the newspapers that according to Police Media Spokesperson SDIG Ajith Rohana, 11 women have previously served as domestic servants at ex- Minister Rishad Bathiudeen’s residence, I thought of sharing the following authentic hadith (tradition) of our Prophet (pbuh) with regard to employing domestic servants. Given below is the gist of it.

When the Prophet’s beloved daughter Fathima complained about the unpleasant traces that making dough and kneading it had left on her hands and requested for a servant, his response was  “Shall I not direct you to what is more beneficial for you than having a servant?”

Every night when you go to bed recite 33 times the phrase -‘Subhanallah’ (i.e. ‘Allah is Exalted and clear of imperfection’), 33 times – ‘Al-Hamdu lillah’ ( ‘All praise is due to Allah) and 34 times – ‘Allahu Akbar’ (Allah is the Greatest). —- Source – Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim and Bayhaqi

According to Islamic scholars, a servant is a worldly benefit, but to praise and glorify God in the manner described above will bring the person a greater and everlasting benefit in the Hereafter, and moreover, that by constant recitation one will experience a physical power that will enable him or her to fulfill the household chores more efficiently than a domestic aide.

Now that we have so many “electrical aides” – electric kitchen appliances: blenders/grinders/mixers, fryers, toasters, dish-washers, washing machines, microwave ovens and the list is endless, and with the barrage of allegations (which is now sub judice ) against the ex-Minister, wife and his in laws, isn’t it better that we follow the above prophetic tradition of not employing domestic aides?

MOHAMED ZAHRAN

Colombo

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Opinion

Benefits of rhythmic gymnastics for girls

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To master this sport, a gymnast needs to master the skills and the artistry necessary to win at competitions and attain recognition, even fame.  But why do parents in some countries enthusiastically support this activity, but others, for example Sri Lanka, do not? The exponents of this art are mostly girls, who, when dressed up in costume and make up, can look really fabulous, having photogenic artistry, posture and style. Such photos make wonderful family heirlooms, recalling memories of a youth well spent!

To be successful at competitions, great agility and flexibility of the limbs is required. Therefore, it helps greatly if exercises are started from an early age, perhaps when a girl is four or five. However, she should be warned in advance that stretching leg muscles is painful, because this stretching is essential to move fully and easily and perform well. Training coaches will do this gently, in stages until complete.

Older gymnasts need to master a programme of moves, including pirouettes, rolls and backward flip and so on, usually working with hoops, ribbons, hand clubs and balls, all according to age and progress. If she takes part in circus gymnastics, this also can be a lot of fun.

What are the benefits arising from all this effort in training? The first and most obvious benefit is that the person gains a high level of fitness, which she may keep for years and it will help her keep a youthful shape into middle age. But the one unspoken benefit, and perhaps the greatest of all, is that she will develop an ability to concentrate. This is absolutely needed to enable her to perform the various routines to a high standard.  Then, with improved concentration, she has a very valuable asset which renders her a capable, competent human being, which is of great benefit to the society she lives in.                                                

P. HETTIGE

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