As Former President of Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry as well as Former Chairman of SITE Association of Industry and as Founder of a few Bilateral Forums, I often assess the contributions of my elders and my peers who are business leaders. When I interact with business leaders of other countries and discuss their roles, I am convinced that we are potent stakeholders who should play a decisive and exemplary role in spearheading sustainable economic development, atleast among the regional nations.
What is the role of the business leadership in ushering in sustainable economic development through a focused and cooperative approach? How to effectively channelize the critical mass that regional trade organizations have into regional economic prosperity? The ground reality, disappointedly, is far different from the steps taken by business leadership to be Track II motivators and lead performers. Thus, as a representative of trade and industry, I offer a mea culpa, as I am of the opinion that business leaders have not been as pro-active as their position and status accords them and that they have not been successful in bringing about fundamental changes in the policies of their respective governments, bureaucracy and even judiciary.
Trade organizations have been, by and large, transformed into personal fiefdoms of many leaders in the same manner like most of the political parties who have adopted dynastic succession modes, whose leaders have become cult personalities, or who have cliques that tightly control the organizations' activities and policies. The stranglehold over these is primarily responsible for the ineffectiveness of most of these organizations. I shall highlight a few of these organizations and would restrict myself to the regional scenario.
SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry is composed of trade representatives of all eight SAARC nations. The Headquarter is based in Islamabad and the President's office is rotated among the member countries. SAARC CCI was touted as the focal point for promoting, protecting, and presenting the interests of the SAARC private sector. Well and good. SAARC CCI held elections, organized conclaves and seminars in various cities, and prepared studies and reports for members as well as policymakers. It was instrumental in getting approval for SAARC visas that were issued to designated applicants. Pakistan's quota was 100 visas. This multiple-entry, one-year visa enabled the holder to travel to SAARC countries without additional paperwork or bothersome immigration requirements. However, what actually transpired was that 80 to 85% of the visas were issued to the same people who dominate and who may or may not be doing bilateral trade with other SAARC countries. The ruling elite in each country seldom accommodated genuine businessmen.
Despite the significance of SAARC CCI, the bare fact is that the leadership succumbed to the dictates and dynamics of the political, bureaucratic, and military exigencies and thus gradually lost its effective importance. One unbearable reason is that there is only a facade of synergy, in short, more talk than action about cooperation, harmony and mutual understanding of issues. The policymakers rarely accept the decisions taken at various conclaves and thus pragmatic solutions are waylaid and, even if accepted by the regional political leadership, are seldom implemented.
The efforts of the private sector are further hampered by the lack of seriousness in working towards attaining an all-inclusive regional economic integration program that would lead towards a common approach in assuring sustainable development of the South Asian nations. It is widely accepted that this region is the least integrated region in the world. The attitude is focused on self-benefits rather than combining resources and experiences for the overall development of all the countries.
The South Asian region has severe energy deficiencies, high poverty figures, escalating cross-border conflicts, and demanding domestic constraints and pressures that have ensued into an environment of distrust and disharmony. While the political and military establishments are engrossed in their own spheres, the onus of ushering in sanity should have been on the economic stakeholders, that is, the business and industry leadership.
The global dynamics are in a rapid changing mode. Regional economic blocs are integrating their economies and finding workable and acceptable solutions to their contentious issues among themselves. This development has enabled the countries in these regional blocs to address the myriad domestic and international dimensions both individually or from a common platform. ASEAN, EU, NAFTA, MERCOSUR, SCO, etc are vivid examples. SAARC regional bloc is oscillating between a stagnant level and a diminishing course. The concept of shared challenges is unheard of within SAARC.
The past few years witnessed a flurry of activity in the normalization process of Indo-Pak trade and investment relations. The signals emanating out of the trade bodies as well as from political corridors were encouraging and positive. The two Prime Ministers, Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif, were known as corporate oriented and both desired trade normalization. This gave impetus to the private sector leadership to strike while the iron was hot. At this present moment in time, although Indo-Pak bilateral trade is moving along supplemented by an increase in informal trade, the business leadership have become silent spectators or have retreated into their shells. There are no revolutionary initiatives under consideration and thus no apparent advancement in removal of Non-Tariff Trade Barriers, granting of Non-Discriminatory Market Access by Pakistan to India, no progress in issuing licenses to banks to set up branches across the border, no modalities of allowing investment in each other's countries, and no concrete steps to reduce informal trade. At the same time, the India Pakistan Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry has become dormant, the India-Pakistan Joint Business Council has lost its luster, the Mumbai-Karachi Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry is just on paper, and there are no delegations from FPCCI, FICCI, CII or local Pakistani and Indian Chambers.
Over in Afghanistan, President Ashraf Ghani was billed as an economic czar and his initial pronouncements were directed towards peaceful co-existence and economic deliverance. Another grand opportunity for business leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nevertheless, when events became unsettling for the political governments in each of these countries, the back-pedaling commenced and camaraderie was hijacked while menacing rhetorical outbursts became the common every day event. This was the moment for private sector, especially Pakistan Afghanistan Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Pakistan Afghanistan Joint Business Council to catch the bull by its horns. The depressing truth is that the private sector leadership became invisible bystanders rather than strategic participants who could have rallied the decision makers by becoming active anchors instead of passive players.
There is still a vacuum that needs to be filled, and it is high time the dormant regional business leadership shapes up, wakes up, and sheds double standards and hypocrisy. Business leaders of South Asia have to make an immediate paradigm shift. They have to stress their role as prime stakeholders. They have to persistently lobby not only with their own political governments but also from a joint platform to reduce tension, to create harmony, and to seriously tackle the issues that have made SAARC ineffective and a waste of time. Business leadership must become the 'tipping point' because once over this point, the stronger positive results from regional cooperation would push the region to a higher growth trajectory, thereby generating beneficial impact in support of cooperation and integration. They must sincerely address the four key elements of regional economic integration, i.e., integrated SAARC market, seamless physical connectivity, financial cooperation, and shared vulnerabilities and risks.
Business leaders must remove existing barriers and roadblocks by ensuring that the concepts of economic policy, technical and business innovations, information technology, human resource development, diplomatic and military conflicts, and regional economic integration are not just debated and discussed but are implemented in real time and accepted by all SAARC member countries
The private sector must learn, understand, and promote what the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 are and, why these are imperative for them, their motherland, and their fellow citizens. The SAARC Heads of Government Conference in Islamabad in 2016 could become the game changer if all countries really want to bring about lasting peace, economic prosperity, and sustainable well-being of the denizens of all eight SAARC countries. This is the hope because there is no other practical way to achieve the goals. Business leadership must take comfort from Alexis de Tocqueville, the French thinker and historian who very aptly stated that, "Trade is the natural enemy of all violent passions. Trade loves moderation, delights in compromise, and is most careful to avoid anger."