At the Saarc summit to be held on November 26-27, member nations could consider setting up an Economic Research Institute for South Asia (SAERI), an international organisation along the lines of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA). This international economic policy think tank could function as an independent research institute to build and strengthen the South Asian economic community and to support its objective of attaining wider economic integration.
During the 13th consultation held between the ASEAN nations’ economy ministers and the Japanese ministry of economy, trade and industry in 2006, the need for East Asia to have an organisation like ERIA was mooted by Japan with the objective of producing concrete policy recommendations to cater to ministerial and national leaders’ meetings in East Asia. Following the proposal, the Secretary General of ASEAN initiated the creation of an expert group consisting of experts from 16 East Asia summit countries and the ASEAN secretariat. Subsequently, the expert group laid out the objectives, activities and the policy scope of the organisation and the formal establishment was agreed upon by all the leaders of the region at the Third East Asia Summit in November 2007. ERIA was formally established as an organisation on June 3, 2008, in Jakarta, Indonesia, via a formal agreement among the leaders of 16 countries in East Asia. It went on to be recognised as an international organisation through an agreement between the Indonesian government and the ASEAN secretariat in December 2008. The governing board of ERIA agreed to undertake policy research under three pillars: “narrowing development gaps”, “deepening economic integration” and “sustainable development”.
What is attractive about ERIA is that the research conducted under its ambit feeds directly into the secretariat’s activity. In the last few years, ERIA has prepared a plan which provided the design for economic infrastructure and industrial placement in East Asia. Additionally, ERIA has also drafted the master-plan on ASEAN connectivity (MPAC). It has served as the basis for implementing connectivity-related projects providing the much needed impetus to sub-regional development. It is notable that ERIA worked with the ASEAN Connectivity Coordinating Committee (ACCC) to develop these plans to facilitate private public partnership in the region. ERIA has further highlighted the huge economic potential in developing the Mekong-India Economic Corridor. Based on this study, leaders from Japan, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam agreed that ERIA should develop the Myanmar Comprehensive Development Vision, which would form the basis of Myanmar’s national plan.
Why should such a think tank be set up in South Asia? Firstly, this international think tank would look holistically into research, private sector participation, regulatory reform and capacity building of member countries Recently, there have been several think tanks in the region that have been engaged in research and dissemination on issues related to South Asian integration. However, only a handful of academics have been working on this issue for several decades. There is a need to widen the intellectual base by drawing several leading economists from within the region and abroad. Closely related to this, there is also a need to pool all research ideas and policy inputs under one umbrella. Second, a South Asian Economic Research Institute would function as a single-window research provider to the Saarc secretariat. Thirdly, on the lines of ERIA, such an organisation could study the needs of the business sector in Saarc countries, and focus on connectivity and trade facilitation measures such as custom clearance procedures, transport and investment facilitation measures; while also suggesting regulatory reforms for Saarc countries to move towards a more conducive environment for further liberalisation. Another area of focus for this think tank could be the analysis of free-trade agreements (FTAs) in the region so that businesses are better prepared. Fourth, it would have an important role to play in building capacities in countries that lack research and policy making capabilities. ERIA organises various capacity building seminars on issues in regional integration and this could be a good starting point for Saarc. Lastly, by helping towards building a stronger and more integrated Saarc, the South Asian Economic Research Institute would eventually help achieve larger integration with East Asia and Oceania (ASEAN plus Australia, China, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand).
India could take the lead in this case. Its international standing will help attract the best and brightest minds from the Saarc nations and from abroad particularly economists from the smaller countries residing abroad in international organisations.
The author is a professor at ICRIER