By Kul Chandra Gautam
Rotary International South Asia Conference on Development and Co-operation
Colombo, Sri Lanka, 4 September 2011
I thank our Chairperson for that very kind and generous introduction. A shorter and simpler introduction would have been that I am a relatively new Rotarian, but with a long and proud association with Rotary International, especially as a close collaborator of UNICEF’s legendary leader James P Grant who, as some old-timers here will recall, was the main architect of UNICEF’s most successful global partnership with RI for polio eradication, as well as other humanitarian activities.
I bring you greetings from Nepal, and wish to acknowledge here the presence of three distinguished fellow Rotarians from Nepal – our District Governor Basu Dev Golyan, Madame Kumud Golyan, and a veteran Rotary leaderMs. Jaya Shah.
Many wonderful ideas and ideals have already been shared by previous speakers on how Rotary International could marshal its noble mission and spirit to promote greater people-to-people cooperation for the development of South Asia.
As we have heard, there is tremendous scope for mutual learning, sharing and cooperation for the greater good of our peoples. At the governmental level, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), has facilitated some valuable cooperation. There are also many good examples of private sector, non-governmental and people-to-people exchanges.
But we must be honest and acknowledge that the depth and breadth of our regional cooperation leaves much to be desired.
Judging by the number of its committees and commissions; technical, ministerial and even summit level meetings; and reports and resolutions adopted, SAARC appears to be alive and kicking. But at the popular level, SAARC’s existence has not really done much to inculcate a feeling of South-Asian solidarity among ordinary citizens of its member states.
We know intuitively that there are many commonalities among us South Asians. Most of us share a common cultural heritage, enjoy Bollywood films and savour spicy cuisine. Lately we are also beginning to see and share economic dynamism in some parts of the region, a popular craving for democracy and human rights everywhere, and people embracing globalization with a vengeance – way ahead of their governments.
On the negative side, we South Asiansface serious common development challenges – ranging from the world’s highest levels of malnutrition, degrading poverty, deplorable sanitary conditions, and shamefully low status of women in our societies.
Despite these similarities and common challenges, it is rare to see South Asians acting as a group, with a sense of solidarity to overcome our distress or to capitalize on our opportunities. It is as if we are South Asians by shared geography, history and culture, but strangers in pursuit of our collective well-being.
As we all know, South Asia is a region of great contrasts. We have within this region nuclear powers, yet there are millions of people without sanitary latrines. We have some of the world’s smartest wizards in information technology, yet we have the greatest concentration of illiterates.
We have had perhaps more women at the highest levels of political power than any other region (remember – Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world’s first woman head of state, and Chandrika Kumaratunga of Sri Lanka; Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi of India;Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan; Sheik Hasina and Begum Zia of Bangladesh), but we share the notoriety of tolerating the worst forms of discrimination against women, with millions of “missing women” – deliberately killed through female foeticide – as chronicled by a great scholar of this region, the Nobel prize laureate, Amartya Sen.
We also find in our region a plethora of micro-level success stories, but a preponderance of macro-level failures. These failures cause the greatest harm to children, our future generation, and perpetuate the intergenerational cycle of poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy and disempowerment.
With a population of 1.6 billion, South Asia is home to around 25 per cent of the world’s population, 32 per cent of the world’s child deaths, 40 per cent of the world’s poor, 46 per cent of the world’s illiterates and a staggering 50 percent of the world’s malnourished children. Malnutrition rates in South Asia are double those of Africa.
All too often, we in South Asia plead poverty for our inability to do more for our children and youth. But I find that often it is not really a question of poverty, but of the right priority.
Otherwise, why is it that we seem to find enough money for our military, but never enough for the well-being of our children?
Today South Asia is one of the world’s most militarized regions. Since the end of the cold war military expenditures declined worldwide, but in South Asia, one of the poorest regions of the world, we continue to arm ourselves to the teeth. According toSIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), in the year 2010, South Asia spent close to US$50 billion dollars on the military, compared to around $15 billion 10 years earlier.
We say that our richest resource is our people. And we acknowledge that investment in quality basic education is a key to a better future-for our children, our society, and for the competitiveness of our countries in today’s globalizing world.
Yet our region has the lowest female literacy rate in the world, of only 43 percent – lower than sub-Saharan Africa. One-third of our school-age girls do not enroll in primary school. And half of those who do enroll, do not complete it. This is surely a very fragile foundation in which to build our nations and region.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
What will it take to have, throughout South Asia, a healthy, well-educated, secure and productive population that will bring economic prosperity, political stability and peaceful co-existence? What will it take to realise our shared dream of a South Asia free of poverty and of gender discrimination; a South Asia in which every child has the opportunity to achieve its full potential?
The world community has now reached a consensus on a common strategy to reach these lofty objectives, through what we now call the Millennium Development Goals. All our countries have adopted these goals, and at this conference we have talked about their various components – health and education, agriculture and industry, gender issues and equity, and the basic infrastructure needed for development.
Rotary International is making its contribution in many of these areas, through programmes big and small, including our great flagship project to eradicate polio from the face of the earth.
Rotary must, and will continue supporting such life-saving and life-enhancing service projects, to help meet people’s basic needs.
But today, I would like to talk about another equally important dimension of human development that we often ignore in Rotary and in South Asia. And I am so grateful that our RI President Kalyan Banerjee has made it the theme of his presidency: “Reaching Within and Embracing Humanity”.
But how do we do that?
There is an old saying in Sanskrit that goes like this: “Sahitya, sangeeta, kalaa bihina; sakshaat pashu, puchchha bishaana hina.”
In other words, a person without the gift of literature, music and art is just like any other animal only without a tail or horns. This is the equivalent of the more crude Western expression that “man does not live by bread alone”.
What distinguishes us human beings, as opposed to other simple animals, is that we think, we reason, we show compassion, and we appreciate such finer things in life as literature, art, music, sports and similar human qualities.
South Asia’s ancient civilization was rich in these quality of life indicators. But in recent times we seem to have slipped nationally, regionally and in global competitiveness in all these areas.
Let us consider these facts: for a region of 1.6 billion people, with a rich and ancient civilization, very few South Asians have won the Nobel Prize in literature, science, economics or peace.
We have a fabulous Bollywood industry,and its offshoots in the region. But few of its productions are considered worthy of the most renowned international awards. Ditto – with music, arts and sports.
For example, in the area of sports, with the exception of cricket and field hockey, countries of South Asia perform worse than many small states and banana republics. Not a single country of South Asia has ever made it to the football World Cup. The highest ranking country in FIFA’s global ranking in South Asia today is Nepal at number 136.
In 100 years of its participation in the Olympic Games, India has won only 9 gold medals, and it ranks as the country in the world with the lowest number of total Olympic medals per capita. Pakistan has won only 3 gold medals in 60 years of its participation in the Olympics. Sri Lanka has won 2 silver medals, and Afghanistan 1 bronze. Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives and Nepal have not won a single medal in the Olympics.
Why is it that – with just a few exceptions – our region does not produce many world-class artists, literary figures and sports personalities, although many South Asians are actually quite passionate about these subjects?
Why do not South Asians excel in these fields while they do so well in academic achievement, business acumen and information technology ?
A very revealing finding about this came from the University of California in USA in the 1990s.
It turned out that Asian students, in particular, South Asians, had very high success rate in getting admission into the University of California campuses. Although Asian students comprised only around 5 percent of applicants for undergraduate admission, at one point, nearly 25 percent of students admitted were of Asian origin.
Many non-Asian parents and students complained about this unusual advantage for this minority group. But the University initially defended its admission practices based on merit.
Upon further review, it was learned that the Asian students excelled in academics but were rather weak in such extra-curricular activities as sports, music and arts. Arguing that good university students needed to be all-rounded and not just academic geeks, the University changed some admission requirements, giving greater weight to these extra-curricular subjects.
Predictably, the percentage of Asian students admitted dropped significantly.
When Asian parents realized that their children would be disadvantaged if they were only focused on academic subjects, a whole new trend started in California, whereby many Asian parents started encouraging their children to become involved in sports, music, arts and other extra-curricular activities, in addition to academic subjects.
Within a few years, Asian students started excelling in these extra-curricular activities as well, and their admission rate went up again.
This real life experience tells us two important things:
a) that indeed Asian parents greatly value academic achievement, but do not raise their children as all-rounded and versatile citizens, and
b) that given the right incentive, Asians are innately quite capable of excelling in sports, music and arts as well as in the academia.
We can now already begin to see the results. Whereas earlier generations of successful South Asians in America mainly worked as engineers, doctors and academics, a new generation of Asians is now beginning to be involved and excel in many other professions, including business, politics, fine arts and sports.
Learning from this experience, it behooves us, South Asians, to give greater importance to these important human values and qualities to raise our younger generation as multi-talented individuals, capable of exercising leadership role in all walks of life in our countries and communities, and in the world.
So far, our governments are not giving much priority to these fields, but I hope that we Rotarians can take the lead to popularize these subjects, and thus help South Asians to secure our rightful place in the world as all-rounded citizens reaching within ourselves and embracing deep human, humane and humanitarian values.
After all, Rotary’s guiding principle of “service above self” is deeply rooted in these human values. And I believe this is exactly in the spirit of our President Kalyan Banerjee’s vision of “Reaching Within…” embracing human values, changing lives, bonding South Asia and ushering prosperity.
But how can we go about fulfilling this noble vision? I believe there are several small steps we can take that will eventually make a huge difference.
To start with, at the national and community levels, we must encourage our citizens, starting with children and youth to strive to become versatile and all-rounded individuals, who appreciate sports, music, literature and art.
Our Rotary clubs should proactively support the development of these human qualities that inspire our communities, along with economic development and social progress.
So, if we consider the political economy as the engine of our society, let us recognize sports, music, literature and art as the lubricants that help them run at top speed.
Many of our youth are unemployed, and are attracted to drugs and unhealthy life-styles, and lured by criminal gangs. Sports, music and arts can divert their minds in positive and creative direction.
Sports, in particular, can help young people develop physically and mentally, learn about healthy competition, and it can unite nations and help in nation-building.
What can we do, as Rotarians, to promote these human qualities and values in our region and to promote cooperation for their development?
First, we must acknowledge that in the past six decades, our state and government establishments have created conditions of nationalism which have tended to accentuate the differences in our societies rather than emphasizing our commonalities.
Government efforts through SAARC have helped to break some of these barriers, but politics tend to divide us, whereas sports, music and arts can actually unite us
The real people-to-people exchange and solidarity can, therefore, be promoted best through more cultural interaction involving literature, music, arts and sports.
To make this possible, we need to expand the ability for people in our region to move across borders with greater ease, and loosen up our visa regimes, rather than putting up more fences across our borders.
It is good news that at long last, Hindi films are being shown in Pakistan, and Bollywood gets to the far corners of the region whether legally or informally. We would like to see this going one step further,for example, Pakistani qawali coming to Indian towns, and Indian Hindostani classical music being played throughout Pakistan.
In terms of sports, besides national teams playing each other, we must encourage ourcities and provinces to play each other, such as a Sindh cricket team playing West Bengal, or a Kabul soccer team playing Kathmandu, or a Dhaka sports team playing in Colombo, etc.
That way, we can maximize the enjoyment of friendly games without stoking sentiments of narrow nationalism.
But to really maximize regional cooperation and people to people exchange, we need to drastically reduce the trust and solidarity deficit that we find at the political levelin South Asia.
For example, in my long career at the United Nations, I rarelysaw South Asians acting as a group. Unlike Africans, Arabs, Latin Americans or the Islamic group of countries, South Asians rarely put up a common position on key policy issues, as one might expect, or propose common candidates for senior UN positions.
On the contrary, there were many instances in which South Asians undercut each other by proposing multiple national candidates or negotiating positions in UN forums.
Whatever South Asians do as a group at the UN and elsewhere tends to be symbolic, ceremonial or formalistic, and rarely substantive or strategic.
In the field of international development, it has often taken non-South Asian organizations or individuals to fully recognize and respond to the commonalities of South Asia. Thus even after the establishment of SAARC, many UN agencies organize their regional work and institutional arrangements in the pre-SAARC, Cold War spirit, putting India and Pakistan in separate regions.
The governments of the SAARC region have rarely taken any proactive steps to persuade such UN agencies to rectify their anachronistic field structure.
It is a fact that, at the international level, SAARC is not taken as seriously as are other regional groupings, such as the African Union, the European Union, the League of Arab States, the Organization of American States or the ASEAN.
Whereas many world leaders regard the summits of these other regional organizations as worth attending, the SAARC summits are not given similar importance.Indeed, extra-regional powers that seek to influence events in South Asia deal bilaterally with the more influential governments in the region, rather than through SAARC.
With 1.6 billion people, SAARC is the largest of all existing regional economic and political groupings in the world. With its current low level of human development, but its increasingly vibrant economies, dynamic democracies and judicious embrace of globalization, it has nowhere to go but up.
We South Asians should, therefore, be wise to seek prosperity in solidarity rather than in mutual suspicion and recrimination. Our own solidarity would encourage the rest of the world to take South Asia more seriously.
Dear friends and fellow Rotarians,
If the 21st century is going to be an “Asian Century”, South Asia should strive to position itself at the very heart of such transformation.
I am sure organizations like Rotary can help promote a sense of camaraderie at the people-to-people level, that our governments have so far failed to achieve. This may sound a bit presumptuous. How can a small group of do-gooder Rotarians aspire to such ambitious goal?
Let me quote the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead, who said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.
Who would have imagined two decades ago that Rotary would raise over $1 billion dollars, mobilize millions of Rotarians and volunteers and persuade world leaders to eradicate polio from the face of the earth. We have nearly achieved that historic goal.
I am confident that by appealing to our sense of neighbourly and human solidarity; by mobilizing the thousands of Rotary clubs, and millions of community leaders in our region; and reaching deep within ourselves to promote such human values, we Rotarians can make a profound contribution for regional cooperation and development in South Asia, as it has never happened before.
Rotarian Kul C Gautam, a citizen of Nepal, is former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF (email@example.com ; www.kulgautam.org)