Unity in diversity

Friday, 4 May 2012 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Permit me first to extend a warm welcome to you all to this Conference on ‘Delivering Inclusive and Sustainable Development’. To all our panellists and moderators who have travelled from afar, from Europe, North America and others from South Asia, I express my deep gratitude on behalf of South Asia Policy & Research Institute, Centre for Policy Research and Club de Madrid.

I wish to also convey my sincere appreciation to the Ministry of External Affairs and the Government of India to facilitating the holding of our conference in innumerable ways. This event was initiated by SAPRI with CPR and CdM as our partners. Our special thanks to CPR for the most essential role it has played in making this conference possible and the significant assistance given us in the organisation of this conference. We thank the CdM for their assistance in making this event a success.

At the outset, I would like to briefly explain:

  • What is SAPRI?
  • CdM and CPR: I shall leave to their leaders to talk about their organisation.
  • What are the objectives of this conference?
  • Why and how am I involved in this?

I. What is SAPRI?

Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga delivering the keynote address at the SAPRI conference

SAPRI was created with the objective of contributing to the progress of South Asia, through the study of issues that pose major challenges to our countries and to formulate practical recommendations for their resolution. We will then undertake the promotion of these policy recommendations among leaders of governments, as well as civil society.

We are a non-political, not-for-profit organisation. Although we are not committed politically to one ideology or another, we are deeply committed to the economic prosperity, political stability, security and peace of South Asia. We believe in South Asia. We believe that South Asia has immense potential.

South Asia possesses monumental human assets with nearly one-fourth of the world’s population living in our region. We can lay claim to one of the world’s oldest, most magnificent civilisations. We are heirs to a common civilisational continuum of great antiquity, while we reflect a rich diversity of cultures, languages, philosophies and spiritual traditions. We have given birth to three of the world’s noblest religious philosophies.

Lest we forget, South Asia is also home to the world’s largest number of poor, who live and die in abject poverty and ignorance. Our region also harbours a considerable number of violent political conflicts.

  • Time is running out for some of our countries, on the environmental front.
  • The democracy deficit in our region gives cause for grave concern. Military regimes and authoritarian governments have dangerously eroded fundamental freedoms in some of our Nations.
  • Good governance is a rarity in our countries. Corruption has reached monumental heights.
  • In a globalised world system, where international and especially regional organisations have proved their ability to act effectively as change agents for States, mainly in the spheres of economic development, security and peace, we in South Asia are yet searching for ways to reach beyond intra-State rivalries, in order to work together as a region, to attain our common goals of economic prosperity, stability and peace.
  • SAPRI hopes to contribute, in its small way, to the task of bringing South Asian thinkers and policy makers together, to engage in dialogue about our common concerns and to promote regional cooperation in order that we attain our separate national dreams, while progressing as a great Region.

II. Why this conference? What are its goals?

The theme of the conference encompasses two major challenges faced by South Asia:

A: Poverty and economic deprivation

B: Inequality, marginalisation and conflict

A. Economic development is no doubt the priority requirement for addressing the challenges of poverty and deprivation.

Most of our economies have attained accelerated growth and development in the past few decades. However, hundreds of millions of our citizens have been left behind, continuing to live under conditions of extreme poverty and are even becoming poorer than before. They remain marginalised, while the benefits of economic growth are enjoyed by a relatively small number of the privileged classes.

Lack of access to education and knowledge by an ever increasing number of our peoples causes frustration and anger amongst the marginalised. They are no more willing to tolerate the inequalities.

Economic development happens to be only one part of this solution. We need to adopt a holistic plan of action which will encompass the socio-political aspects of the problem. All those communities, which have been excluded historically or even in modern times, must be included as equal partners, having equal rights in the economic, social and political spheres. In formulating policies for development, an inclusive approach is required so that the benefits of growth reach the disadvantaged and they are included in the implementation of the programmes.

History demonstrates that economic deprivation and inequality, social differentiation, unfulfilled political aspirations invariably lead to dissent. The continuous non-resolution of these issues gives rise to violent conflict and even terrorism – that most dehumanising phenomenon of our times. Economic regression and political instability invariably follows.

Studies have clearly ascertained that when all communities living within a State are guaranteed equal rights – economically, socially, politically and their separate identities are respected and given free expression, they will become a productive vibrant part of the State, celebrating the richness of its diversity, while building an united, strong and stable country.

B. Such a society is called a cohesive or shared or inclusive society. Inclusive societies are those in which all citizens have equal rights and equal opportunities to share in the benefits of development.

It is a society where the political, governmental and societal structures are designed to allow the equitable distribution of and equal access to the benefits of development and prosperity for all, irrespective of the ethnic, religious, caste, political group to which they belong. The Constitution of the State, its political structures such as Parliament and other elected bodies and its governmental and administrative structures will all have to be constructed in a manner as to accommodate free and active participation of all, in political and governmental processes, as well as the guarantee of equal rights to all.

The relationship between inequality among citizens of a country and potential political violence and conflict has been studied in depth by a number of scholars in the West and in Asia.

The overarching conclusion of most of this work demonstrates that inequalities lead invariably to conflict and economic regression and the absence of peace and political stability. We have with us here, Prof. Frances Stewart who led an excellent study of this subject at Oxford University and Prof. Rehman Sobhan who has done similarly at the Institute he chairs, the Centre for Policy Dialogue in Dhaka. They both have publications on the subject. I need not go into further detail, as they will talk to you during this conference on Inequalities and Conflict.

The theory of Shared or Inclusive societies is beginning to be taken up in major international fora, such as some of the EU and UN organisations. The Club de Madrid of which I am a Member and Co-chair of one of its projects – The Shared Societies project, has accomplished some interesting work on the subject, including publications. I am happy to note that my Co-chair in this project, Cassam Uteem, former President of Mauritius, is also present with us, together with the project consultant.

Various differences created centuries ago, within our societies, have been exacerbated by rulers, to their advantage. They tend to conjure up “an enemy” from peoples who belong to different ethnic, religious, caste or political groups.

History is replete with examples of states and governments employing the concept of the “other,” represented as the “enemy,” as a tool of Government management. For a large part of human history the “enemy” has helped forge national unity, as well as entrench weak rulers and Governments in power. Governments whip up hatred against the “other” by maintaining the myth of the dichotomy between “us” and “them”. This requires the oppression of the other and the denial of their rights.

Such exclusion takes place not only through outright hostility but also through neglect of minority groups. Sustainable development, prosperity and peace necessarily implies that the “other” be brought in and included fully and honestly in the processes of economic development, as full and equal partners of the processes of government – to power sharing, for instance. This could happen only within a democratic, pluralist state.

My personal experience in governance and as a political scientist has shown me that the only magic potion capable of binding together peoples belonging to diverse communities into one united, prosperous and strong nation is democracy and pluralism.

The paradigms presented by the challenges of the modern world differ radically from traditional concepts of State management requiring a new vision of government. It is essential to refashion local and national socio-political structures to accommodate the different interests and aspirations of diverse communities living within a State, in order to create unity in diversity and to build a world safe for difference.

South Asia abounds with examples of leaders and governments who have used the concept of the “other” as the “enemy” for purposes of managing governments.

Nevertheless, from our region there have also emerged leaders and thinkers who have transcended these frailties, to convey to the world a message of unity and harmony between all peoples, a vision of the oneness of all humanity. South Asia may once again produce leaders who could bridge the divide and see beyond the past to lead their nations forward, freed from the constraints of imagined adversaries.

I would like to quote from the great Tagore: “Bigotry tries to keep truth safe in its hands, with a grip that kills it”.

III. Why and how am I involved in this?

Now I wish to briefly tell you how and why I – a former Executive President of Sri Lanka – become involved in SAPRI and events such as this one.

First, I did the unusual thing for a South Asian leader – retire at 60 years – I assure you, willingly and delightedly. I had promised myself and my children I shall retire from active politics at around 60 years. I was brought up to regard political power and position as a trust placed in me by the people, to hold and to exercise only in the interests of the State and the people and never in mine or that of my cronies or relatives.

At retirement, I found I still possessed fully functioning mental and physical abilities. I had gained experience and some knowledge and skills during more than three decades of public service.

My first love is my country, but I also believe in the world and the potential of international cooperation. I know South Asia – our region – well and as I stated earlier, I believe in the vast potential of South Asia. We know that our thinkers, academics, the non-governmental sectors such as the private sector, professionals, non-government organisations can play an increasingly important role in matters of economic development, promoting democracy and democratic institutions, building transparent and efficient government systems and so on.

The non-governmental sectors are not constrained by political compunctions and have already developed various methods of working together in their many areas of interest. They could be catalysed into further and more meaningful action.

We are all South Asians, inhabitants of the Indian sub-continent, subscribing to a common history, traditions and a great cultural heritage dating several millennia. There lies the greatness and nobility of South Asia.

The differences that separate some of us – ethnicity, religion, caste, political creed, seem so irrelevant to me, when I see that hunger, disease, ignorance, lack of housing, water, sanitation visits all of us irrespective of the community to which we belong.

At times, I feel ashamed when I see, how the countries of Europe work so effectively together, despite a thousand years of inter-State conflicts and wars. Europe forged unity with the creation of the European Union, after suffering the world’s two most horrendous and destructive wars.

We South Asians surely do not need a war, certainly not a nuclear one, before we forge a true and effective unity. Let us leave behind the cacophony of the extremists and move ahead with the moderate, humanist majority.

I propose in all earnest, that we from the non-government sectors act effectively together, indeed with the agreement and support of our governments.

I propose that we build a new future for our children, children trapped in poverty, in ignorance, traumatised by political and social violence, children without the opportunity to enjoy the freedom and joys of childhood. An environment where they will have access to good education, health care and nutrition and a peaceful and stable society, where they can grow up healthy, enlightened and skilled, secure with faith in that future we all dream about.

Let me conclude by reiterating that this conference will focus on the crucial and complex nexus between accelerated growth and harmonious societies, delivering inclusive and sustainable development requiring a holistic approach which encompasses public policies and targeted intervention robust and transparent institutional arrangement and the capacity for free and informed public participation that address the multidimensional nature of the problem.

I very much hope our deliberations over these two days will result in some very practical recommendations that can the basis of focused advocacy around both the highest levels of the government and civil society in the region. In addition it would be useful to identify gaps in our knowledge that can guide future research not only by SAPRI, but also by our partners in the wider South Asian research community.

 Let me end by wishing you well in your deliberations.

Thank you.

(This paper was presented at the inaugural South Asia Policy & Research Institute Summit on Delivering Inclusive and Sustainable Development held on 9 and 10 April 2012 in Delhi. Website: www.thesapri.org.)