Regional integrity seems a distant dream for South Asian nations, at least when it involves what is known as Track 1 or “official” diplomacy. Three decades have passed since the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established with the aspiration of bridging the gaps between South Asian countries, while providing them with a platform to discuss regional issues and come up with practical solutions. Unfortunately, SAARC has proven to be a lethargic platform that has not been able to bring close neighbors together, let alone more distant ones. Political grudges, blame games, and a deficit of trust have consistently proven to be stumbling blocks to regional integration. Rivalries among states instill negative thoughts in the minds of naïve citizens as well. Conflicts among the states are rarely limited to the government level; they sow the seeds of hate in the hearts and minds of citizens as well.
South Asian countries have been pushed many times by external powers to set aside their political grudges and strive for peace and prosperity in the region. All such nudges have been in vain. But rarely have external powers been motivated to try initiating people-to-people contact as an alternative path to regional unity and connectivity. People-to-people contact or “public diplomacy” remains the unfulfilled agenda of SAARC.
In 2013, the Swedish Institute – a public agency of Sweden – began an interesting initiative, creating the Young Connectors of the Future (YCF) program, a fellowship for young leaders of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. The program has already proven productive, with participants continuing to advocate for lasting peace in the region while doing their utmost to eliminate preconceived prejudices that people have about their neighbors.
Ulrika Rosvall, the project director of YCF, says that the purpose of the program is to invest in young leaders of the South Asian region – the best investment one can make. The idea is to create a network of young leaders with strong bonds within South Asia, to instill democratic values and to promote human rights, while developing a bond within the network itself. The Swedish Institute strongly believes in the power of public diplomacy. To date, the YCF program has produced around one hundred alumni who are now working on regional peace.
Shamim, a delegate from Pakistan in 2015, said that she had always thought that the Afghan people were “warlords” and backward. But she quickly learned that her impressions were mistaken after meeting with the YCF participants from Afghanistan. She found them to be humble, progressive, and like-minded.
Tuhin Paul, a social entrepreneur from India, said that before coming to YCF in 2015, his mind had been influenced by the media and politicians instilling negative thoughts about neighboring countries and their citizens. All these negative thoughts were washed away when he made new friends through YCF. He now says that geographical boundaries don’t matter and that we should not let politicians and the media be the mouthpiece for spreading hate. Rather, it is our duty to advocate for friendship, regional prosperity, and unity.
“I lacked the courage to share my strong desire for building a South Asian EU in the region until I came across people with the same dream,” said Nazifa Alizada, a participant from Afghanistan. “YCF has given me a platform to openly negotiate the challenges regional governments create for the civilians in my country and in the region, and collectively think of tangible solutions to address the challenge. YCF made me understand that to participants, similarities in the region and achieving collective peace and prosperity weigh much more heavily than the imaginary differences and boundaries we draw around ourselves.”
Priyanka Bose from Bangladesh feels that YCF is a life-changing program. Indeed, it changed the way she thinks about her neighbors. “We are not different; we think alike and our problems are the same. So why are we so far apart at the state level?”
One thing worth mentioning is that before the end of the fellowship participants are trained for project works. Groups of at least four participants select projects that will help to bridge gaps within the region. One group, which included the author and Smriti Nagpal (India), Mehnaz Khan (Bangladesh), and Abdul Ghafoor (Afghanistan), all delegates to YCF 2015, started a project titled “Tales Beyond Borders.” It aims to bring the region closer by sharing online the stories of the people of South Asia with a mind to helping eliminate prejudices and stereotypes. This represents our “investment” in public diplomacy, surely a win-win proposition.
Shah Meer is a Swedish Institute fellow. He graduated from NUML in International Relations and researches South Asian politics. He is originally from Pasni, Distract Gwadar, Balochistan, but is currently based in Islamabad.