Minister Hamdun Hameed, Secretary General Dr. Sheel Kant Sharma, Honourable Ministers, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen:
May I begin by extending my sincere congratulations to Dr. Sheel Kant Sharma on his recent assumption of office as the new SAARC Secretary General.
As this is your first visit to the Maldives, Mr. Secretary General, I would like to extend a very warm welcome to you. I am confident that, during your tenure, our regional association will attain new heights of success. The wealth of experience that you bring from a distinguished career in the Indian foreign service that spanned nearly 35 years, including your services as the Chairman of the G-77, will, no doubt, be invaluable during the upcoming years in the development of SAARC.
Honourable Ministers and Distinguished Delegates:
I would like to welcome all of you to the serene shores of the Maldives. While many of you are frequent visitors here, those of you who are experiencing our hospitality for the very first time, can look forward to a smiling, happy and welcoming people.
May I congratulate Minister Hamdun Hameed and his diligent team for the excellent arrangements that they have made to host this important regional forum in the Maldives. I also thank Mr. Hamdun Hameed for his kind remarks about me.
I would also like to thank Mr. Mohamed Waheed Deen and the management and staff of Bandos Island Resort for their support and assistance in hosting this meeting.
I have often heard and read in recent years the accusation that SAARC – as a regional body established for the betterment of the peoples of the South Asian countries – has failed to address those issues that are at the very heart of our diverse yet interdependent societies.
To our critics, I wish to point out that, as an organisation, SAARC has continued to work from its very inception for the improvement of the lives of our peoples. There is no issue that demonstrates SAARC’s commitment more than poverty alleviation.
Having had the good fortune of attending every SAARC Summit held so far, I have witnessed the growth and development of the Association. Seventeen years ago, at the Sixth SAARC Summit in Colombo, we established an independent South Asian Commission on Poverty Alleviation. Two years later, at Dhaka, the Commission provided a conceptual framework for poverty alleviation through social mobilisation and empowerment in South Asia. In 1995, at New Delhi, member countries decided to adopt a three-tier mechanism for dealing with poverty issues.
At the Islamabad Summit in 2004, we endorsed the Plan of Action on Poverty Alleviation. At that Summit, it was declared that poverty alleviation is the main goal of all SAARC activities. In 2005, we switched from a three-tier to a two-tier mechanism on poverty alleviation, on identifying the need for an exclusive forum for focused and comprehensive examination of issues related to poverty in our region. Finally, in 2006, we reached a further milestone when we began marking the SAARC Decade of Poverty Alleviation.
Few will argue against the fact that poverty is the biggest hurdle in the path to sustained economic, social and political development in SAARC countries. Its repercussions can be felt in all walks of life and in a variety of ways. It is the root cause of many social ills. Mahatma Gandhi once said “Poverty is the worst form of violence”.
South Asia represents nearly a quarter of the world’s population, and our region, while rich in resources, has failed to feed all our people. That must be our first and foremost priority, and success in the vital goal of poverty alleviation would be the key determinant of the performance of the entire Association.
Daunting as it may have been, SAARC has faced the challenge of poverty alleviation with a clear vision and an unshakable resolve. While millions in the region continue to live in poverty, the Association’s work has undoubtedly made a tangible difference, and has injected hope into our peoples’ hearts that there is a better and more prosperous future ahead of them.
Fighting poverty involves far more than improving agricultural productivity and clean drinking water resources. SAARC’s approach towards tackling this problem has been multifaceted and multidimensional. Improving governance, strengthening macroeconomic policymaking, increasing job opportunities, promoting gender equality and empowerment of women and widening access to educational and vocational training are some of the key strategies that are being adopted. As in other parts of the world, the results are tangible and immediate.
South Asia is, in fact, on track to meeting the target of halving by 2015 the percentage of the population living under the poverty line. However, in many countries, much work still remains to be done to achieve most of the other Millennium Development Goals.
Actions taken at the regional level over the past decade has definitely improved the lives of many of our peoples, but with even more people falling back under the poverty line, the need to redouble our efforts has never been greater.
Forums such as this bring back many vivid memories of the not too distant past when we, in the Maldives, were experiencing untold hardship. Hunger and malnutrition had been a part of everyday life on most islands. During stormy monsoonal times, essential food supplies would run dry, and people would be solely dependent on the fishermen’s catch and any edible varieties available on the island.
During my initial tour of all inhabited islands in the archipelago, which I undertook in 1979 and 1980, I met many people in abject poverty on almost every island that I had visited.
With the grace of the Almighty Allah, the partnership efforts of the people and the Government over the past three decades have meant that we have been able to leave those dark days behind us. Today, we can proudly say that no child in the Maldives has to go to bed on an empty stomach. Our GDP per capita, which was under 300 US Dollars in 1978, is today at almost 3000 US Dollars. Education and healthcare facilities are available on each of the 193 inhabited islands.
We are no longer among the poorest countries in the world. The Maldives has started its smooth transition period for graduation from the LDC status. Our MDGs on eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, reducing child mortality and combating HIV/AIDs, Malaria and other diseases have already been achieved. We are well on track to achieving the other MDGs by 2015.
In the Maldives, the proportion of people living on less than 15 Rufiyaa per day – which is a little over one US Dollar a day – has been reduced from 40 percent to less than 15 percent over the past decade.
Our achievements and milestones should not, however, be used as an excuse for complacency. There is much to achieve. Rising world food and petroleum prices are affecting all our countries. We can, therefore, expect the challenges to keep mounting in the near future. We must also pursue our MDGs on gender and environment with greater urgency.
The Maldives’ aspirations of reaching a higher plan of national development and the attainment of its national Vision 2020 must be our inspiration for sustaining the current momentum of progress. The Seventh National Development Plan must be the immediate term blueprint to chart our development course, and it must be done in partnership with our regional and international partners, including SAARC.
The strategy must not only be to reduce poverty, but also to prevent people from falling back into poverty. The Vulnerability and Poverty Assessments that are being carried out in the country since 1997 must be continued, and the poverty alleviation programmes identified in NDP 7 must be implemented without delay.
Honourable Ministers, Distinguished Delegates:
We, in the Maldives, began national-level consultations on the SAARC Development Goals, or SDGs, in December 2006. It was noted in these consultations that the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, would in fact facilitate the monitoring of the SDGs. In August of last year, we released our SDGs, along with the SAARC Regional Poverty Profile.
For the Maldives to achieve the SDGs, it is important that all Government agencies, as well as the private sector, community organisations and other stakeholders work closely together. Indeed, we must work in partnership to attain the vision of attaining our MDGs, and concurrently take confident strides towards our SDGs.
Honourable Ministers, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen:
SAARC countries can succeed in their endeavours to eradicate poverty in the region. We MUST succeed. I am confident that we WILL succeed.
With these words, I have the honour of declaring open the second meeting of the SAARC Poverty Alleviation Ministers conference.