Tehran Times Opinion Column, Nov. 2, By Hamid Golpira

Whither ECO?

News ID: 2811220 -
TEHRAN, Nov. 1 (MNA) -- Where is the Economic Cooperation Organization heading?

The economic bloc held a conference in Tehran from October 30 to 31 entitled Security, Stability and Sustainable Development, which was billed as a “senior official meeting”, but it seems it was originally intended to be a conference of ECO interior ministers.


Unfortunately, only four of the ten members actually sent their interior minister to the meeting. Five others sent their deputy interior minister, and Uzbekistan was represented by its ambassador to Tehran.


How can we expect serious action from ECO on the economic front when member states don’t send their ministers to important meetings?


Although ECO’S ten members, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, have a long way to go to achieve economic integration, especially since six of them were separated from the others until they gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, obviously more concerted efforts are necessary.


Trade between ECO states has been extremely limited. Over the past few years, on average only about six percent of each ECO member’s trade has been with other ECO zone countries.


Yet, the year 2015 has been set as the target date for establishing a prosperous ECO free trade area that would be able to rival other regional economic blocs.


The goal is achievable, but only if ECO members formulate a comprehensive plan and implement efficient programs to realize the plan.


Many economic analysts say that ECO is adrift and lacks direction.


In addition, it is not clear if all the members of the bloc are committed to ECO.


Turkey aspires to join the European Union. If it eventually accedes to the EU, it will most likely quit ECO. However, there is great resistance to Turkey’s accession in some quarters of the EU, so Ankara’s dream may never come true.


Pakistan is also a member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. However, SAARC is not likely to become a major economic bloc until its members settle their differences. SAARC’s biggest problem is the dispute between its two most important members, India and Pakistan.


A glance at the activities of other economic blocs, such as the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Mercosur (the Southern Common Market), the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council (PGCC), could give ECO a cue as to the direction it needs to take.


The European Union has established a single currency in the 12-member euro zone, and most other members and candidate countries are eager to adopt the euro.


ASEAN is one of the world’s most successful economic blocs despite the uneven levels of development among member states. Malaysia has perhaps the most vibrant economy in the Islamic world. Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and Brunei have also experienced significant economic growth over the past few years, and many economists predict that Vietnam is set to become the next tiger economy. The Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar are having economic difficulties and most of their citizens have a low standard of living, but all of them could reap benefits from ASEAN membership.


The South American trade bloc Mercosur has become the major voice in opposition to the neoliberal economic policies of the United States and other industrial powers and the efforts to establish a U.S.-dominated Free Trade Area of the Americas. Mercosur is also promoting an alternative to the FTAA that could eventually lead to a single Latin American trade bloc.


NAFTA has increased trade among member states by eliminating tariffs, but this has harmed small farmers and small businesses in Mexico as the country has become flooded with cheap U.S. goods. This development has given additional fuel to the debate over free trade versus fair trade.


ECO and other Third World trade blocs must take this into consideration as one of the perils of unregulated globalization.


SADC is making great progress, powered by South Africa’s economy, despite the poverty of many of the region’s citizens.


ECOWAS is working for economic integration and plans to establish a common currency eventually, although these efforts are being hindered by poverty and the political instability in some member states.


The PGCC, which groups all the countries of the Arabian Peninsula except Yemen, is working to establish a common currency by 2010.


So, what is ECO doing?


ECO states should work for economic integration, try to significantly increase trade exchanges between members, and upgrade the regional transportation network.


However, ECO countries have a great advantage since they are sitting on the old Silk Road, which is about to become an important trade link once again. Therefore, ECO members must make serious efforts to establish the New Silk Road.


ECO states should immediately begin construction of a New Silk Road Superhighway from Beijing to Istanbul. From Istanbul it’s just a short jump to the EU’s highway network, which would provide access to European markets.


The New Silk Road Superhighway would definitely increase tourism in the ECO region, and thus would give an additional boost to the economies of member states.


ECO countries must also step up their contributions to efforts to establish the North-South Corridor. Starting work on a Mumbai to Moscow North-South Corridor Superhighway would be an important step toward this end.


The Beijing-Istanbul New Silk Road Superhighway and the Mumbai-Moscow North-South Corridor Superhighway would connect East Asia, South Asia, Southwest Asia, Central Asia, and Europe and would provide an economic boon to all countries on the trade route.


The ECO region is at the heart of these global crossroads, so ECO members can benefit greatly by establishing such essential transit links through the construction of these superhighways.


Superhighways are prime factors behind the economic success of North America and Europe, so ECO should follow suit.


ECO states can ride the New Silk Road Superhighway to prosperity, but they must start now.


The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.






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