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The theme of Himalayan Consensus Summit 2018, ‘Unleashing Connectivity for Inclusive Growth’ resonates with the work U.S. Embassy has been doing which is creating sustainable and inclusive economic growth.

The role of communities and businesses in enhancing national, regional, and global connectivity is an important component of the connectivity puzzle. They are known as “Track II” in diplomatic terms and it is where much of the difference will be made in increasing national, regional and global economic connectivity by solving a variety of small conflicts like differences of opinion, fears about disadvantage, or ignorance about intentions.

Firstly, businesses have opportunities to build cross-border relationships that are not burdened by the diplomatic caution that guides nations. The recent SAARC Chamber of Commerce event in Kathmandu is an example of how the private sector has been able to energize discussions around regional economic challenges and opportunities. In fact, strengthening regional and sub-regional mechanisms like SAARC, BBIN, and BIMSTEC—with participation from the private sector—could help Nepal and other Himalayan neighbors to increase economic growth rates.

Secondly, the private sector is well-positioned to encourage governments to continue domestic economic reforms needed in South Asia so that commerce can thrive. The private sector can lobby governments to advocate for improved intellectual property rights or foreign trade legislation. They can discuss how the completion of integrated check posts could increase trade volumes or why improvements to infrastructure are essential to growing and maintaining globally competitive businesses. They can also show governments the potential gains from e-commerce and identify requirements for new legislation to govern a 21st century economy. The governments of South Asia, including in Nepal, need to create or continue working on an enabling environment of laws, regulation and enforcement that allows the private sector to flourish. Governments need to hear from businesses in order to make informed decisions; businesses need to hear from governments about free markets, fair and reciprocal trade and adherence to the rules.

Thirdly, the private sector and communities need to be partners in addressing an issue endemic to South Asia: corruption. There is a huge economic cost to corruption, but citizen efforts to demand and foster greater transparency can counter corrupt practices. For this, citizens, government and private sector need to work together to root out corruption. Communities can encourage citizens to report corruption and not succumb to the temptation of paying a bribe to receive a basic service and business associations should play active roles in working with governments on setting standards for, and demanding, transparency in procurements and tenders.

Lastly, any conversation about connectivity in Nepal, the Himalayan region, or the South Asian region must discuss the role of women. Studies show that only around one out of four women in South Asia participate in the labor force, about half of what is typical in middle-income countries in other regions. As a result, women are often disadvantaged when it comes to land ownership, and that impacts their ability to acquire capital, take out loans, which puts them at a disadvantage with men in terms of economic participation. Empowering women should be seen as an essential driver of economic growth and an issue of national interest for countries in the region.

There is a need for a concerted Track II effort in achieving the integration that will truly unleash this region’s economic potential: South Asia is one of the least integrated regions in the world; intraregional trade equals just 5% of the region’s total trade volume. Therefore, the governments, private sectors and communities must play their respective roles in becoming the drivers of integration. The Track II players could be the real spark behind a renewed effort to get connected in a way that significantly enhances inclusive economic development and growth.

The article appeared in The Himalayan Times Perspectives on 26 August, 2018.

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