It is over two decades now since SAARC came into being as an expression of South Asia's collective resolve to develop a coherent regional cooperative framework in an increasingly inter-dependent world and to keep apace with the changing times for the socio-economic well-being of its peoples. It was meant to bring a change in our region in terms of poverty eradication and sustainable development. This change is nowhere in sight. South Asia remains mired in its unbroken legacy of poverty, hunger, disease and illiteracy, while SAARC, as an organization also has not gone beyond rhetoric and anodyne declaratory pronouncements with no tangible achievement to its credit. It has neither improved the quality of life in our region, nor accelerated the economic growth, social progress or cultural development of its member-states. With one or two exceptions, the SAARC countries also lag behind in developing genuine democracy, rule of law and good governance. South Asia is today one of the world's poorest regions of the world with a vast majority of its peoples still living in grinding poverty and sub-human conditions. Five of eight SAARC member states - Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives and Nepal - belong to the UN category of so-called Least Developed Countries or LDCs. South Asia's imports and exports constitute a small fraction of the region's GDP. Intra-regional trade is non-consequential, representing just 4 percent of the region's total trade. Meanwhile, the collective share of the SAARC region in world trade is no more than one percent. Over the years, our leaders have been envisioning an era of peace and prosperity for South Asia. Their vision, however, remains unfulfilled. Their pronouncements are a reflection of the only "consensus" that they seem to have reached at "regional level" acknowledging the grim reality that SAARC has not lived up to the expectations of its member-states and that it still has a long way to go before it can come of age. We just had another SAARC Summit, the 15th in 23 years of its existence. In keeping with our familiar summitry tradition, the Colombo gathering was again no more than a regional debating forum, a high-level talk shop, in which some spoke with conviction in their institutional and democratic strength, while others only read statements with little understanding of the conceptual essence of regional cooperation and in some cases even without any conviction in what they were reading. In their statements, our leaders without exception, including the newcomer Afghan wizard in green robe, were unanimously candid in admitting that SAARC's vision of genuine regional cooperation remained elusive. They all agreed that their region was out of step with other regions of the world, and presented their own vision of a "comprehensive and forward-looking" regional approach. The agenda this year was dominated by the aggravating challenges of food and energy crises, terrorism, violence and crime. In terms of the final outcome, we had yet another high-sounding but low-yield declaration which according to the Sri Lankan President was "a most productive and fruitful outcome." But everyone else sees it as nothing more than a rehash of the same old and familiar reaffirmations and reiterations that have been made by our heads of state and government every year without ever meaning anything to the region's peoples and masses, and the oft-repeated promises and commitments that have never been fulfilled or honoured. The Colombo Declaration claimed that "SAARC has been making steady and incremental progress over the years towards realizing the objectives of the SAARC Charter." The heads of state or government also reaffirmed, as they have been doing all along, their commitment to SAARC Charter's principles and objectives, and ritualistically renewed their resolve for collective regional efforts to accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development. This is the only tribute they pay to themselves at every SAARC Summit. There were no major groundbreaking decisions on the future of the region. The foreign ministers of the member states did sign four documents merely formalizing the earlier decisions on the establishment of a SAARC Development Fund, creation of a SAARC Standards Institution, Afghanistan's accession to SAFTA and on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters. The only "concrete" decision emerging by consensus from the summit was on the dates and venue of the next summit which will be held next year in Male, the capital of the Maldives. An organization which came into being to usher in an era of progress and prosperity in the region through poverty alleviation and sustainable development is instead stuck in grappling today with serious food and energy shortages and a spate of violence and terrorism. They are now setting up a regional Food Bank to cater to the growing food scarcity in the region, and devising strategies for region-wide food security to make South Asia "the granary of the world once again." In the field of energy, they are talking of "conserving" conventional sources of energy while also exploring alternative and renewable energy sources. Terrorism was another major preoccupation of the Colombo Summit where a Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters was signed by the member states to cooperate, inter alia through mutual exchange of information, against terrorism and organized crime. Similarly, the planned $300-million South Asian Development Fund for regional poverty alleviation programmes seems to be a non-starter like all other funds in the developing world. If member-states could afford this huge sum, they might as well use it for poverty alleviation in their own countries. SAARC in any case, must not become an instrument of funds or aid mechanisms that always tend to cripple the nations' initiative and drive and retard the urge for self-reliance. No doubt, SAARC has vowed to pursue the "free trade goal" as an important element of regional cooperation. The conclusion of the Framework Agreement on South Asia Free Trade Area (SAFTA) at the 12th summit in Islamabad was only the beginning of a long and arduous process. Our region's trade architecture has inherent "speed breakers" if not "road blocks" in the form of restrictive trade barriers. The foremost challenge will be in their removal and creation of an environment that allows the "free and fair" promotion of trade in the region. Every SAARC Summit ends with a 'new vision' for the region's progress and prosperity. The latest one was no exception. But visions alone will not work. We now need to look ahead, to think afresh with a sense of greater commitment and practicality on our existing goals - and on the means to accomplish them. To perform, SAARC requires an enabling environment in the region, free of mistrust and hostility, without which no regional arrangement anywhere in the world has worked. As if India-Pakistan equation, with all of its ramifications, was not enough to retard the regional process in South Asia, the admittance of Afghanistan as SAARC eighth member not only stretches the geographical limits of our region but also brings into play a new factor of instability making SAARC even more vulnerable to the vagaries of a turbulent and uncertain regional environment. Already another regional grouping called ECO is being held hostage to Afghanistan's unending legacy of conflict and chaos. For an enabling environment, South Asia must be freed of tensions, violence, military confrontations and escalating military budgets. Like ASEAN, we might consider having a regional political forum, called the "South Asia Regional Forum" which could be useful in reinforcing the process of "confidence-building, preventive diplomacy, and peaceful settlement of disputes" SAARC also needs to be re-oriented both structurally and operationally, enhancing its effectiveness as a dynamic vehicle of regional cooperation. For this, our regional perspective must be clearly delineated, our goals and priorities pragmatically defined, and our wherewithal appropriately geared towards the realisation of our declared objectives. The real challenge, however, lies in moving from the realm of ideas to implementable plans of action. This would require an exceptional "regional" impulse to keep apace with the changing times. This fresh regional impulse, must spring from within South Asia. Only then will our peoples be able to harness the full potential of the South Asian region and to join the worldwide quest for economic growth and development. SAARC also needs to have a regional "social contract" guaranteeing fundamental freedoms and basic rights to the citizens of its member states, including their inalienable right to choose or change their government through an independently cast ballot. This process could be greatly helped with increased engagement of the region's non-governmental stakeholders, including NGOs, civil society and the private sector. The writer is a former foreign secretary and senior political analyst