Young Economists Address Regional Integration in South Asia

January 5, 2015


The 2014 SAESM brought over 80 of the top Economics undergraduate students from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka together in Bhutan to share research, inspire one another, and explore the host country first hand.

Joe Qian/World Bank

  • The 11th South Asia Economic Students' Meet was held in Bhutan last week and brought together top students from across the region to exchange knowledge.
  • Many students met with their peers from neighboring countries for the first time to discuss their research and ideas for improving cooperation.
  • "People in South Asia love each other and want deeper integration."

Before 20-year-old student Shujaat Ali from Pakistan left Lahore for Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan on Dec 21st 2014, he expected a short journey. The distance between Lahore and Thimphu - 1,500 km - would normally take two hours on a direct flight. However, Shujaat ended up taking two days to arrive at Thimphu, where he’d attend the 11th South Asia Economic Students Meet (SAESM).

What happened? First of all, there are no direct flights between any city in Pakistan and Bhutan despite both being in the South Asia region. The most optimal route to transit through Delhi failed because as a Pakistani, Shujaat was unable to obtain a visa to India in time. Eventually he boarded a three-stop flight: the first stop at Karachi, Pakistan, then Dubai, and Kathmandu, Nepal after that before reaching Thimphu. It took him more than 48 hours, longer than traveling over 10,000 km from Washington DC to Thimphu.


Participants from Afghanistan.

Delilah Liu/World Bank

" It is only through accelerated regional integration that South Asia can find a place for itself in the emerging Asian century. SAESM 2014 helped the young men and women from South Asia to become instruments of greater cooperation. "

Sanjeev Mehta

SAESM Coordinator


Students from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Bhutan sang “We Shall Overcome Someday,“ to the Pakistani students in memory of the deceased children in Peshawar. It was a tearful yet sweet surprise to the Pakistani team.

Why are there no direct flights between Pakistan’s transit hub and the capital of Bhutan? Why is it so time-consuming for a Pakistani to obtain a visa to India? These were the exact questions explored at this year’s SAESM, where 80 top economic students from across South Asia convened to discuss solutions to a dis-integrated South Asia. With intra-regional trade accounting for only 5% of total trade, compared to 25% in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, South Asia stands out as the most culturally symbiotic, yet political disparate region.

“Before SAESM, I had never met an Indian, or a Sri Lankan,” said Shafaat Yar Khan from Pakistan, “Borders are important but we should recognize that challenges we face in Pakistan and India are pretty similar, as a result we should make the borders irrelevant to resolve the challenges together.”

During SAESM, the students from different countries came up with suggestions on improving regional integration ranging from developing student exchange programs within South Asia, appointing student ambassadors to lobby politicians on pro-integration policies; strengthening the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) institutions; easing visa regimes to encourage people to people exchange; lowering customs; and building infrastructure to reduce trade barriers.

“Disputes stay between politicians, but the people love each other and want deeper integration”, said Tamara Noori, student from Kabul University, Afghanistan.

Students who were selected to SAESM either present their research paper under one of the four sub-themes of this year’s theme: Regional Integration: Prospects and Challenges, or participate in a budding economist quiz competition. The four sub-themes include linkages between trade, development and poverty alleviation; cost of economic non-cooperation to the consumers in South Asia; FDI and technological transfers within South Asia; political economy of regional integration in South Asia, and South Asia in the global perspective.

It is only through accelerated regional integration that South Asia can find a place for itself in the emerging Asian century. SAESM 2014 helped the young men and women from South Asia to become instruments of greater cooperation,” said Sanjeev Mehta, Economics Professor and the Bhutan SAESM Coordinator.