Improving connectivity between Afghanistan and Central Asia was the focus of discussions at the 2014 Economic Forum of the United Nations Special Programme for the Economies of Central Asia (SPECA) held in Ashgabat on 4 December 2014 in the light of the Afghan chairmanship of SPECA during 2014 and the beginning of Afghanistan’s Transformation Decade.
The Chair of the meeting, Atiqullah Atifmal, Deputy Foreign Minister of Afghanistan, emphasized that Afghanistan and Central Asia were linked by shared challenges and opportunities and needed to join forces in order to combat religious extremism, terrorism and organized crime. Regional cooperation, by providing a strong impetus to economic development addresses the root causes of these evils. All SPECA countries, being either land-locked or double land-locked, share an interest in improving regional connectivity.
UNECE Executive Secretary Christian Friis Bach emphasized that the bulk of Afghanistan’s trade is with neighboring and regional countries. Therefore, revival of regional and continental trade is the single most important potential engine for positive change in the region. Regional cooperation with Afghanistan provides a multitude of advantages for Central Asia; it offers a market for energy and local products; alternative, cost-efficient routes to world markets; and a transit route from energy-rich Central Asian countries to the energy-deficient South-Asian subcontinent.
Sun-ichi Murata, Deputy Executive Secretary of ESCAP underscored the good prospects for Landlocked Developing Countries to serve as transit countries to ensure seamless movement of goods within and outside of the subregion, as well as connecting to other parts of the world. Improving regional connectivity is therefore critical for SPECA countries to become land linked.
Representatives of participating countries characterized SPECA as an indispensable regional framework for active policy dialogue and for supporting practical steps toward regional cooperation. They spoke about the efforts of their countries to develop infrastructure that contributes to improved regional connectivity. Large projects, like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, CASA 1000 (an electrical network project to link Central Asia with India and Pakistan through Afghanistan) and regional railroad links play a key role in these efforts. Countries also emphasized the advantages offered by linking major programmes supporting connectivity, such as SPECA and the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC).
Strong support for an active role by SPECA in developing unified regional regulatory frameworks and approaches as well as in building the capacity of countries to operate regional infrastructure in an efficient way was given by the keynote speakers: Tadamichi Yamamoto, Deputy Special Representative for the Secretary General for Afghanistan and Deputy Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan; Jacinta Barrins, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Turkmenistan speaking on behalf of the UNDP Assistant Administrator and Regional Director for Europe and the CIS; and Jonathan Addleton, Regional Director of USAID. Member and observer states of SPECA include some of the world’s largest energy exporters as well as the world’s largest energy importers. Bridging this divide will require visionary investments in energy infrastructure and cooperation with regional bodies such as CAREC, ECO, SAARC and the SCO in order to place SPECA within a larger geographical framework stretching from the Caucasus to China and South Asia.
Following the presentation of a study on regional connectivity, four project proposals were presented by the UNECE to support connectivity between Afghanistan and Central Asia by reducing barriers to trade, improving transit and Joint watershed management of the upper Amudarya by Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. SPECA countries were encouraged to work with the UNECE secretariat in order to identify donors and obtain funding for these projects.
At the end of the SPECA Economic Forum, the Chairman, Mr. Atiqullah Atifmal (Afghanistan) presented his conclusions (see annex below).
The following day, the SPECA Governing Council reviewed activities of the SPECA Programme since its last meeting in November 2013 in Almaty and took a broad range of decisions that will guide SPECA work in the coming year.
A broad partnership between SPECA, the Central Asian Regional Environmental Center (CAREC), the Inter-State Commission on Sustainable Development (comprising the ministers of environment of Central Asian countries) and the academic community in order to monitor MDGs related to the environment and climate change was presented during the Governing Council by Iskandar Abdullaev, Director of CAREC, the largest non-governmental organization in Central Asia in the field of sustainable development.
In the concluding session, participants noted that:
The region has the potential of becoming an important transport hub between Europe and Asia;
During its Transformation Decade, Afghanistan would like to become a catalyst for regional cooperation and SPECA offers an excellent framework for this;
SPECA’s greatest strength is its combination of policy and practical, expert level work. It hosts strategic discussions on regional cooperation and at the same time provides technical assistance in many areas where such cooperation faces challenges including the efficient and safe operation of regional transport infrastructures and the identification of bottlenecks.
Note to editors
The Chair drew the following main conclusions:
Stronger cooperation and better connectivity between Central Asia and Afghanistan has a crucial role to play in achieving the objectives of Afghanistan’s Transformation Decade and progress towards greater stability, security and prosperity in the whole Central Asian Region.
There is a need for a holistic approach to connectivity within the region taking into account transport, trade, ICT and Energy which would allow the identification of most effective solutions.
When developing projects and programmes to foster connectivity, due consideration must be given to environmental and social aspects and to finding mutually beneficial solutions for all countries involved.
SPECA is an important framework for fostering sub-regional cooperation as it combines policy and expert level discussions and looks at a broad range of interconnected issues.
SPECA can play and important role in supporting implementation of the expected SDGs in the region and monitoring of progress.
There is a need to strengthen links with other regional programmes and projects, including the Central Asia Regional Cooperation program and other financial institutions based on complementary roles; whereby SPECA provides institutional and human capacity building (” software”) while financial institution finance and develop infrastructures (“hardware”)
SPECA also acts as a forum for the exchange of information on activities and plans of various international organizations and bilateral donors which improves cooperation and the identification of synergies and complementary actions.
The United Nations Special Programme for the Economies of Central Asia was established in 1998. It is supported jointly by UNECE and ESCAP. Its participating countries are: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
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