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Introduction by UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Madanjeet Singh
Founder, South Asia Foundation (SAF)

The South Asia Foundation (SAF) is a secular, non-profit and non-political organization, which was established in September 2000. Its objective is to uphold its core values of regional cooperation and peace through education and cultural interaction between the eight SAARC countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

SAF has been admitted into official relationship with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and recognized as an Apex Body of South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Its aims, objectives, and activities are in conformity with the spirit, purpose, and principles of the two international organizations.

The South Asia Foundation has blossomed as it was originally grafted on Sumitra Foundation (SF), named after my mother, Sumitra Kaur, and was launched by Dr Manmohan Singh, then the Finance Minister, on 8 January 1995. He also very kindly accepted my invitation to become the chairman of SF, the objective of which was to alleviate poverty through education and family planning. Inaugurating the foundation, Dr Manmohan Singh spoke about the importance of smaller families and protection of the environment, pointing out that “the ecological disaster that resulted from exponentially growing population was as much a consequence of poverty as it was its cause.”

Even after assuming enormous responsibilities as Prime Minister of India, Dr Manmohan Singh continues to support the two foundations. In his introduction to my last book, The Sasia Story, published by UNESCO, he wrote: “Since I had the pleasure of inaugurating the Sumitra Foundation, established by Madanjeet Singh in January 1995, I have retained an interest in the work of the two organizations - the Sumitra Foundation and the South Asia Foundation. I have watched as the South Asia Foundation has worked to enlarge the scope and dimension of its activities in search of common cultural, educational and economic denominators to strengthen cooperative initiatives throughout the South Asian region.” Sasia is the name coined for South Asia's common currency in the hope that, like the Euro, it will become the anchor of economic stability and regional cooperation.    

Among the first chairpersons of the Governing Council of South Asia Foundation (SAF) who made significant contributions, I must, in particular, mention Mr Inder Kumar Gujral, the former Prime Minister of India, known for his 'Gujral doctrine' designed to bring about a rapprochement between South Asian countries; Dr Kamal Hossain, an internationally recognized advocate of human rights; the late Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka, Mr Lakshman Kadirgamar, who sacrificed his life trying to resolve ethnic conflicts; Mr Lyonpo Sangay Ngedup, former Prime Minister of Bhutan, who is actively promoting his country's transition from monarchy to democracy; Ambassador Bhek Bahadur and his wife, Dr Rita Thapa, working in a politically changing Nepal; the indefatigable Prof Salima Hashmi, upholding through art and culture the secular ideals of her eminent father, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the poet who bravely stood against military dictatorships in Pakistan; Dr S.M. Raheen, Afghanistan's former Minister for Culture and Information who is trying to repair the damage done to the country's democracy and cultural heritage by the havoc wrought by Taliban terrorists; Mr Ibrahim Hussain Zaki, a former SAARC Secretary General and Minister of Planning, whose good work as the chairman of the SAF chapter in Maldives was abruptly halted by his dismissal from the government. 

Before Mr Gujral retired as SAF-India chairman in 2006, to give way to a younger and dynamic person, Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar, he set the tone for realizing the South Asia Foundation's cardinal objective of promoting regional cooperation.  He strongly counseled that the activities of the organization must necessarily be in conformity with the aims, objectives, and principles of the SAARC charter and that SAF must be decentralized, comprising autonomous chapters to promote and sustain South Asia's unity in diversity.

Soon after the establishment of South Asia Foundation, Nepal was the first country I visited along with France Marquet, a SAF advisor. Ambassador Nihal Rodrigo, then the SAARC Secretary General, recommended that SAF would do well to start its activities in smaller countries with centralized authority such as Bhutan and Maldives, especially as these countries needed assistance in the field of education.

Accordingly, Thimphu in Bhutan was our next stop where we met with the young Bhutanese Minister of Education, Mr Lyonpo Sangay Ngedup. He received us with open arms and readily became the chairman of SAF-Bhutan chapter. Over the years, he has enthusiastically gone out of his way to promote SAF's activities, especially in the field of education. The latest outstanding project is the SAARC Forestry Institute; it is in the process of formation in Bhutan and it will be mostly funded by SAF. 

In Bangladesh, Dr Kamal Hossain graciously agreed to become the chairman of the SAF chapter of the foundation. He drafted the SAF's secular constitution and recently (on 12 December 2006), signed a MoU between SAF and the South Asian Institute of Advanced Legal and Human Rights Studies, in the process of formation in Dhaka.

I admired Dr Kamal Hossain since I first met him in the early 1970s at the International Conference of Orientalists in Mexico City. As Law Minister in the first government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, he had drafted the constitution of People's Republic of Bangladesh that proclaimed the four fundamental principles of "nationalism, secularism, democracy, and socialism." Over the years, he has become his county's voice of conscience and a champion of human rights worldwide. He helped Taslima Nasreen, the laureate of the 2004 UNESCO Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-violence, by securing her protection by the Bangladesh Supreme Court against the threat of Islamic fundamentalists out to kill her for her secular beliefs.

SAF has yet to recover from the severe setback it suffered in 2005, by the dastardly assassination of its chairman in Sri Lanka, Lakshman Kadirgamar. The eminent Foreign Minister was deeply devoted to South Asian regional cooperation and, at the time of his death, was negotiating a peaceful settlement with the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). Since large areas of the country had been devastated by the tsunami, he had proposed a new institutional mechanism for the efficient delivery of the relief supplies for which SAF, too, contributed Rs. 25,00,000/-.

Another calamity that occurred in 2005 was the devastating earthquake that caused widespread death and destruction in the Pakistani as well as the Indian regions across the LoC in Kashmir. SAF again rushed to help and contributed over Pk Rs. 13,000,000/- to Pakistan out of which a sum of over Pk Rs. 6,000,000/- was for the rehabilitation of the SOS village schools in Muzzafarabad. An additional amount of Indian Rs. 50,00,000/- was allocated for the reconstruction of schools destroyed in Uri in the Indian part of Kashmir.

Administrative problems apart, it proved difficult to identify SAF projects, which would effectively promote regional cooperation. In 2002, SAF succeeded in bringing together all the Vice-Chancellors of open universities in SAARC countries to jointly design a Post Graduate Diploma course in Environment and Sustainable Development (PGD-ESD). The cooperative programme was developed in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 19 February 2003. It was completed in record time and launched during the Third SAF General Conference, held in New Delhi on 14 December 2003.

At this meeting it was also decided to strengthen regional cooperation by launching the SAF Madanjeet Singh individual scholarships programme, offering as many as 10,000 stipends annually to students of open universities for a period of three years. In addition, 750 scholarships were allocated to social orphans in South Asian SOS villages, in cooperation with the Kinderdorf International, Vienna.

At the end of three years, a thorough revaluation of SAF programmes was undertaken at a Special Meeting of the Governing Council, held in New Delhi on 27 November 2006.

 

It showed that even though the jointly created PGD-ESD courses did promote cooperation between the vice chancellors/rectors of the SAARC open universities, they failed to do so among the students.

The SAF programme of individual scholarships, too, did not succeed in its objective of creating interaction among students, although the 10,000 scholarships benefited deprived students of open universities and the 750 scholarships helped socially marginalized children in SOS villages.

On the other hand, SAF's cardinal objective of promoting regional cooperation among young people succeeded admirably through the innovative initiative of launching group scholarships programme, developed in 2002, by Mr N. Ram and Mr Sashi Kumar, at the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ), Chennai. It offered full scholarships, including travel, board, and lodging, to students from South Asian countries, selected on the basis of gender equality, to study together in SAF institutions. Another institution that successfully implemented the SAF Madanjeet Singh group scholarship programme was the School of Visual Arts at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, Pakistan.

Hence, the SAF Governing Council decided to phase out individual scholarships and instead allocate funds only to the group scholarships programmes and projects of vocational training in which boys and girls work together in camps and interact with each other.

Since the first SOS vocational training camp was held at Malpotha in Sri Lanka (2003), a number of environmental camps have been organized annually in several SAARC countries with the participation of about forty youngsters. They learn about the enormous economic potential of employing improved methods of agriculture, the importance of organic farming, as well as acquiring professional skills for gainful employment.

So also the SAF Scouts Friendship camps, held annually in cooperation with the Asia-Pacific Regional Scouts Movement, effectively promotes regional cooperation. The first SAF Scout jamboree was held in Bhutan in 2002, with the participation of over 500 scouts and guides, setting the tone with music and dance in an ambient of colourful pageantry. Since then similar friendship camps have been successfully held annually in Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan.  As with the young people who participate in the SOS vocational training camps, the SAF scouts friendship camps inspire the youngsters to develop a remarkable sense of comradeship and solidarity.

The scope and dimension of the SAF Madanjeet Singh group scholarship programme has considerably expanded since SAF decided to fund a number of institutions of excellence in SAARC countries. This was a sequel to the shocking demolition of the colossal fifth-century Bamiyan Buddha idols by Taliban gangsters in Afghanistan. It prompted SAF to offer a million US dollars to the government of Afghanistan though UNESCO in order to restore Afghanistan's rich cultural heritage.

Subsequently, a tripartite agreement for the establishment of the Madanjeet Singh Institute for Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage in Kabul was signed in Paris by UNESCO Director-General Mr Koïchiro Matsuura, the government of Afghanistan, and myself on March 22, 2004.  A war-damaged building in Kabul was restored and Afghanistan's Minister of Culture and Information, Dr S. M. Raheen, inaugurated the Institute on 13 July 2006.

An international faculty of teachers is now being recruited on the advice of two experts, Dr Tej Singh from the Lucknow Institute for Restoration and Mr Robert Knox of the British Museum, assigned by UNESCO.

Since then, SAF has signed seven more MoUs to establish institutions of excellence in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. SAF group scholarships will be allocated to each of these institutions, which would enable students from all the eight SAARC countries to study together. (For details, please see the SAF website: www.southasiafoundation.org.)

SAF has also offered group scholarships for the consideration of the Expert Group, which is laying down the modalities of the South Asian University (SAU) first proposed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the SAARC Summit in Dhaka on November 12, 2005. This scholarship programme would benefit students selected by SAU who are admitted to its affiliated universities and institutions in the SAARC countries. As Dr Manmohan Singh stated: "The people of our subcontinent are at the cutting edge of scientific and technical research and in the front ranks of the knowledge society across the world. Let this become a forum where our academicians, scholars researchers and gifted students, can work together in the service of human advancement."

It is precisely with this objective that the SAF Institute of Kashmir Studies at Srinagar, India, will be opened on May 26, 2008. The focus will be on interaction between the peoples of South Asia and promoting Kashmir’s traditional Sufi culture as an antidote to extremism. Junoon, the famous Pakistani Sufi rock band led by Salman Ahmad, will perform on this occasion as also the band of my son Jeet, called the Singhs.

Another highlight of the Kashmir functions will be an unprecedented exhibition of South Asian women painters to be opened by Dr H .B. Ghazanfar, Afghanistan's Women's Affair Minister, Kabul. It is organized by the chairperson of the SAF-Pakistan chapter, Salima Hashmi, in cooperation with Raharaw Omarzad, Director, and Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCAA), Kabul. The idea germinated in Afghanistan where for the first time in the country's history the women artists of Afghanistan will display their works at the UNESCO Madanjeet Singh Institute of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage, Kabul, from 22nd March to 5th April 2008.

The lesson that the South Asia Foundation has learned over the years from tough experience is that there is no substitute to human contact and people-to-people interaction. Students at school together make life-long friends. The sharp turnaround that SAF made at its Special Meeting held in New Delhi on 27 November 2006 was, in fact, the second radical change of direction. The first turning point was at the Second SAF General Conference held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 18 February 2003.

Until then, SAF cherished the hope that online e-learning was the panacea for education, since computers had become a part of the life and culture of young people. Hence SAF invested a lot of funds on IT projects, including experiments on transmitting education through WorldSpace satellite, a hand-held gadget called 'Simputer,' and the training of SAF IT coordinators abroad.

The euphoria in online education subsided when a number of colleges and universities in the United States and Europe failed in their efforts to offer learning opportunities over the Internet. The most discouraging of these initiatives was the closing down of fanthom.com, a US $ 50 million joint venture of 13 leading universities in March 2003. The story virtually came to an end with the bursting of the IT bubble.

In fact, way back at the very first SAF General Conference in Kathmandu, Nepal, on 12 December 2001, Mr N. Ram, a SAF Advisor, was not enthusiastic about giving too much credence to IT projects in the context of the basic things that needed to be done in South Asian societies. He laid emphasis on the importance of conventional "off-line" education and rightly stated that e-learning online transmissions have a long way to go before they can be effectively used and accepted by the rural communities of South Asia.

It is fortunate that Mr Ram, the eminent Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu group of publications, has taken over oversight responsibility for the SAF QUARTERLY and that Mr Nishchal Pandey, author of several research papers and books on South Asia, will serve as the Editor of the journal.


The complete text of the legal document giving the vision and aims of the foundation is as below:

 

SAF Charter

Article I: Preamble

South Asia Foundation (SAF) is a secular, non-profit and non-political organization, founded in 2000 by UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Madanjeet Singh. The cardinal objective of the organization is to sustain a movement, in particular involving youth, to promote regional cooperation and peace through education, cultural interaction and mutual understanding among the people of South Asia.

SAF has been admitted into official relationship with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and recognized as an Apex Body of South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). The aims, objectives and activities of SAF are in conformity with the spirit, purpose and principles of the two international organizations.

Article II: Regional Cooperation Projects

Among the important SAF projects that promote regional cooperation include the jointly designed courses by open universities in SAARC region; the SAF Scouts Friendship Camps; the SAF SOS Environmental Camps: the establishment of the institutions of excellence in SAARC countries, affiliated to the proposed South Asian University; and group scholarships to enable students from the eight SAARC countries to study together.
The main objective is to persuade SAARC member states to adopt a common currency.

Article III: Organization

South Asia Foundation (SAF) has eight autonomous chapters — SAF - Afghanistan, SAF - Bangladesh, SAF - Bhutan, SAF - India, SAF - Maldives, SAF - Nepal, SAF - Pakistan and SAF - Sri Lanka.

South Asia Foundation (SAF) and its eight autonomous chapters have entered into an agreement setting out their relationship and modalities of cooperation.
The Governing Council comprises of eight chairpersons of SAF chapters:

Afghanistan: Hon. Prof. Omara Khan Masoodi, Director of Kabul Museum;
Bangladesh: Dr. Kamal Hossain, former Minister of Law, Foreign Affairs, Dhaka;
Bhutan: Hon. Lyonpo Sangay Ngedup, Minister of Agriculture, Thimphu;
India: Hon. Mani Shankar Aiyar, Minister, Panchayati Raj, Youth, Sports, New Delhi;
Maldives: Hon. Ahmed Shaheed, Foreign Minister, Malé;
Nepal: Dr. Rita Thapa, Senior Advisor to the Nepal Ministry of Health, Kathmandu;
Pakistan: Prof. Salima Hashmi, Dean, School of Visual Arts, BNU, Lahore;
Sri Lanka: Hon. Chandrika B. Kumaratunga, former President of Sri Lanka, Colombo.

In case of demise or incapacitation of a Chairperson, the SAF Advisory Board of that chapter will propose the replacement for consideration by SAF Governing Council in consultation with Madanjeet Singh (SAF Founder) or his successor.

Article IV: Administration

Each of the eight chairpersons, may, at an annual meeting of the Governing Council or at any other special  meeting, present a proposal that promote regional cooperation. A decision to accept or reject a project will be taken by unanimity.

In case any chairperson is unable to attend a meeting, the proposal will be sent to him for decision.

The responsibility for implementing the approved projects is entirely that of the Chairpersons and their Advisory Board members in conformity with the general principle that a chapter with a project funded by SAF would bear at least half the costs, either in funds or in kind.

Each chapter will conduct its own auditing of SAF accounts and submit its annual report.

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