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South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation

South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is the regional intergovernmental organization and geopolitical union of states in South Asia. Its member states include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. SAARC comprises 3% of the world's area, 21% of the world's population and 3.8% (US$2.9 trillion)[4] of the global economy, as of 2015.

SAARC was founded in Dhaka on 8 December 1985.[5] Its secretariat is based in Kathmandu, Nepal. The organization promotes development of economic and regional integration.[6] It launched the South Asian Free Trade Area in 2006.[7] SAARC maintains permanent diplomatic relations at the United Nations as an observer and has developed links with multilateral entities, including the European Union.

SAARC Region
SAARC Region
  Member states   Observer states
 Member states
 Observer states
Official languagesEnglish
Demonym(s)South Asian
Member states
• Secretary-General
PakistanAmjad Hussain B. Sial[2]
Establishment8 December 1985
• Total
5,099,611 km2(1,968,971 sq mi) (7th)
• Water (%)
• 2015 estimate
1,713,870,000[3] (1st)
• Density
336.1/km2(870.5/sq mi)
GDP(PPP)2017 estimate
• Total
US$11.64 trillion[4] (3rd)
GDP(nominal)2017 estimate
• Total
US$ 3.31 trillion[4] (5th)
Time zoneUTC+4:30 to +6(Afghanistan Time(UTC+4:30), Pakistan Standard Time (PST), Maldives Time(both UTC+5:00), Indian Standard Time (IST), Sri Lanka Standard Time (SLST)(bothUTC+5:30), Nepal Standard Time (NST)(UTC+5:45), Bangladesh Standard Time (BST), Bhutan Time (bothUTC+6:00))
Calling code
Internet TLD.asia[1]
www.saarc-sec.org [66]

Historical background

A clickable Euler diagram showing the relationships between various Asian regional organisations v • d • e

A clickable Euler diagram showing the relationships between various Asian regional organisations v • d • e [67]

The idea of co-operation in South Asia was discussed in at least three conferences: the Asian Relations Conference held in New Delhi on April 1947; the Baguio Conference in the Philippines on May 1950; and the Colombo Powers Conference held in Sri Lanka in April 1954.[8]

In the ending years of the 1970s, the seven inner South Asian nations that included Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka agreed upon the creation of a trade bloc and to provide a platform for the people of South Asia to work together in a spirit of friendship, trust, and understanding. President Ziaur Rahman later addressed official letters to the leaders of the countries of the South Asia, presenting his vision for the future of the region and the compelling arguments for region.[9] During his visit to India in December 1977, Rahman discussed the issue of regional cooperation with the Indian Prime Minister, Morarji Desai. In the inaugural speech to the Colombo Plan Consultative Committee which met in Kathmandu also in 1977, King Birendra of Nepal gave a call for close regional cooperation among South Asian countries in sharing river waters.[10]

After the USSR's intervention in Afghanistan, the efforts to establish the union was accelerated in 1979 and the resulting rapid deterioration of South Asian security situation.[10] Responding to Rahman and Birendra's convention, the officials of the foreign ministries of the seven countries met for the first time in Colombo in April 1981.[10] The Bangladeshi proposal was promptly endorsed by Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and the Maldives but India and Pakistan were sceptical initially.[10] The Indian concern was the proposal's reference to the security matters in South Asia and feared that Rahman's proposal for a regional organisation might provide an opportunity for new smaller neighbours to re-internationalise all bilateral issues and to join with each other to form an opposition against India. Pakistan assumed that it might be an Indian strategy to organise the other South Asian countries against Pakistan and ensure a regional market for Indian products, thereby consolidating and further strengthening India's economic dominance in the region.[10]

However, after a series of diplomatic consultations headed by Bangladesh between South Asian U.N. representatives at the UN headquarters in New York, from September 1979 to 1980, it was agreed that Bangladesh would prepare the draft of a working paper for discussion among the foreign secretaries of South Asian countries.[10] The foreign secretaries of the inner seven countries again delegated a Committee of the Whole in Colombo on September 1981, which identified five broad areas for regional cooperation. New areas of co-operation were added in the following years.[11]

In 1983, the international conference held in Dhaka by its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the foreign ministers of the inner seven countries adopted the Declaration on South Asian Association Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and formally launched the Integrated Programme of Action (IPA) initially in five agreed areas of cooperation namely, Agriculture; Rural Development; Telecommunications; Meteorology; and Health and Population Activities.[12]

Officially, the union was established in Dhaka with Kathmandu being union's secretariat-general.[13] The first SAARC summit was held in Dhaka on 7–8 December 1985 and hosted by the President of Bangladesh Hussain Ershad.[14] The declaration signed by King of Bhutan Jigme Singye Wangchuk, President of Pakistan Zia-ul-Haq, Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi, King of Nepal Birendra Shah, President of Sri Lanka JR Jayewardene, and President of Maldives Maumoon Gayoom.[14]

Members and observers

Economic data is sourced from the International Monetary Fund, current as of April 2015, and is given in US dollars.[15]


CountryPopulation[16] (2016)GDP (Nominal)GDP (PPP)GDP per Capita (PPP)GDP Growth Rate (2018)Exports (2018)Foreign Direct Investment (2018)Foreign Exchange Reserves(million)Defense Budget(% of GDP)
Literacy Rate(Given Age & above)Life ExpectancyPopulation below Poverty LinePrimary School Enrollment [18]Secondary School enrollment [19]Population undernourished(%)
Human Development IndexDemocracy IndexGlobal Terrorism IndexG20BRICSBIMSTECIORAAPTABBINSASECAIIBACUACDADBWorld BankNuclear Weapons
Afghanistan34,656,032$19,585 billion$72,911 billion$2,0172.3%$0.784 billionN/A$6,442N/A38.2%(Age 15)63.6742%N/A54%26.8%0.498 (168)2.97 (143)9.233 (2)
Bangladesh162,951,560$314,656 billion$831,750 billion$4,9927.7%$46,879 billion$3.61 billion$32,000$3.87 billion(1.2%)75.4%(Age 15)72.498.1%92%54%16.4%0.608 (136)5.57 (88)0 (124)
Bhutan797,765$2,627 billion$7,701 billion$9,5406.4%$0,580 billion$63 millionN/AN/A59.5%(age 15)70.2012%91%78%N/A0.612 (134)5.30 (94)0.305 (107)
India1,324,171,354$2,716,746 billion$10,505.288 billion$78747.0%$303,400 billion$31 billion$422,532.5$45 billion (1.9%)74.04%(Age 15)68.563.7%92%75%15.2%0.640 (130)7.23 (41)4.222 (39)
Maldives427,756$5,302 billion$7,936 billion$21,7606.9%$0.256.2 billionN/A$356N/A98.61%%(age 15)77.3416%N/AN/A5.2%0.717 (101)____
Nepal28,982,771$28,812 billion$84,365 billion$2,9056.2%$0.818.7 billion$10 million$5,439N/A64.7%(age 15)70.256%98%67%7.8%0.574 (149)5.18 (97)4.791 (32)
Pakistan193,203,476$278,019 billion$1,141.21 billion$5,8393.29%$21,940 billion$0.709 billion (2014)$16,305$7.4 billion (3.5%)58%(age 15)66.4824.3%72%34%22%0.562 (150)4.17 (112)10 (1)
Sri Lanka20,798,492$88,223 billion$290.561 billion$13,3973.0%$10.930 billion$0.9 billion$8,314$1.4 billion(2.3%)93.2%(age 15)75.286.7%94%99%22%0.770 (76)6.19 (71)4.077 (42)

The member states are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.[21]

SAARC was founded by seven states in 1985. In 2005, Afghanistan began negotiating their accession to SAARC and formally applied for membership on the same year.[22][23] The issue of Afghanistan joining SAARC generated a great deal of debate in each member state, including concerns about the definition of South Asian identity because Afghanistan is a Central Asian country.[24]

The SAARC member states imposed a stipulation for Afghanistan to hold a general election; the non-partisan elections were held in late 2005.[24] Despite initial reluctance and internal debates, Afghanistan joined SAARC as its eighth member state in April 2007.[24][25]


States with observer status include[26] Australia,[27] China, the European Union,[28] Iran, Japan,[28] Mauritius,[29] Myanmar, South Korea and the United States.[30]

On 2 August 2006, the foreign ministers of the SAARC countries agreed in principle to grant observer status to three applicants;[31] the US and South Korea (both made requests in April 2006),[31] as well as the European Union (requested in July 2006).[32] On 4 March 2007, Iran requested observer status,[33] followed shortly by Mauritius.

Potential future members

Myanmar has expressed interest in upgrading its status from an observer to a full member of SAARC.[34] Russia has applied for observer status membership of SAARC.[35][36][37] Turkey applied for observer status membership of SAARC in 2012.[35][36][37] South Africa has participated in meetings.[38]


Secretariat of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in Kathmandu, Nepal

Secretariat of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in Kathmandu, Nepal

The SAARC Secretariat was established in Kathmandu on 16 January 1987 and was inaugurated by Late King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah of Nepal.[39]

Regional Centres

The SAARC Secretariat is supported by following Regional Centres established in the Member States to promote regional co-operation. These Centres are managed by Governing Boards comprising representatives from all the Member States, SAARC Secretary-General and the Ministry of Foreign/External Affairs of the Host Government. The Director of the Centre acts as Member Secretary to the Governing Board which reports to the Programming Committee. After 31 December 2015, there 6 regional centers were stopped by unanimous decision. These are SMRC, SFC, SDC, SCZMC, SIC, SHRDC.[40]

Regional CentreLocationCountryWebsite
SAARC Agricultural Centre (SAC)DhakaBangladeshOfficial website [68]
SAARC Meteorological Research Centre (SMRC)DhakaBangladesh
SAARC Forestry Centre (SFC)ThimphuBhutan
SAARC Development Fund (SDF)ThimphuBhutanOfficial website [69]
SAARC Documentation Centre (SDC)New DelhiIndia
SAARC Disaster Management Centre (SDMC)GandhinagarIndiaOfficial website [70]
SAARC Coastal Zone Management Centre (SCZMC)MaléMaldives
SAARC Information Centre (SIC)KathmanduNepal
SAARC Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS Centre (STAC)KathmanduNepalOfficial website [71]
SAARC Human Resources Development Centre (SHRDC)IslamabadPakistan
SAARC Energy Centre (SEC)IslamabadPakistanOfficial website [72]
SAARC Cultural Centre (SCC)ColomboSri LankaOfficial website [73]


SAARC does not have an official anthem like some other regional organisations (e.g. ASEAN).[41]

Apex and Recognised Bodies

SAARC has six Apex Bodies,[42] they are-

  • SAARC Chamber of Commerce & Industry (SCCI),

  • South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in Law(SAARCLAW),[43]

  • South Asian Federation of Accountants (SAFA),

  • South Asia Foundation (SAF),

  • South Asia Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC),

  • Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature (FOSWAL)

Amjad Hussain B. Sial is the current Secretary General of SAARC.

SAARC also has about 17 recognised bodies.[42]

SAARC Disaster Management Centre

South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Disaster Management Centre (SDMC-IU) has been set up at Gujarat Institute of Disaster Management (GIDM) Campus, Gandhinagar, Gujarat, India. Eight Member States, i.e. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are expected to be served by the SDMC (IU). It is entrusted with the responsibility of serving Member States by providing policy advice, technical support on system development, capacity building services and training for holistic management of disaster risk in the SAARC region. The centre also facilitates exchange of information and expertise for effective and efficient management of disaster risk.

Political issues

Lasting peace and prosperity in South Asia has been elusive because of the various ongoing conflicts in the region. Political dialogue is often conducted on the margins of SAARC meetings which have refrained from interfering in the internal matters of its member states.[44] During the 12th and 13th SAARC summits, extreme emphasis was laid upon greater cooperation between the SAARC members to fight terrorism.[45][46]

The 19th SAARC summit scheduled to be held in Pakistan was called off as India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan decided to boycott it.[47][48] It was for the first time that four countries boycotted a SAARC summit, leading to its cancellation.[49][50]

South Asian Free Trade Area

Countries under the South Asian Free Trade Area

Countries under the South Asian Free Trade Area

SAFTA was envisaged primarily as the first step towards the transition to a South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) leading subsequently towards a Customs Union, Common Market and the Economic Union. In 1995, Sixteenth session of the Council of Ministers (New Delhi, 18–19 December 1995) agreed on the need to strive for the realisation of SAFTA and to this end, an Inter-Governmental Expert Group (IGEG) was set up in 1996 to identify the necessary steps for progressing to a free trade area. The Tenth SAARC Summit (Colombo, 29–31 July 1998) decided to set up a Committee of Experts (COE) to draft a comprehensive treaty framework for creating a free trade area within the region, taking into consideration the asymmetries in development within the region and bearing in mind the need to fix realistic and achievable targets.

The SAFTA Agreement was signed on 6 January 2004 during Twelfth SAARC Summit held in Islamabad, Pakistan. The Agreement entered into force on 1 January 2006, and the Trade Liberalisation Programme commenced from 1 July 2006. Under this agreement, SAARC members will bring their duties down to 20 percent by 2009. Following the Agreement coming into force the SAFTA Ministerial Council (SMC) has been established comprising the Commerce Ministers of the Member States.[51] In 2012 the SAARC exports increased substantially to US$354.6 billion from US$206.7 billion in 2009. Imports too increased from US$330 billion to US$602 billion over the same period. But the intra-SAARC trade amounts to just a little over 1% of SAARC's GDP. In contrast to SAARC, in ASEAN (which is actually smaller than SAARC in terms of the size of the economy) the intra-bloc trade stands at 10% of its GDP.

SAFTA was envisaged to gradually move towards the South Asian Economic Union, but the current intra-regional trade and investment relation are not encouraging and it may be difficult to achieve this target. The SAARC intra-regional trade stands at just five percent on the share of intra-regional trade in overall trade in South Asia. Similarly, foreign direct investment is also dismal. The intra-regional FDI flow stands at around four percent of the total foreign investment.[52]

The Asian Development Bank has estimated that inter-regional trade in SAARC region possessed the potential of shooting up agricultural exports by $14 billion per year from existing level of $8 billion to $22 billion. The study by Asian Development Bank states that against the potential average SAARC intra-regional trade of $22 billion per year, the actual trade in South Asia has been only around $8 billion. The uncaptured potential for intra-regional trade is therefore $14 billion per year, i.e. 68%.[53][54]

SAARC Visa Exemption Scheme

The SAARC Visa Exemption Scheme was launched in 1992. The leaders at the Fourth Summit (Islamabad, 29–31 December 1988), realizing the importance of people-to-people contact among SAARC countries, decided that certain categories of dignitaries should be entitled to a Special Travel document. The document would exempt them from visas within the region. As directed by the Summit, the Council of Ministers regularly kept under review the list of entitled categories.

Currently, the list included 24 categories of entitled persons, which include dignitaries, judges of higher courts, parliamentarians, senior officials, entrepreneurs, journalists, and athletes.

The Visa Stickers are issued by the respective Member States to the entitled categories of that particular country. The validity of the Visa Sticker is generally for one year. The implementation is reviewed regularly by the Immigration Authorities of SAARC Member States.[55]



The Twelfth (12th) Summit approved the SAARC Award to support individuals and organisations within the region. The main aims of the SAARC Award are:

  • To encourage individuals and organisations based in South Asia to undertake programmes and activities that complement the efforts of SAARC

  • To encourage individuals and organisations in South Asia contributing to bettering the conditions of women and children

  • To honour outstanding contributions and achievements of individuals and organisations within the region in the fields of peace, development, poverty alleviation, environmental protection, and regional cooperation

  • To honour any other contributions and achievement not covered above of individuals and organisations in the region.

The SAARC Award consists of a gold medal, a letter of citation, and cash prize of US$25,000 (₹15 lakhs). Since the institution of the SAARC Award in 2004, it has been awarded only once and the Award was posthumously conferred upon the late President Ziaur Rahman of Bangladesh.[56]

SAARC Literary Award

Recipients of SAARC Literary Award 2013

Recipients of SAARC Literary Award 2013

The SAARC Literary Award is an annual award conferred by the Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature (FOSWAL) since 2001[57][58] which is an apex SAARC body.[59] Shamshur Rahman, Mahasweta Devi, Jayanta Mahapatra, Abhi Subedi, Mark Tully, Sitakant Mahapatra, Uday Prakash, Suman Pokhrel and Abhay K are some of the prominent recipients of this award.[60]

Nepali poet, lyricist, and translator Suman Pokhrel is the only poet/writer to get this award twice.[61]

SAARC Youth Award

The SAARC Youth Award is awarded to outstanding individuals from the SAARC region. The award is notable because of the recognition it gives to the Award winner in the SAARC region. The award is based on specific themes which apply to each year. The award recognises and promotes the commitment and talent of the youth who give back to the world at large through various initiatives such as Inventions, Protection of the Environment and Disaster relief. The recipients who receive this award are ones who have dedicated their lives to their individual causes to improve situations in their own countries as well as paving a path for the SAARC region to follow. The Committee for the SAARC Youth Award selects the best candidate based on his/her merits and their decision is final.[62]

Previous Winners:

  • 1997: Outstanding Social Service in Community Welfare – Mohammed Sukur Salek (Bangladesh)

  • 1998: New Inventions and Shanu — Najmul Hasnain Shah (Pakistan)

  • 2001: Creative Photography: South Asian Diversity – Mushfiqul Alam (Bangladesh)

  • 2002: Outstanding contribution to protect the Environment – Masil Khan (Pakistan)

  • 2003: Invention in the Field of Traditional Medicine – Hassan Sher (Pakistan)

  • 2004: Outstanding contribution to raising awareness of TB and/or HIV/AIDS – Ajij Prasad Poudyal (Nepal)

  • 2006: Promotion of Tourism in South Asia – Syed Zafar Abbas Naqvi (Pakistan)

  • 2008: Protecting the Environment in South Asia – Uswatta Liyanage Deepani Jayantha (Sri Lanka)

  • 2009: Outstanding contribution to humanitarian works in the aftermath of Natural Disasters – Ravikant Singh (India)

  • 2010: Outstanding contribution for the Protection of Environment and mitigation of Climate Change – Anoka Primrose Abeyrathne (Sri Lanka)

Secretaries-General of SAARC

NameCountryTook officeLeft office
1Abul AhsanBangladesh16 January 198515 October 1989
2Kant Kishore BhargavaIndia17 October 198931 December 1991
3Ibrahim Hussein ZakiMaldives1 January 199231 December 1993
4Yadav Kant SilwalNepal1 January 199431 December 1995
5Naeem U. HasanPakistan1 January 199631 December 1998
6Nihal RodrigoSri Lanka1 January 199910 January 2002
7Q. A. M. A. RahimBangladesh11 January 200228 February 2005
8Chenkyab DorjiBhutan1 March 200529 February 2008
9Sheel Kant SharmaIndia1 March 200828 February 2011
10Fathimath Dhiyana SaeedMaldives1 March 201111 March 2012
11Ahmed SaleemMaldives12 March 201228 February 2014
12Arjun Bahadur ThapaNepal1 March 201428 February 2017
13Amjad Hussain B. SialPakistan1 March 2017Incumbent

SAARC summits

NoDateCountryHostHost leader
1st7–8 December 1985BangladeshDhakaAtaur Rahman Khan
2nd16–17 November 1986IndiaBengaluruRajiv Gandhi
3rd2–4 November 1987NepalKathmanduKing Birendra Bir Bikram Shah
4th29–31 December 1988PakistanIslamabadBenazir Bhutto
5th21–23 November 1990MaldivesMaléMaumoon Abdul Gayoom
6th21 December 1991Sri LankaColomboRanasinghe Premadasa
7th10–11 April 1993BangladeshDhakaKhaleda Zia
8th2–4 May 1995IndiaNew DelhiP V Narasimha Rao
9th12–14 May 1997MaldivesMaléMaumoon Abdul Gayoom
10th29–31 July 1998Sri LankaColomboChandrika Kumaratunga
11th4–6 January 2002NepalKathmanduSher Bahadur Deuba
12th2–6 January 2004PakistanIslamabadZafarullah Khan Jamali
13th12–13 November 2005BangladeshDhakaKhaleda Zia
14th3–4 April 2007IndiaNew DelhiManmohan Singh
15th1–3 August 2008Sri LankaColomboMahinda Rajapaksa
16th28–29 April 2010BhutanThimphuJigme Thinley
17th10–11 November 2011MaldivesAdduMohammed Nasheed
18th26–27 November 2014[63]NepalKathmanduSushil Koirala
19th9–10 November 2016PakistanIslamabadCancelled
20th2019Sri LankaColomboMaithripala Sirisena

Current leaders of SAARC

Current leaders

CountryPresidentPrime Minister
AfghanistanAshraf GhaniAbdullah Abdullah
BangladeshAbdul HamidSheikh Hasina
BhutanKing Jigme Khesar Namgyel WangchuckLotay Tshering
IndiaRam Nath KovindNarendra Modi
MaldivesIbrahim Mohamed Solih
NepalBidhya Devi BhandariKhadga Prasad Oli
PakistanArif AlviImran Khan
Sri LankaMaithripala SirisenaRanil Wickremesinghe

See also

  • ASEAN and India's Look-East connectivity projects

  • Asia Cooperation Dialogue

  • SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry

  • Bangladesh Bhutan India Nepal Initiative


  • Indian-Ocean Rim Association

  • List of SAARC summits

  • Mekong–Ganga Cooperation

  • SAARC satellite

  • South Asian University

  • South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation

  • Shanghai Cooperation Organisation


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