Many countries, developed and developing, that want to become more competitive in global markets tend to jump to a quick conclusion that they need to invest more in infrastructure, particularly in transport sectors like ports. But while many regions, including South Asia, do face important infrastructure gaps, massive new investment is not the only way to improve regional competitiveness. Countries should realize that they also have significant potential to make more efficient use of the infrastructure they already have.
Building megaports all along the coast might reduce a country’s trade costs, but it also requires hundreds of millions of dollars in investment. Improving the performance of existing ports, enabling them to handle higher levels of cargo with the same facilities and in a shorter time, can be a far more cost-effective approach to reducing transport and trade costs. Closing the infrastructure gap does not just require more infrastructure, but also better infrastructure, and better use of existing infrastructure.
The report Competitiveness of South Asia’s Container Ports, which we launched today, provides the first comprehensive look at the 14 largest container ports in South Asia, which handle 98 percent of the region’s container traffic. It focuses on port performance, drivers, and costs.
The World Bank is releasing its first-ever comprehensive study of container ports in South Asia, examining the competitiveness of major ports across the region and suggesting ways they can work more efficiently to boost trade.
The report, to be formally launched on April 27, examines the performance of the ports, which handle about 75 percent of the region’s trade by value, and assesses the role that the private sector, governance, and competition have played in their development.
Trade has been key to South Asia’s remarkable economic average annual growth rate of about 6.7 percent since the beginning of the century, the second-highest in the world after East Asia.
By improving the transport infrastructure, including ports, and easing bottlenecks that hinder the flow of goods, the World Bank is helping South Asia lower its high logistics costs, capture a bigger share of the global market and create more jobs, supporting its progress toward becoming a middle-income region.
Globally 2.9 million people died from household air pollution in 2015, caused by cooking over foul, smoky fires from solid fuels such as wood, charcoal, coal, animal dung, and agricultural crop residues. Well over 99% of these deaths were in developing countries, making household air pollution one of their leading health risk factors.
Many women across the world spend their days and evenings cooking with these fuels. They know the fumes are sickening, which is why some cook in a separate outhouse or send the children to play while they cook. Sadly, these small actions cannot fully protect the young. As for the women themselves, they suffer incredible morbidity and mortality from household air pollution.
We may not know exactly what the world will look like in two decades, but we know this: it is going to be a world of cities.
Each year, urban areas are growing by an average of more than 75 million people – more than the population of the world’s 85 smallest countries combined.
For the world’s economy, this is great news, since cities produce 80 percent of global GDP, despite currently being home to only 55 percent of the population. But it is a problem for urban infrastructure, which can’t keep up with such fast-paced growth. As a result, – from flooding and landslides that can decimate informal housing settlements, to earthquakes that can devastate power grids and water systems.
These risks could be disastrous for the urban poor, 881 million of whom currently live in slums (up 28 percent since 2000). And climate change – which is increasing the intensity and frequency of natural disasters – will only exacerbate the problem. For this reason, multilateral and government institutions now see resilience and climate adaptation as integral pillars of development.
The Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), for example, considers low-emission and climate-resilient economies to be key to global competitiveness. A recent report by the World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) found that climate change may force up to 77 million urban residents into poverty by 2030 – unless we take action to improve the resilience of cities around the world.
How does a poor woman in rural Bangladesh make use of her business acumen if she lacks education, lacks opportunities to learn new skills, no assets of her own, a husband who earns just enough for the family to survive from day to day, children to look after and a society that had traditionally disapproved of women working outside the home?
The story of Hafiza Begum offers one answer. We interviewed her as part of our on-going research in Bangladesh, which sets out to understand its female labor force participation rates. This phenomenon of lower than expected female labor force participation appears to characterize the wider South Asia and MENA regions, despite their positive growth rates. What are some of the reasons?
Hafiza was born into a family too poor to educate her and she was married off at an early age. Her husband worked for daily wages wherever he could find it. Their two young daughters went to school in the local madrassa because it was free. She emerged from our interview as a woman who was determined, within the social norms of her society, to combine caring for her family with finding the resources she needed to build up her own business.
She told her husband early in their marriage how she planned to do this. “Suppose you buy me a kilogram of onions to cook our meals with. If I use 2 onions in a meal, you won’t be able to tell. Even if I use half an onion for a meal, you still won’t be any the wiser. Yet if I use just half an onion every time I cook, our supply of onions will last longer and we will save money.”
This thrifty attitude had been the hallmark of her housekeeping throughout her marriage. She boasted to us that when her husband recently went away to work in a brickfield, she managed to save Rs.400 out of the Rs.500 he gave her to run the house. How did she do it? She went to the marshes near their house to catch fish, keeping some to eat and selling the rest to her neighbors. She supplemented the vegetables she planted on their homestead plot with edible greens that grew wild near their house. She spent money only on what she could not produce herself.
Considering Bangladesh’s lack of development and a predominantly rural context, it would have been difficult to imagine even a few years ago that an elderly widow living in a remote corner of this impoverished South Asian country could be receiving money from her son living in Dubai sitting right at home or making petty payments through her mobile phone. Not any more, though.
Bangladesh has recently emerged as a curious case of digital innovation to widen coverage and reach remote pockets. The country reached the lower middle income country status in 2015, and has showcased the potential of combating rural poverty through inclusive digital financial services.
This has proved to be an effective weapon to eliminate poverty and secure the sustainable development goals (SDGs) while the country advances towards Vision 2021 — lifting millions of Bangladeshis out of poverty. Innovation and digitization will surely set Bangladesh firmly on the path to becoming a middle-income country. Although ambitious, it is exactly what both the government and private sector are working towards.
Access to the formal financial system remains a challenge for the rural poor in Bangladesh even though the central bank announced a plan for inclusive digital financial programmes in 2015.
Last week, I took a journey on Mumbai’s suburban train system, which carries a staggering 8 million women and men, equivalent to the entire population of Switzerland, every day to where they live, work, and spend time with family and friends. Although stretched, the system has reduced mobility constraints and increased independence for millions of women who rely on safe transport to access education and job opportunities; contributing to the city’s dynamism and growth. There are similarly inspiring examples from all countries in South Asia.
As we mark International Women’s Day, we celebrate the progress made in improving women’s inclusion and empowerment, while seeking to better address continuing challenges, which are estimated to cost South Asian economies $888 billion, through devising and implementing solutions that will bridge remaining gaps.
Much to be proud of—a lot more remains to be done
South Asian countries have seen encouraging increases in greater access and gender parity in education. At the same time, the region has achieved substantial decreases in maternal and child mortality. Countries have made great strides in healthcare access through training more female healthcare workers while providing affordable care for mothers and children. The region also boasts many inspiring female leaders and role models, as well as the countless individuals positively contributing to their communities and societies against difficult odds.
However, much more needs to be done in order to nurture all women and men to realize their potential. As South Asian countries become more prosperous, their growth trajectory will be less assured if hundreds of millions of women remain excluded from education and employment opportunities. South Asian countries will need to substantially expand their workforce in order to meet their economic growth goals and, at the same time, adequately support their increasingly large populations. Studies show that only around 1 out of 4 women in South Asia participate in the labor force, about half of what is typical in middle-income countries in other regions. Too many women face restrictions in decision-making, mobility, public safety; and far too many experience gender-based violence—the most egregious cases making headlines around the world. What can help bridge these gaps?
What kind of leader can bring people together for the common good, even amid clashing opinions or real conflict?
That question was at the heart of the 2017 Global Leadership Forum March 6 on the growing need for “collaborative leadership” in an age of increasingly polarized societies.
The event at the World Bank was organized with the Global Partnership for Collaborative Leadership in Development. It explored how to bridge often wide divides to arrive at inclusive solutions, and featured guests such as Festus G. Magae, a former President of Botswana and a South Sudan peace negotiator, and Frank Pearl Gonzalez, Chief Negotiator in the Colombian Peace Talks.