“With the momentum built up, the stage set, with a banner that in all its glory was decorated with the flags of the seven South Asian states, we sat in our respective country groups to embark on a three-day long journey that was to change my perception of South Asia forever. The dis-embarkment on this passage saw us divided by geographical boundaries, as India and Pakistan made sure to sit the farthest away from each other. The end to this voyage, however, painted a story not many foresaw – " – Alizeh Arif, Lahore School of Economics
Bhutan is a small country nestled in the eastern Himalayas between China and India, has managed to maintain its rich and unique cultural heritage in this modern-day age, partly due to its relative isolation during much of the last century. Bhutan is one of the smallest but fastest-growing economies in the world and a success story in poverty reduction.
There has also been an increasing representation of girls at the higher secondary level although the lag continues at the university level.
Gender gaps in labor markets and job quality was identified as one of the main areas of gender gaps in the 2013 World Bank Gender Note Policy. Although tremendous progress has been made, - 58% of Bhutanese women working for pay or looking for jobs - the female labor force participation saw a slight decline compared to men in 2016. It remains one of the highest in the region.
South Asia has enjoyed a growth rate of 6 percent a year over the past 20 years. This has translated into declining poverty and improvements in health and education. While worthy of celebration as we mark International Women's Day, the success could have been more dramatic if more women worked for pay.
With the largest working-age population and growing middle class, South Asia’s development potential is vast. But the lack of women in employment and economic participation reflects lost potential. In India and Sri Lanka, tens of millions of women have dropped out of the work force over the last twenty years.
Many factors are holding them back. Almost half of South Asia’s adult women are illiterate and its girls suffer from the highest malnutrition rates in the world. Rates of violence against women and maternal mortality remain among the highest in the world. All these factors translate into a labor market characterized by low participation, high unemployment and persistent wage gaps for women.
What can be done to better prepare and encourage women to participate in the work force? It starts with valuing our daughters as much as our sons – providing them with the same access to nutritious foods and investing in their education for them to reach their potential. We must also raise our sons to respect girls and women, and make it clear that there is zero-tolerance for gender-based violence.
Remote Rural Communities Development Project (RRCDP), he and his family have benefitted from the construction of a new farm road and protection from landslides through RRCDP support – a project that promotes the increasing of agricultural productivity and development of communities’ access to markets, irrigation, agricultural technologies, and community infrastructure in 26 Gewogs (village groups) under six Dzongkhags (districts) in Bhutan: Chhukha, Dagana, Haa, Samtse, Trongsa, and Wanduephodrang.
Driving Prosperity through Access to Rural Roads
Coming to completion in May 2018, RRCDP has improved road access to markets to at least 11 project Chiwogs (hamlets) in Samtse and Trongsa Dzongkhags – building 22.9 kilometers of farm roads and benefitting about 299 households. With the construction of new farm roads, the most commonly marketed agricultural and livestock products amongst farmers in project areas have been cardamom, vegetables, butter, cheese, and citrus, and to a lesser extent, rice, potatoes, and eggs. Additionally, beneficiaries have also reported a significant reduction in the time of travel between their households and markets – up to 8 hours in some cases! The majority of the Bhutanese population live in remote rural areas – hours, sometimes days of walking from the nearest road. They walk their children through dense forests and rivers to reach schools and health clinics; they carry their agricultural and livestock products to nearby markets on their backs – an average load of 30kg. A horse carrying a 50kg load costs approximately Nu.5 per kilogram.
Now, with road accessibility, farmers use pick-up trucks at the cost of Nu.2 per kilogram. After a RRCDP farm road construction in Samtse, for example, four households bought pick-up trucks and ten individuals bought motorcycles – mainly benefitting the transport of cardamom. Better road accessibility through RRCDP have also fostered the construction of concrete flush toilets outside households and the construction of new concrete-built homes, as well as the expansion of irrigation schemes. Finally, road accessibility has also impacted social dynamics in rural areas benefitted by the project. 
The project has also supported beneficiaries in 88 Chiwogs with access to community and marketing infrastructure, such as power tiller tracks, power tiller machinery, and food bridges – with a total of 3,597 households benefitted. In Norgaygang Gewog, for example, with support from the project, the construction of 4 kilometers of power tiller track in 2016, has brought multiple benefits to the community, such as easier access to schools and healthcare in case of emergency.
The Asia-Pacific region, comprised of 58 economies, is geographically expansive and a picture of diversity. The trends for sustainable energy in Asia-Pacific, which mirror the region’s economic and resource diversity, are underscored by the fact that . The region’s sustainable energy picture is captured in a new report by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), entitled “Asia-Pacific Progress in Sustainable Energy: A Global Tracking Framework 2017 Regional Assessment Report.” The report is based on the World Bank and International Energy Agency’s Global Tracking Framework (GTF), which tracks the progress of countries on energy access, energy efficiency, and renewable energy under Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG7).
Four overarching sustainable energy themes emerge from the report:
Bhutan is a challenging environment in which to develop commercial agriculture. The country has limited areas for agriculture, and its geography and road conditions make logistics and market access costly.
Therefore, commercial agriculture is critical to increase productivity, which will help create jobs and access to more and better food. This can be achieved not only through focusing on high-value products and investing in traditional infrastructure such as irrigation, but also through using information and communication technology (ICT). Based in eastern Bhutan, Mountain Hazelnuts has developed innovative uses of ICT for its commercial agriculture operations.
According to a recent study published in Science Advances, climate change is projected to hit South Asia especially hard.
Impacts will be particularly intense in the food and agriculture sector. A region inhabited by about one-fifth of the world’s people, South Asia and its densely populated agricultural areas face unique and severe natural hazards. Its food system is particularly vulnerable. Climate-smart agriculture (CSA)-- which is an integrated approach to managing landscapes that is focused on increasing agricultural productivity, improving resilience to climate change, and reducing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions—is part of the solution.
The World Bank is working to mainstream climate smart agriculture in South Asia with a series of Climate-Smart Agriculture or “CSA” Country Profiles for Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan, that were launched recently in collaboration with Governments and relevant stakeholders. The findings in the profiles are specific to national contexts, but there is a common thread. We learned that for South Asia, climate change adaptation and mitigation pose major challenges and opportunities for agriculture sector investment and growth.
The farmers, Government representatives and other stakeholders I met during the CSA Country Profile launches expressed huge interest in learning how they can put CSA into practice. Farmers especially were interested in making CSA part of their daily farming routines. As interest grows, so does momentum to take the CSA agenda forward, from research institutions and high level gatherings into farmer’s fields. As one farmer I met in Pakistan said, “Climate-smart agriculture is Common-sense agriculture.”
Climate change is already impacting Pakistan, which often experiences periods of severe droughts, followed by devastating floods. In the aftermath of the 2010 floods, one fifth of the country’s land area was submerged, damaging the economy, infrastructure and livelihoods, and leaving 90 million people without proper access to food. Moving forward, changes in monsoons and increased temperatures will further challenge the agricultural sector, particularly northern Pakistan where vulnerability to climate change is already high.
At the same time, CSA offers attractive opportunities for strengthening Pakistan’s agricultural sector. Innovative, technological practices like laser land leveling and solar powered irrigation systems and management changes like crop diversification, proper cropping patterns and optimized planting dates could put Pakistan’s food system onto a more climate-smart path. Investments in research to develop high-yielding, heat-resistant, drought-tolerant, and pest-resistant crop varieties as well as livestock breeds could also make a difference.
While Bhutan has seen immense growth along with impressive reductions in poverty, it remains a predominantly agriculture-based society, with the majority of the population relying on agriculture for their livelihoods. Most of the country’s arable land is cultivated by small farm holdings – an average size of 1.2 hectares – which produce most of the crop and livestock. However, despite importing 34% of its cereal needs, nearly one out of three Bhutanese suffer from food insecurity. Additionally, nearly 27 percent of Bhutanese households consume less than the daily minimum calorific requirement of 2,124 kcal, resulting in nearly 30 percent of the population facing malnourishment and related health issues such as stunting, or children that are too short for their age.
To help improve the county’s agricultural productivity and better meet the nutrition needs of its people, we recently launched of the Food Security and Agricultural Productivity Project (FSAPP) with the government of Bhutan. The project is designed to reduce the country’s reliance on food imports, help combat malnutrition in children, while improving agricultural productivity. It will assist farmers in five selected dzonkhags (districts) to diversify and enhance agriculture through better cultivation and sales and marketing of their products.
How could the project really be transformational for farmers in Bhutan? The project builds on past efforts where the farmers were assisted with production inputs and equipment. It seeks to transform subsistence farming toward commercialization by boosting production and forging direct links to the market. The new project will also provide opportunities for the farmers to work together, form farming collectives, and create a unified voice to negotiate with agro-entrepreneurs for better terms for their goods.
But how confident are we that the available data on economic activity paints an accurate picture of a country’s performance?
Measuring Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the most standard measure of economic activity, is especially challenging in developing countries, where the informal sector is large and institutional constraints can be severe.
In addition, many countries only provide GDP measures annually and at the national level. Not surprisingly, GDP growth estimates are often met with skepticism.
New technologies offer an opportunity to strengthen economic measurement. Evening luminosity observed from satellites has been shown to be a good proxy for economic activity.
As shown in Figure 1, there is a strong correlation between nightlight intensity and GDP levels in South Asia: the higher the nightlight intensity on the horizontal axis, the stronger the economic activity on the vertical axis.
However, measuring nightlight is challenging and comes with a few caveats. Clouds, moonlight, and radiance from the sun can affect measurement accuracy, which then requires filtering and standardizing.
On the other hand, nighlight data has a lot advantages like being available in high-frequency and with a very high spatial resolution. In the latest edition of South Asia Economic Focus, we use variations in nightlight intensity to analyze economic trends and illustrate how this data can help predict GDP over time and across space.
Several years ago, a newspaper cartoon in a neighboring country caught everyone’s attention when it depicted the government machinery as a big pipe in which lots of water was being poured from one side as taxpayer’s money and only a drop reached the poor on the other end. The water, representing the funds were being lost due to holes in the pipe. The holes were depicted as inefficiency, wastage, corruption etc. Globally, governments lose trillions of dollars due to various inefficiencies, and lack of proper controls and oversight. Citizens suffer as they do not receive the services that they are promised.
Bhutan provides lots of attention to good governance, which is also one of the pillars of Gross National Happiness. Public Financial Management (PFM) is an important element of good governance and delivering high quality of services to citizens as it’s comprised of budgeting, revenue, procurement, accounting and reporting, internal controls and institutional oversight. Sound PFM systems play an important role in strengthening the efficiency, accountability and transparency of the Government systems. Every dollar, every Ngultrum saved through sound PFM systems mean that more resources are available for better schools, hospitals, roads, and other services.