How much social mobility is there in South Asia? The intuitive answer is: very little. South Asia is home to the biggest number of poor in the world and key development outcomes – from child mortality to malnutrition – suggest that poverty is entrenched. Absence of mobility is arguably what defines the caste system, in which occupations are essentially set for individuals at birth. Not surprisingly, the prospects for people from disadvantaged backgrounds to prosper are believed to be gloomier in this part of the world.
And yet, our analysis in Addressing Inequality in South Asia, reveals that economic and occupational mobility has become substantial in the region in recent decades. In fact, it could even be comparable to that of very dynamic societies such as the United States and Vietnam. The analysis also suggests that cities support greater mobility than rural areas, and that wage employment – both formal and informal – is one of its main drivers.
When splitting the population into three groups—poor, vulnerable, and middle class—upward mobility within the same generation was considerable for both the poor and the vulnerable. In both Bangladesh and India, a considerable fraction of households moved above the poverty line between 2005 and 2010. Meanwhile, a sizable proportion of the poor and the vulnerable moved into the middle class. In India, households from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes – considered together – experienced upward mobility comparable to that of the rest of the population.
Watching export growth across South Asia surge in the recent past leads one to ask the obvious but crucial question: Will this trend continue in the longer term and is South Asia on its way to become an export powerhouse, or has it just been a short term, one-off spurt provoked by external forces?
Clearly, the rupee depreciation following tapering talk in May 2013 and the recovery in the US constituted favorable tailwinds; however, our analysis in the fall 2014 edition of the South Asia Economic Focus finds that there are more permanent factors at play as well. South Asia is no exception to the trend across developing countries of increasing importance of exports for economic growth. While starting from a low base, the region saw one of the starkest increases in exports to GDP, pushing from 8.5 percent in 1990 to 23 percent in 2013.
South Asia’s Commerce Ministers meet in Thimphu on July 24. Getting there would not have been easy for many of them, with no direct flights between Thimphu and four of the seven capitals. In June, when some of us convened for a regional meeting in Kathmandu, our Pakistani colleagues had to take a 20 hour flight from Karachi to Dubai in order to get to Kathmandu! This is symptomatic of the overall state of economic engagement within South Asia—in trade in goods and services, foreign direct investment and tourism.
South Asian countries’ trade policies remain inward-looking compared to other regions, and there are even bigger barriers to trade within the region. Today, South Asia today is less economically integrated than it was 50 years ago. Figure 1 below shows that intra-regional trade in South Asia accounts for less than 5 percent of total trade, lower than any other region.