Some Observations from Nepal
I've been in Nepal since January helping out with the implementation of a household survey. Throughout February and March, we asked people in two districts – Jhapa, in the south-east of the country on the Indian border, and Tibetan-bordering Sindhupalchok to the north – about their livelihoods, the various taxes they pay, and their relationships with state governance. As part of this research, we've also been carrying out a number of more in-depth qualitative interviews.
When asked about the kinds of taxes that most affect their livelihoods on a day-to-day basis, one of the things that struck me about people's responses was the frequency with which electricity bills were mentioned. At first, I couldn't quite understand why this was coming up so much: that's not a tax, I thought, it's simply a payment made in exchange for a service. In my mind, I began to discount these responses, passing them off as information that missed the points we were trying to get at.
My assumptions were misplaced.
Some Observations from Nepal
Bangladesh, the most vulnerable country in the world to the impact of natural disasters is also a leader in emergency preparedness and disaster response, particularly for cyclones, tidal surges and floods. This was achieved through 25 years of effort, which was catalyzed through two devastating cyclones, one in 1970 and 1991 that caused the deaths of approximately 500,000 and 300,000 people respectively. Part of what makes Bangladesh so strong at cyclone preparedness and response is the fact that major cyclones seem to hit Bangladesh every 3-4 years. Recurrence of this frequency is quite unique.
On the other hand, major seismic events that lead to major losses occur infrequently. Cities like Dhaka and Kathmandu, which are susceptible to major earthquakes, haven’t experienced a major shake in more than a generation. Unfortunately, a lack of frequency often leads to complacency amongst governments and citizens. Even more problematic is the very rapid accumulation of assets and population in urban environments in South Asia, including Dhaka.
Walking through the streets of Dhaka paints a picture of a city with significant structural vulnerabilities – where poor construction standards, lack of enforcement, and poor maintenance turn many buildings into potential hazards. When a building in Savar collapsed in April 2013 – killing over 1,100 people and injuring thousands more – it was a wakeup call for Bangladesh. The collapse was not triggered by an earthquake, it was the result of catastrophic structural failures, but it was a glimpse into what could happen in the event of a major earthquake.
Major crises like wars and disasters affect the lives of millions of people around the world. Sri Lanka itself has experienced the devastating consequences of a brutal 30-year war, violent insurrection and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Whilst mental health and psychosocial services have evolved to help survivors of these crises to cope with and recover from these impacts, it has often been a challenge to providing effective support at the scale required and in a timely manner.
For some affected people, the mental health and psychosocial consequences can be serious and long-lasting. However, for others, access to appropriate material and social support can bolster their ability to cope with the losses and hardships created by disaster and conflict. Given the limited specialized human resources available for mental health and psychosocial support in low and middle-income settings around the world – including in Sri Lanka – it is vital to develop approaches that can strengthen families’ and communities’ own capacity for resilience in the face of adversity.
I was recently at a conference in Lahore, Pakistan sponsored by the International Growth Centre where the keynote address was given by Shahbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of the province of Punjab, Pakistan (100+ million people). While fun to see old friends and colleagues, the conference was a little depressing in the way it reflected the state of the development economics profession.
The Chief Minister posed serious questions that have traditionally been the bread and butter of the economics profession. Unfortunately, we are not even trying to answer them any more. The specific question was “Should I put more money into transport? Infrastructure (power, roads, water)? Law and order? Social services? Or what? And where am I going to get the money?” What questions could be more solidly part of the core of economics than these? Unfortunately none of these were even remotely the focus of the “evidence-based” policy making discussed.
On a warm Friday afternoon in the slums of Madhukam, in the heart of Ranchi, India, a middle-aged man arrived at a public water station with two 20-liter containers to fill. The water station - directly adjacent to an open sewage drain - was really just a concerete wall with four pink spigots protruding from its barren surface. On top perched two large, seemingly empty holding tanks of water. The man placed one of his containers under the first spigot and turned the handle. A small flow of water came out. Within a minute, the flow turned into a trickle, and the trickle quickly became nothing. The man moved to the next spigot, and then the next, only to have all four repeat the same pattern. In the end, the man left carrying only six ounces of water in his two 20-liter containers.
Let’s say we are both girls born on farms in remote villages at the foothills of mountains, but you were born at the foothills of the Himalayas and I, somewhere at the foothills of the Swiss Alps. You are the first of five children and I have only one younger sister. What do you suppose our lives growing up would be like?
I have access to a road that leads me to school every day and to hospitals when I need it. I have electricity so that I can do my homework in the evenings and my mother can cook using a clean stove. We have heat. I even have telecommunication services for when I want to talk to my uncle who lives in Nova Friburgo, Brazil. And my bathroom is indoors because it separates us from our waste.
Tax revenue growth in Bangladesh this year has been one of the lowest in recent years. There is now demand for a cut in corporate income tax rate with the forthcoming FY15 budget. Is this a good idea from a fiscal point of view?
Whether or not a tax-cut will increase or lower tax revenues depend on the tax rates and the tax system in place. If tax rates are in the prohibitive range, a tax cut will result in increased tax revenues. Arthur Laffer distinguished between the arithmetic effect and the economic effect of tax cuts. The arithmetic effect means that a lowering of the tax rate will result in lower tax revenues by the amount of the decrease in the rate. The economic effect identifies a positive impact of lower tax rates on work, output and employment which expand the tax base. If tax rates that are currently in the prohibitive range are lowered, the economic effect of a tax cut will outweigh the arithmetic effect and revenue collection will increase with tax cut.
I was intrigued by Kerala's Akshaya program. Kerala is uniquely, a most decentralized state, the only one of 17 in India to enact the Right to Public Services and, to open citizen service centers called Akshaya, run under the oversight of panchayats, 3-tier local self-governments, in 14 districts set within a 2 km radius of households. Akshaya was designed in its first phase in 2003 by the Kerala IT Mission to improve e-literacy in underserved areas and, in its second phase to provide a platform for government to citizen services through a public-private partnership. Over 60% of Kerala's 33 million citizens have been served by 2070+ Akshaya centers run by private entrepreneurs who collectively earn 30 million INR a month, creating employment for over 20,000 individuals. (For more details, see Akshaya Overview and UNDP Report on Akshaya).