Night falls in Dhaka. Commercial streets glow with lights and the neon-lit stores and restaurants are abuzz with shoppers enjoying a break from Ramadan. This is a great visual spectacle punctuated by the incessant honking of colorful rickshaws.
But the reality is different right outside the capital. Sunset brings life to a halt in rural areas as about 60 percent of rural households do not have access to grid electricity. Kerosene lamps and battery-powered torches are widespread yet limited alternatives, their dim light offering limited options for cooking, reading or doing homework.
It is a sweltering hot day when our team sets out to visit a household of 14 in the village of Pachua, a two-hour drive from Dhaka. Around 80% of the villagers have benefited from the solar panel systems to access electricity. The Rural Electrification and Renewable Energy Development Project (RERED), supports installation of solar home systems and aims to increase access to clean energy in rural Bangladesh.
We’re accompanied by Nazmul Haque Faisal from IDCOL, a government-owned financing institution, which implements the program. “This is the fastest-growing solar home system in the world,” Faisal says enthusiastically, “and with 40,000-50,000 new installations per month, the project is in high demand.”
We’ve now reached our destination and Monjil Mian welcomes us to his house, which he shares with 13 other members of his family, including his brothers, two of them currently away for extended work stints in Saudi Arabia.
Vietnam’s economic emergence is perhaps best experienced along its rural roads: more than 175,000 kilometers of pavement, rubble and dirt track extend to two-thirds of the country’s population, including nearly all of the poorest people, who live among its productive farms, lush forests and meandering river valleys.
In recent years, road investments in Vietnam’s rural areas have improved socioeconomic development and promoted gender equity, social participation, improved school attendance, and more inclusive health services to impoverished regions. However, all but a few hundred communes remain off-grid, and infrastructural roadblocks and bureaucratic potholes have delayed the goal of a fully integrated road system.
The World Bank’s Third Rural Transport Project (RTP3) supported a win-win solution: employing ethnic minority women to sustainably manage road maintenance through an innovative participatory approach to local development. This blog entry describes the experience of improving the roads — and women’s lives — in rural Vietnam. Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way:
Lesson 1: Solutions can come from unexpected sources.
The RTP3 task team’s investigation showed that up to a third of the population in Vietnam’s Northern Uplands provinces would be expected to contribute up to 10 percent of their total annual household expenditure to ensure safe passage along local roads — too much for most to afford. Furthermore, even when adequate resources are made available for maintenance, contractors have sometimes been unwilling to work in inaccessible regions for fear of mudslides during the rainy season.
At the core of the encyclical is both a concern for the health of the planet and for the earth’s poor, reflected in a commitment to social values and integrity, environmental resilience, and economic inclusion.
The stock-taking begins, aptly, with pollution: “Some forms of pollution are part of people’s daily experience. Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths.” The World Bank’s latest edition of the Little Green Data Book finds indeed that in low and middle-income countries, 86% of the residents are exposed to air pollution levels (measured in exposure particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter) that exceed World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. The WHO last year made headlines when it calculated that 7 million people had died prematurely from indoor and outdoor air pollution in 2012. From safer cookstoves in rural areas, to better air quality management in fast growing cities, this is an area where solutions are known and must be urgently applied.
“When I give food to the poor, I am considered a saint. But when I ask why they are poor, I am called a communist."
- Hélder Pessoa Câmara, the Catholic Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, Brazil, serving from 1964 to 1985 during the military regime of the country. He was an advocate of liberation theology, and is remembered for the above aphorism.
Quoted in the Financial Times on June 20, 2015, "A rock-star Pope puts his faith in science" by David Gardner
This week the World Bank Group, the largest multilateral provider of aid for trade, is participating in the World Trade Organization’s 5th Aid for Trade Global Review. Every two years, the Global Review brings together participants in global trade from all over the world, including trade ministers, the heads of international development institutions, the private sector and civil society. We will be focused on the role of trade in helping achieve the Bank Group’s Twin Goals: ending poverty and boosting shared prosperity.
The role of trade in ending poverty is the subject of a new WTO-World Bank Group publication being launched on 30 June, the first day of the Review. The report argues that to achieve the end of poverty by 2030, more needs to be done to connect the nearly one billion people who remain in extreme poverty to trade opportunities. On 30 June the report will be available online, along with further details about the agenda it sets out for maximizing the gains of trade for the poorest.
A critical part of this effort, and the theme of this year’s Aid for Trade meeting, is the importance of reducing the costs of trade. The Bank Group is publishing new analysis at the review, using a database we have developed with UNESCAP, which illustrates how the costs of getting goods to overseas markets are significantly higher for developing countries. For example, low income countries face costs that are on average three times higher than for advanced economies. Landlocked countries and small islands also face particularly high trade costs. The reasons vary, but include poor road networks, weak logistics, inadequate port facilities, antiquated customs procedures, corruption at border crossings, and outdated legal and regulatory structures. Lowering these trade costs makes firms in developing countries more competitive, allowing them to benefit more from trade opportunities. Implementing the Trade Facilitation Agreement will help, and will be an important focus for us at the Review, but the greatest impact will be achieved by comprehensive strategies to tackle these wide-ranging sources of trade costs.
Achieving shared prosperity, one of the World Bank’s twin-goals, isn’t just a middle-income country’s preoccupation. It has a special resonance in Tanzania, a US$1,000 per capita economy in East Africa.
Tanzania has seen remarkable economic growth and strong resilience to external shocks over the last decade. GDP grew at an annualized rate of approximately 7 percent. Yet, this achievement was overshadowed by the slow response of poverty to the growing economy. The poverty rate has remained stagnant at around 34 percent until 2007 and started a slow decline of about one percentage point per year, attaining 28.2 percent in 2012. To date, around 12 million Tanzanians continue to live in poverty, unable to meet their basic consumption needs, and more than 70 percent of the population still lives on less than US$2 per day. Promoting the participation of the poor in the growth process and improving their living standards remains a daunting challenge.
Wasting billions of dollars, time and time again, to stage self-indulgent sports spectacles is no way for any society to build shared prosperity for the long term. But just try explaining that common-sense economic logic to the sports-crazed cities that keep lining up to purchase a moment of fleeting fame – and that end up squandering vast sums, by building use-once-throw-away “white elephants” for one-off events like the Olympic Games or the World Cup soccer tournament.
The sports-industrial complex continues to beguile the gullible and the grandiose, even though scholars have long warned of the futility of sports-event-driven spending. Beijing spent about $40 billion to host the 2008 Summer Games, and Sochi spent upwards of $50 billion to stage the 2014 Winter Games – while Brazil spent $20 billion to host (and heartbreakingly lose) the final rounds of 2014 World Cup soccer. Not to be outdone for extravagance and excess, Qatar reportedly plans to spend as much as $200 billion for the 2022 festivities.
Like the deluded leaders of declining Rome – who distracted their once-industrious city into passivity by pacifying the populace with what the poet Juvenal derided as panem et circenses: "bread and circuses" – modern-day civic leaders are allowing their obsession with media-moment athletic fame to trample economic logic. The scale of their civic hubris – and the malign self-interest of the construction firms, financiers, flacks and fixers who goad credulous Olympic-wannabe cities into wanton overspending – is insightfully dissected in a valuable new book, “Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup,” by Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College.
In recent remarks at the World Bank, Zimbalist deplored the reckless rush that stampedes many cities into bleeding their civic coffers in the quest for Olympic notoriety. The saddest example may be the city of Montreal, whose debt from the 1976 Summer Games burdened the sorry city for 30 years.
Yet the suckers keep taking the bait. Boston, said Zimbalist, recently put forth an extravagant multibillion-dollar bid for the 2024 Summer Games – and only later, after the initial headlines and hoopla had abated, did more complete statistics reveal the likely scale of Boston’s folly. And, of course, the Olympic organizers would again stick the long-suffering taxpayers with the bill for any revenue shortfall.
Zimbalist’s logic is a wake-up call for those who somehow imagine that “this time is different” – that one-shot wonders might somehow produce long-term economic benefits. Some occasional exceptions suggest how very rare it is that optimists are rewarded: London, for example, may have gained a much-needed morale boost after its successful 2012 Summer Games, and two (but only two) Olympic festivals actually turned a profit – both of them in Los Angeles, which shrewdly re-used some of its 1936 Olympic facilities when it again played host to the Summer Games in 1984. But for most cities – Montreal in 1976, Sarajevo in 1984, Athens in 2004 and many more – the money spent on soon-to-crumble stadia, ski jumps and swimming pools was a diversion from urgent human needs and productive investment.
Zimbalist makes a compelling case – yet beyond the diagnosis of the malady, one seeks a prescription to cure it. Can such Olympic megalomania be tamed? Are there other ways to build, and pay for, worthy sports facilities that honor the spirit of the Olympic Games while avoiding the overspending that bleeds their hosts dry?
A potential solution arose amid Zimbalist’s recent World Bank discussion. Rather than build one-shot Olympic facilities that are destined to be discarded as soon as each extravaganza is finished, why not build just one enduring set of permanent Olympic facilities that can be refurbished and re-used, year after year? Build it right, and build it only once: That way, the cost of building and maintaining an Olympic complex could be spread over generations.
Pursuing that solution seems especially timely right now, and here's why. Where is the historically logical place to locate such a permanent Olympic site? Why, in Greece, of course, where the Olympics originated in 776 B.C. and continued until 393 A.D. There could be no more authentic place to have today’s marathoners run than in Marathon itself – no more meaningful place to have skiers schuss than on Mount Olympus, or to have boaters ply the very waters that warmed Odysseus’ odyssey.