As we today mark UN Women’s Day, it is worth considering what the inequality between men and women costs South Asian countries and what can be done about it.
One big cost of inequality is that South Asian economies do not reach their full potential. In Bangladesh, for example, women account for most unpaid work, and are overrepresented in the low productivity informal sector and among the poor. Raising the female employment rate could contribute significantly to Bangladesh achieving its goal in 2021 of becoming a middle-income country. Yet even middle-income countries in South Asia could prosper from more women in the workforce. Women represent only 34 percent of the employed population in Sri Lanka, a figure that has remained static for decades.
Improvements in the education and health of women have been linked to better outcomes for their children in countries as varied as Nepal and Pakistan. In India, giving power to women at the local government level led to increases in public services, such as water and sanitation.
Just as the costs of inequality are huge, so is the challenge in overcoming it. The gaps in opportunity between men and women are the product of pervasive and stubborn social norms that privilege men’s and boys’ access to opportunities and resources over women’s and girls’.
In Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, you cannot miss the slum neighborhoods. More than 5,000 slum communities, accounting for 40 percent of the population, are spread across the city, often located right next to luxury penthouses, hotels, and high-rise office buildings. Most slum dwellers are limited to low-quality housing in precarious areas, often prone to flooding. The limited access to adequate shelter is an important factor that – according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2015 livability rankings – makes Dhaka one of the least livable cities in the world. These communities are among the most neglected in the city in terms of urban policy, planning, and development, although the people who live in the slums make up the lion’s share of the work force, which drives the city’s economy, contributing significantly to the garment and leather industries, construction, waste management, and many other informal sectors.
Living in slums puts enormous social, economic, and financial burdens on households, and it can lead to intergenerational poverty. Many argue that slum dwellers are caught in a poverty trap—that living in slums makes it harder for households to escape poverty. Several slum-related factors contribute to the perpetuation of poverty, including poor health outcomes; an inability to access finance or leverage property assets; and lack of access to basic services. The existence of slums is a symptom of a shortage of affordable housing, the provision of which can be viewed as a valuable goal in its own right and as a critical ingredient in addressing the broader challenges of poverty.
On a foggy winter morning in Dhaka, 41-year-old Jahid was sipping tea by a roadside stall.
“Life was very peaceful back in my village,” he reminisced, “but there was no work, so I moved to Dhaka. Even if I live in a slum, my children are better off here.”
Jahid is one of the 500,000 people that move to Dhaka city each year. Driven by the promise of economic opportunity as well as poverty in rural and coastal areas, it is estimated that half the population of Bangladesh will migrate to urban areas by 2030.
Urbanization can be catalyst for growth. Density – the clustering of firms and workers – can drive productivity, innovation and job creation. It is the benefits of agglomeration that once drew the country’s most important industry – the ready-made garments sector to Dhaka city.
However, it is the costs from congestion that are now pushing factories away, mainly to peri-urban areas. Why are factory owners leaving?
For starters, the tide of new migrants has overwhelmed urban infrastructure, basic services, as well as the stock of affordable housing – eroding the both the livability and competitiveness of Dhaka city. A recent World Bank report described South Asia’s urbanization trajectory as “messy and hidden” – reflected in the large-scale proliferation of slums and urban sprawl.
Recently, an undergraduate engineering student from Khulna University of Engineering and Technology (KUET) in Bangladesh showed me his mobile app that helps a blind person navigate while enabling family and friends to track their whereabouts. I was impressed with his capacity to apply electronics, geographic information system, and programming knowledge to develop a real-life solution.
Like this student, the ability to innovate harnessing existing talent and infrastructure already exist in Bangladesh. Leading universities, like Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), KUET, Bangladesh Agricultural University, and University of Dhaka already have analog fabrication labs for molding, casting, wood and metal workshops and robotics. The BUET even has a 3D printer, although it is an early version. What is missing is a transformation from analog to digital to improve precision, design, and speed of fabrication and prototyping, a market-oriented product development, and multi-disciplinary teaching, learning, research, and entrepreneurship to advance innovation.
A local innovation ecosystem has also been emerging. Last year, the first hardware startup competition called “Make-a-thon” (website and video) connected young entrepreneurs, industries, and professors to jointly make solutions. BRAC has also organized a 36-hour hackathon event called “Bracathon” to provide a platform for the youth to make mobile applications for social innovation.
To foster innovation and university-industry partnership, the Higher Education Quality Enhancement Program (HEQEP), have been supporting Universities with an Academic Innovation Fund (AIF). To accelerate this effort, the project team organized a workshop on the digital fabrication laboratory (Fab Lab) potential to introduce Fab Lab concept.
Bangladesh has a major opportunity to address one of its most pressing development challenges: creating 20 million new jobs over the next decade. And the trade agenda will be a centerpiece of any strategy that seeks to address this challenge.
Join me for a Facebook Q/A chat on January 28 to discuss this and other findings from the recently released report Toward New Sources of Competitiveness in Bangladesh co-authored with Mariem Mezghenni Malouche.
Below are some 4 highlights from the report, which we will be discussing. I look forward to your questions and a vibrant discussion!
- Bangladesh will need to expand its linkages with neighboring countries such as China and India as well as other Asian countries like Japan and South Korea. Not only are these very large markets, they are also potential sources of greater foreign direct investment. What are the critical steps that will allow this to happen? How can the recently signed Motor Vehicles Agreement between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal help? What are the barriers to Bangladesh’s venturing into new markets?
- Bangladesh will need to gradually diversify its export base into new product areas while also strengthening its position as the second-largest garment producer in the world (after China). Our report explores the critical challenges that could allow this to happen. In your view, what challenges lie ahead if Bangladesh tries to diversify its exports? Can you name some prospective industries (for diversification)? What will be the role of foreign direct investment in this diversification? What kind of reforms are needed to attract more domestic as well as foreign direct investment?