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October 17 is the international day to end poverty. There has been much progress toward this important milestone: the World Bank Group’s latest numbers show that since 1990 nearly 1.1 billion people have escaped extreme poverty. Between 2012 and 2013 alone, around 100 million people moved out of extreme poverty. That’s around a quarter of a million people every day. This is cause for optimism.
But extreme poverty and the wrenching circumstances that accompany it persist. Half the world's extreme poor now live in sub-Saharan Africa, and another third live in South Asia. Worldwide nearly 800 million people were still living on less than $1.90 a day in 2013, the latest year for which we have global numbers. Half of these are children. Most have nearly no education. Many of the world's poor are living in fragile and conflict afflicted countries. In a world in which so many have so much, it is unacceptable that so many have so little.
In 2014, Nikhil Chandra Roy was struggling to find and keep regular employment. He had extensive experience dating back to 1977, doing the work of an electrician. But because he had no formal training or certification, Nikhil couldn’t win the confidence of employers in Bangladesh to give him anything more than episodic, relatively low-paying work.
At age 55, just as he was giving up hope for career progress, Nikhil saw an advertisement that ended up turning his outlook and life around. The ad introduced him to the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) program, aimed especially at people like Nikhil, who have real skills and experience in a particular occupation but no formal, independently recognized qualifications.
Not long later, Nikhil participated in a three-day program, which entails one day of assessment and two days of training. That led to the recognition he had long awaited and needed to boost his career: a Government-endorsed skills certification from the Bangladesh Technical Education Board (BTEB) in electrical installation and maintenance.
“From that point on,” Nikhil said, “there was no looking back. With my years of experience, knowledge and now skills certification, I was ready to progress my career from just an electrician to an entrepreneur.”
Nikhil was one of the many vulnerable informal sector workers in Bangladesh who have no regular jobs and who work on ad hoc opportunities, making it difficult to sustain livelihoods. These workers, with enough experience to perform the technical work well but not the credential many jobs require, improve their employability and bargaining power in job markets when they get the proper certification. And with that certification, workers gain social status in their communities.
The RPL program, which evaluates the skills level of workers and issues government certification to workers who pass an assessment, has operated since 2014 as a pilot activity under the Skills and Training Enhancement Project (STEP). STEP aims to give more Bangladeshis the technical skills they need to compete successfully in domestic and international labor markets.
The demand for RPL certification has been enormous. Since its inception, RPL has assessed more than 9,000 applicants from all over Bangladesh. Every month, RPL offers 600 applicants certification trainings in electrical installation and maintenance; IT support; block, boutique and screen printing; sewing machine operation; tailoring and dress making; motorcycle servicing; plumbing; and welding.
There is a lot for Bangladesh to celebrate in the latest World Bank research on global poverty and inequality.
The new report, entitled “Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2016: Taking on Inequality”, uses revised data to give a more accurate estimate of how many poor people live in Bangladesh. What the report shows is that 18.5 percent of the population was poor in 2010 compared with 44.2 percent in 1991.
This is a major achievement that will receive global recognition on October 17 when the World Bank Group marks End Poverty Day with the Bangladesh people at an event in Dhaka.
This achievement means that . It means that Bangladesh beat the deadline by an impressive five years in achieving Millennium Development Goal number 1, an internationally recognized target to cut extreme poverty rates by half by 2015.
It is worth remembering how far Bangladesh has come.
There is now a huge window of opportunity for South Asia to create more apparel jobs, as rising wages in China compel buyers to look to other sourcing destinations. Our new report – Stitches to Riches?: Apparel Employment, Trade, and Economic Development in South Asia – estimates that the region could create 1.5 million new apparel jobs, of which half a million would be for women. And these jobs would be good for development, because they employ low-skilled workers in large numbers, bring women into the workforce (which benefits their families and society), and facilitate knowledge spillovers that benefit the economy as a whole.
But for these jobs to be created, our report finds that apparel producers will need to become more competitive – chiefly by (i) strengthening links between the apparel and textile sectors; (ii) moving into design, marketing, and branding; and (iii) shifting from a concentration on cotton products to including those made from man-made fibers (MMFs) – now discouraged by high tariffs and import barriers. These suggestions recently drew strong support from panels of academics and representatives from the private sector and government when the report was launched mid-year in Colombo, Delhi, Dhaka, and Islamabad. South Asia is now moving on some of these fronts but a lot more could be done.
Moving up the apparel value chain
Stitches to Riches? finds that South Asia’s abundant low-cost labor supply makes it extremely cost competitive (except for possibly Sri Lanka). But rapidly rising living costs in apparel manufacturing hubs, coupled with international scrutiny, are increasing pressure on producers to raise wages. Plus, countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, who enjoy a similar cost advantage, are entering the fray, and some East Asian countries already pose a big challenge. The good news is that the policy reforms needed to keep the apparel sector competitive would likely benefit other export industries and transform economies (view end of the blog).
The China sourcing conundrum
In conversations with U.S. and European retailers and brands, ELEVATE – a company formed in 2013 to support corporate social responsibility – finds that apparel buyers rate diversifying away from China as one of their top three sourcing goals.
This is not to suggest that there is a desire to exit China – which currently holds by far the largest share of global apparel trade, at 41 percent – but rather a need to significantly reduce dependence on product from China, owing to rising costs, factory closures, unenthusiastic second generation family ownership, new attitudes about working in factories, and a perception that China wants to move to higher-value manufacturing. Sourcing and procurement organizations feel uncertain, and uncertainty is not a friend of supply chains.
The problem is that for all its uncertainty, China still has a huge base of factories, a well-developed transport infrastructure, and a comprehensive eco-system that supplies cut-and-sew operations, and management that has matured with years of experience. Even if a buyer would like to give another country an opportunity, many corporate risk managers view certain countries or regions as quite challenging for doing business.
South Asia could seize this opportunity by better meeting requirements – besides competitive costs – that are vital to global buyers. These include: (i) quality, which is influenced by the raw materials used, skill level of the sewing machine operator, and thoroughness of the quality control team; (ii) lead time and reliability, which are greatly affected by the efficiency and availability of transportation networks and customs procedures; and (iii) social compliance and sustainability, which has become central to buyers’ sourcing decisions in response to pressure from corporate social responsibility campaigns by non-governmental organizations, compliance-conscious consumers, and, more recently, the increased number of safety incidents in apparel factories.
Surveys of global buyers show that East Asian apparel manufacturers rank well above South Asian firms along these key dimensions, as noted in a new World Bank report on apparel, jobs, trade, and economic development in South Asia, Stitches to Riches (see table). So, what can South Asia, which now accounts for only 12 percent of global apparel trade, do to become a bigger player? An encouraging recent development is that buyers have started collaborating to facilitate new sourcing possibilities – as the case of Bangladesh illustrates.
Judging by the number of views of the recent Facebook livestream event on intra-regional trade and investment in South Asia, there is significant interest in this topic. And there should be, given that there remain many important and untapped opportunities to use the power of trade and investment to enhance economic opportunities, including for lesser-skilled people and women in the region.
According to respondents of the Facebook poll conducted during the above event in May 2016, the most important policy to enhance intra-regional trade would be to invest in connectivity and border crossings. Policy makers seem to realize this as well. Over the last two years, new efforts to deepen South Asian cooperation in trade have focused almost exclusively on trade facilitation issues. Let me elaborate.