More than 50% of today’s international trade goes through regional trading arrangements. While trade is a critical component of regional integration, integration has several other dimensions including energy cooperation and intra-regional investment, to name a few. After carefully examining cases of regional integration in Southeast Asia, the Americas and Africa, we present five lessons for South Asia.
Lesson 1: Facilitate trade in goods and services
Despite falling tariffs, there is still a large gap between the price of the exported good and the price paid by the importer, largely arising from high costs of moving goods, especially in South and Central Asia. On a percentage basis, the potential gains to trade facilitation in South and Central Asia, at 8 percent of GDP, are almost twice as large as the global average. High trade costs have contributed to South Asia being the least integrated region in the world.
FIGURE 1: Intra-regional trade share (percent of total trade), 2012
In the ASEAN region, most countries have established either Trade Information Portals or Single Windows that have enhanced trade facilitation, reduced trade costs and enhanced intra-regional trade. A Trade Information Portal allows traders to electronically access all the documents they need to obtain approvals from the government. A Single Window (a system that enables international traders to submit regulatory documents at a single location and/or single entity) allows for the electronic submission of such documents. These single windows, using international open communication standards, facilitate trade both within the region and with other countries using similar standards.
In services, one barrier to trade involves the movement of skilled workers, accountants, engineers and consultants who may move from one country to another on a temporary basis. The Southern Common Market (Mercosur)’s Residence Agreement allows workers to reside and work for up to two years in a host country. This residence permit can be made permanent if the worker proves that they can support themselves and their family.
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.
“I am proud today to have acquired technical skills to get an edge in a constantly changing global job market. In 2014, I was lucky to get the chance to participate in the skills competition organized by Skills and Training Enhancement Project (STEP). After a month of hard-work, I was the winner. This motivated and inspired me to pursue my future career. Technical skills helped me achieve personal and professional fulfilment,” said Jarin Tasnima, a student of Computer Engineering Department of the Dhaka Mohila Polytechnic.
Following the footsteps of students like Jarin Tasnima, Bithi, an architecture student is planning to participate in the next skills competition, scheduled for the end of 2015. She is the youngest member of a family of four and lacked the financial means to pay for her school.
Her brother, an accountant found out that having technical skills led to better pay and increased social respect. He motivated his younger sister to choose a technical career path in which she selected architecture. After achieving a secondary school certificate, her dreams came true due to a stipend program at the Dhaka Mohila Polytechnic supported by STEP which paid her fees. “I am thankful to my brother for advising me to join Polytechnic Institute to enhance my career,” said Bithi.
Delta regions constitute only 5% of the land area but are home to more than 500 million people. The proportion of deltas susceptible to flooding is projected to further increase, thus affecting negatively the livelihoods of local populations, in particular farmer communities.
Recently, the International Council for Science (ICSU) endorsed the Global Sustainable Deltas Initiative (SD2015). The objective of this initiative is to bring attention to the importance and vulnerabilities of delta regions worldwide. To this aim, the University of Minnesota-led Belmont Forum DELTAS project is working to create a global vision for deltas through scientific integration, collection and sharing of data and stakeholder engagement.
Goals (SDGs), now is the time to consider these delta specific challenges in a broader context.
Deltas are often described as cradles of civilization. They are the testing grounds for early agriculture and the birthplace of hydraulic engineering as we attempted to shape the landscape to suit our needs.
Deltas are the unique result of the interaction of rivers and tidal processes resulting in the largest sedimentary deposits in the world. Although comprising only 5% of the land area, deltas have up to 10 times higher than average population—a number, which is increasing rapidly, especially for deltas in Asia.
Low lying, deltas are widely recognized as highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, particularly sea-level rise and changes in runoff, as well as being subject to stresses imposed by human modification of catchment and delta plain land use.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU) is a leading post-graduate medical institution and the only medical university in Bangladesh. It plays a unique role in enhancing the quality of medical education and research. BSMMU is one of the largest beneficiaries of the Academic Innovation Fund (AIF) under the Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project (HEQEP) which has brought about significant improvements in the quality of medical education and research.
Launching the first-ever virtual classroom for medical education in Bangladesh
Teaching quality in medical education and training is increasingly a thorny issue in Bangladesh. Teachers in medical colleges are inadequate both in quantity and quality. Currently there are only around 120 pharmacology teachers across 86 medical colleges in Bangladesh.
To address the challenge, the AIF supported the Department of Pharmacology of BSMMU to establish the first-ever virtual classroom system for medical college students in Bangladesh. The system has a great potential of changing the landscape of medical education and training in Bangladesh.
The “Virtual Teaching-Learning Program on Pharmacology” sub-project was launched to pilot innovative use of information technology in medical education by establishing a virtual classroom environment. Under the pilot, medical college institutions across Bangladesh are connected to the virtual classroom. It allows senior medical professors in Dhaka and even international experts from abroad to deliver their lectures to students in medical colleges in different regions. Students can attend real-time online classes, download teaching materials, and assess their competence in self-administered test.
“So far 36 topics are available to the students for free. An online question bank has been uploaded containing about 4,000 questions. We also established a synchronous teaching system that is so far connected with 32 medical colleges. Professors in Dhaka now remotely teach classes to students outside of Dhaka, and sometimes international guest lecturers also give lectures via the synchronous system. It is an exceptional experience for students in remote areas to listen and ask questions to renowned medical professionals. The bandwidth of internet connectivity is the only challenge. BSMMU is connected to high-speed Bangladesh Research and Education Network (BdREN), whereas colleges in remote areas have only narrow-band connectivity and cannot receive our synchronous broadcasting. It is now essential for the colleges to get broad-band internet connectivity.” says Professor Mir Misbahuddin, the sub-project manager at Department of Pharmacology, BSMMU.
Establishing a world-class genetic research environment
The “Modernization of Genetic Research Facilities and Patient Care Services” sub-project by the Faculty of Basic Medical Sciences is another success at the BSMMU. The sub-project installed a Next Generation DNA Sequencer, the only one of its kind in the country, and established a modern fully equipped genetic research laboratory. The sub-project aims to promote research on human genetic diseases in Bangladesh, which have never been addressed due to the lack of proper facilities, and invites international experts in genetics and molecular biology to train medical researchers in Bangladesh.
“With this Next Generation Sequencer, we can now analyze the DNA sequence of Bangladeshi citizens and explore the genetic data of most prevalent genetic diseases in Bangladesh.’ explains Laila Anjuman Banu, sub-project manager and professor of Genetics & Molecular Biology. “Currently, we are developing a database of patients suffering from breast cancer and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in Bangladesh. The database is useful for researchers in Bangladesh for further researches on developing molecular diagnostics and designing targeted therapeutics in the near future. This is a cutting-edge arena for medical research worldwide. We have published two papers already using this new sequencer.” she added.
AIF sub-projects awarded to other departments such as Anatomy, Urology, and Palliative Care have been equally successful.
The world economy today presents itself as a diverse canvas full of challenges and opportunities. Advanced economies continue to struggle towards recovery, with the US on its way to tighten monetary policy as the economy picks up while a still weak Eurozone awaits quantitative easing to kick in. At the same time, plunging oil prices have set in motion significant real income shifts from exporters to importers of oil. Astonishingly, amidst all this turmoil, South Asia has emerged as the fastest growing region in the world over the second half of 2014. Led by a strong India, South Asia is set to further accelerate from 7 percent real growth in 2015 to 7.6 percent by 2017, leaving behind a slowing East Asia gradually landed in second spot by China.
While bolstered by record low inflation and strong external positions across the region, the biggest question yet to be addressed by policy makers in South Asia will be how to make the most of cheap oil.
All countries are net oil importers as well as large providers of fuel and related food subsidies, therefore bound to benefit from low oil prices. However, the biggest oil price dividend to be cashed in by South Asia is one yet to be earned, and not one that will automatically transit through government or consumer accounts. The current constellation of macroeconomic tailwinds provides a unique opportunity for policy makers to rationalize energy prices and to improve fiscal policy. Decoupling external oil prices from fiscal deficits may decrease vulnerability to future oil price hikes – something that may very well happen in the medium term. Furthermore, cheap oil offers a great opportunity to introduce carbon taxation and address the negative externalities from the use of fossil fuels.
The World Bank’s latest South Asia Economic Focus (April 2015) titled “Making the most of cheap oil” provides deeper insights regarding South Asia’s diverse policy challenges and opportunities stemming from cheap oil. A first major realization is that the pass through from oil prices to domestic South Asian economies is as diverse as the countries themselves, thanks to a variety of different policy environments across countries and oil products. This is also reflected in recent dynamics, seeing India taking determined action towards rationalizing fuel and energy prices, even introducing a de facto carbon tax and beginning to reap fiscal and environmental benefits. Other countries have so far shown less or no enthusiasm towards reform, in spite of significant and/or increasing oil dependency (particularly in electricity generation, one of the region’s weak spots).
Components of the newly established RFID-based LMS system
The library of any academic institution plays a key role in providing knowledge-based support to its faculty members, researchers and students. In recent years, the ‘digital library’ has emerged as a novel concept. It allows the access to and sharing of literary information and resources in digital and non-digital forms within the local and global communities. However, for Bangladesh a ‘digital library’ was only a dream until the Academic Innovation Fund (AIF) under the Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project (HEQEP) intervened. The Central Library of the Bangladesh University of Engineering & Technology (BUET) has now been digitized. The library is now a role model for other universities in Bangladesh.