When the winners of the World Bank’s "Imagining Our Future Together" art competition first met last fall, the atmosphere was very much like the first day of school: Everyone was new, excited to meet others, and optimistic about possibilities ahead. As the exhibition of their art comes to World Bank headquarters next week and the 25 young artists prepare for their third and final meeting, their collaboration has accomplished more than we organizers ever imagined.
Historically, cities and civilizations have flourished along water bodies, which not only served as important transportation corridors to spur economic activity and trade, but also as prominent public spaces for religious and cultural interaction. Today, while a large number of cities have turned away from this important natural resource, many have reclaimed and transformed their waterfronts into thriving economic engines and nodes of social activity. Can cities redefine their relationship with water while managing challenges of rapid urbanization?
The World Bank’s South Asia Sustainable Development Unit, in collaboration with East Asia Pacific Sustainable Development Unit, is organizing a webinar on waterfront development to discuss different dimensions of waterfront initiatives and tools for a sustainable regenerative economic environment.
Hot on the heels of Hurricane Sandy, Typhoon Bopha lashed the shores of the Philippines earlier this month, leaving 900 dead and 80,000 homeless. Extreme weather is becoming the norm. The World Bank-commissioned report, “Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided” found that scientists are unanimously predicting warming of 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. The social, economic, and environmental consequences will be devastating. Over the past 20 years, over half of South Asians – more than 750 million people – have been affected by natural disasters, with the loss of life estimated at more than 60,000, and damages above $45 billion.
“The World Bank is organizing an art show?” My neighbor seemed stunned. He has just got to know me, since I moved to India only in early September. To him I am the economist who moved to India from Washington. Quite possibly, he thinks I have come to India to try and tell the government what to do.
“Why?” He asked. I told him it was because we wanted to stimulate thinking about South Asia’s common future. “Why?” he insisted. I told him many other regions in the world have discovered that a common future brings better lives to citizens than separate futures. “Aha!” he said, “you want to promote free trade”. He thought he had recognized me again.
It was a most interesting conversation to me. The art show had not been my idea, but it felt very natural to me. After all, my wife is a painter and photographer, and I have therefore helped organize many art shows in the past. But this one is very different. It's a group exhibit by the winners of a competition we launched in all countries of South Asia.
For a number of years, a majority of South Asians have been painfully aware that climate change is real and, if left unfettered, has the potential to reverse the significant gains the region has made on poverty reduction and other Millennium Development Goals.
In 2009, the government of the Maldives held a Cabinet meeting underwater to remind the world that the country – which is on average 2.7 meters above sea level – will be completely wiped out if oceans rise.
Nepal’s government held a Cabinet meeting at the base of Mount Everest – at an altitude of 5,242 meters above sea level – to stress that 1.3 billion Asians depend on the seven major rivers with headwaters originating from the vulnerable Himalayan glaciers for their livelihoods.
As the World Bank Group, we are dedicated to a world free of poverty. Poverty has many manifestations, of course, but few are sadder than child hunger and malnutrition. It is not just the heart-rending pangs of hunger or the susceptibility of a malnourished infant or child to ailments and diseases. The persistent effects are even more troubling. Poor nutrition impairs physical and mental development so that children benefit less from education and are less productive as adults. It leads to increased morbidity and mortality, causing output losses and increased spending on health and social support. Long ago William Blake wrote "some are born to endless night," poignantly capturing the tragedy of lives blighted by childhood deprivation.
If the extent of hungry children in the world – more than 350 million – is an inconvenient truth, their numbers in the South Asia region are acutely embarrassing.
Like a Bollywood dance sequence, South Asia’s growth numbers tend to dazzle. It is the second-fastest-growing region in the world after East Asia. But behind the glamour lies a paradox. Despite robust economic growth, the total number of people living in poverty in South Asia has not fallen fast enough. Today, there are more poor people living under $1.25 a day in South Asia than in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Social indicators are lagging as well. South Asia has the highest rates of malnutrition in the world, with 250 million children undernourished. More than 30 million children still do not go to school. Gender discrimination remains a scar. Women’s labor-force participation in the region is among the world’s lowest, boys outnumber girls in school enrollment, and legal and judicial systems still do not address systemic gender violence.
Last week a group of Bank staff joined our clients from the South Asia region for an Urbanization Knowledge Platform event on green cities. The event was held in Seoul and Daegu, respectively the largest and third-largest cities in Korea. It was hosted by the Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements (KRIHS), Korea’s premier institute responsible for urban, regional, infrastructure, land, and housing planning and research. The idea was for clients and Bank staff to learn firsthand about green city development as it happens on the ground in Korea. The following are my six takeaways from the workshops and field visits during the week.
"It's Possible!" read the roadside sign as our bus pulled into Sejong, the Republic of Korea’s future face to the world. We soon understood why Sejong is being billed as "Asia’s Green Metropolis of the Future" and Korea's new growth engine.
Our trip to Sejong this week was organized by the Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements (KRIHS), a partner with the World Bank’s flagship program on urbanization in South Asia. The program has formed a network of city leaders, policy makers, urban planners and practitioners from across the region to put the world’s best knowledge and data in their hands, and to harness urban growth for faster poverty alleviation and better development outcomes. The idea behind the trip was to take inspiration from Korea’s vision of becoming one of five top-ranked Green Economies by 2050 and to learn from cutting-edge Korean examples in green urban development for possible application in South Asian cities as they grow in size and numbers.
Over the last quarter-century, the number of urban dwellers in South Asia has more than doubled to almost 500 million. In India alone, the number of city dwellers has grown by 122 million. Delhi, Karachi, Kolkata and Dhaka have all joined Mumbai in the league of mega-cities. And yet, urbanization in South Asia has barely begun. With about 30% of its population living in cities, South Asia is the least urbanized in the world. But in the 20 years to come, South Asia will urbanize faster than any other region of the world, with the exception of East Asia. This rapid urbanization can be a powerful engine in accelerating poverty alleviation. But most cities in the region are struggling to cope with even the current level of urbanization. Can South Asian cities support the growing urban economy and population and become centers of shared prosperity, or will they become centers of grief?