South Asia’s Commerce Ministers meet in Thimphu on July 24. Getting there would not have been easy for many of them, with no direct flights between Thimphu and four of the seven capitals. In June, when some of us convened for a regional meeting in Kathmandu, our Pakistani colleagues had to take a 20 hour flight from Karachi to Dubai in order to get to Kathmandu! This is symptomatic of the overall state of economic engagement within South Asia—in trade in goods and services, foreign direct investment and tourism.
South Asian countries’ trade policies remain inward-looking compared to other regions, and there are even bigger barriers to trade within the region. Today, South Asia today is less economically integrated than it was 50 years ago. Figure 1 below shows that intra-regional trade in South Asia accounts for less than 5 percent of total trade, lower than any other region.
To address this gap, Wasil started offering a Sharia-compliant microfinance package aimed specifically at smallholder farmers.
Wasil is an example of how microfinance and Islamic finance can be successfully combined.
An estimated 650 million Muslims live on less than $2 a day. Examples like Wasil show that Islamic microfinance can play a key role in bringing the poor into the financial mainstream in a way that doesn’t force them to choose between their religious practices and their wallets.
But despite an impressive increase in the number of financial service providers that offer Sharia-compliant microfinance products in Muslim countries, Islamic microfinance is still limited to a few countries. The range of offerings is narrow as well – most are largely focused on the cost-plus-markup product known as murabaha, which is geared toward asset purchases.