Image: Author's Illustration
Freakonomics Radio recently aired a podcast entitled “If Mayors Ruled the World”, based on Benjamin Barber’s new book of the same title, which contends that cities are a good template for governments to rule by, largely due to their mayors who are often uniquely positioned and focused on solving actual city problems. So much so, that he argues for the formation of a “Global Parliament of Mayors” to solve the world’s problems.
Even so, being a mayor of a South Asian city is no easy task. The challenges of city management in South Asia are compounded by its burgeoning urban population. In fact, according to the UN, roughly 315 million people are expected to be added to urban areas in the region by 2030. That number weighs in close to the entire population of the US today. It is no surprise that the theme of managing the challenges of urban transformation was at the top of the agenda at the recent South Asia Regional Workshop and Mayors’ Forum, hosted in Kandy, Sri Lanka.
The Mayors’ Forum, attended by a number of mayors and city leaders from South Asian countries and around, provided insights to what some successful mayors have done for their cities. By being visionary, and at the same time pragmatic problem solvers, mayors have seized opportunities to transform their cities, and quite often out of necessity and within highly constrained environments. Mayors took the opportunity to show how, despite significant institutional and financial limitations, they were able to take proactive initiatives to transform their cities. These were what they had to say:
Last month, the World Bank released Pakistan’s first ever Consumer Protection and Financial Literacy (CPFL) Diagnostic Review along with convening a workshop where 200 financial sector professionals discussed the recommendations, a first such deliberation on consumer protection and financial literacy in the country.
The assessment compares Pakistan’s performance standards, covering four segments of the financial sector - banking, microfinance, insurance, and securities markets. This approach brought out cross-cutting findings and a comprehensive set of recommendations. The overall objective of the review is to foster a responsible financial system that offers (a) transparency, (b) appropriate choices, (c) redress mechanisms, and (d) privacy of consumer information.
Financial exclusion in Pakistan is high – 56% of the population currently uses no formal or informal financial products – but decreasing. The past decade has seen rapid growth in household lending in Pakistan, leading to many taking on risks and obligations they do not fully understand. This growth underscores the need for CPFL to prevent unfair practices, and improve transparency and efficiency by reaching potential customers to increase their understanding of financial services.
Overall, the report identifies certain gaps and overlaps in the legal, institutional, and regulatory framework for consumer protection in Pakistan and finds that there is a need for some consolidation and much more coordination amongst a fragmented range of consumer protection institutions, including regulators, industry associations and ombudsman offices. Key stakeholders agree that a consolidated approach to regulating market conduct is necessary. One critical area is the microfinance sector which serves close to 3 million active borrowers and 6 million savers. Many of these clients have limited access to consumer protection institutions or information, leaving them vulnerable to consumer rights malpractices. In this sector, microfinance banks (MFBs) are regulated by the State Bank of Pakistan, but other non-deposit taking microfinance institutions (MFIs) are unregulated. In a number of geographical areas, both MFBs and MFIs are serving the same clientele, but there is a difference in market conduct regulations on consumer protection. For example, a microfinance bank is mandated by the prudential regulations of the State Bank of Pakistan to disclose annualized lending and deposit rates in the contract signed with their clients, and to also have an officer read out these terms to their clients. In contrast, a non-deposit taking institution is not subject to these regulations and has the discretion of quoting, say, rupee amounts that might not be representative or comparable.
The key finding on transparency and disclosure is that although financial regulators have strengthened disclosure requirements, there is a lack of standardized, comparable pricing information on financial products. As a result, consumers do not always have simplified, adequate, and comparable information about the prices, terms and conditions, and inherent risks of financial products and services. Regulators, market participants, and other stakeholders agreed with the recommendation on introducing a standard Key Facts Statement sheet, but also stressed the need for some demand-driven research on what information would be most beneficial to Pakistani consumers and what would be most effective way of communicating this information.
Sewing Floor, Armana Apparels, Dhaka. Photo: Shobha Shetty
Contradictory trends in female labor force participation in South Asia continue to pose a puzzle for policymakers. On the one hand, Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry, one of the mainstays of the national economy, has a high female labor participation rate of 85%. On the other hand, the female labor force participation rates continue to fall in India in spite of recent high economic growth. During my recent visit to Dhaka, I was once again reminded about the enormous challenges of tackling these issues.
I was in Dhaka to attend the 7th Meeting of the BEES (Business, Enterprise and Employment Support for Women in South Asia) Network. Founded in May 2011, the BEES network, facilitated by the World Bank, brings together 15 civil society organisations that work for the economic empowerment of poor women across South Asia. Currently, the network represents women at the bottom of the economic pyramid, with a collective reach of over 100 million. It was a sombre coincidence that the week of our visit marked the first year anniversary of the horrific Rana Plaza disaster in which over 1,100 perished.
The rise of the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh in the last decade has been stunning by every measure. By 2013, about 4 million people - almost 85% women - were working in the US$22 billion-a-year industry. The industry now contributes to over 75% of Bangladesh’s export earnings and accounts for over 10% of GDP, making it the world's second-largest apparel exporter after China.
But what does it mean for the millions of women employed in this industry? Thanks to Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), one of the Bangladesh BEES network members and co-host of the Dhaka meeting, I was lucky to visit the Awaj (“voice”) Foundation to understand this issue better. Founded in 2003, the organisation focuses on empowering female RMG workers. We got an opportunity to meet Nazma Akter, the feisty General Secretary of the foundation and a former garment worker. After spending 7 years in the ready-made garment industry as a young girl, she turned to activism on behalf of her fellow women workers. She is now a well-recognised national name and Awaj has a direct outreach to 60,000 women workers (and 600,000 indirectly).
Guest workers have played an integral role in the Gulf since the 1970s where the demographic changes accompanying these labor flows occurred at an extraordinarily rapid pace. The region’s aggregate population has increased more than tenfold in a little over half a century, but in no other region of the world do citizens comprise such a small proportion of the population. While this ‘demographic imbalance’ makes the Gulf unique, what differentiates it is not its economic and demographic expansion through migration but the degree to which the region’s governments have excluded foreign workers from being integrated into the national polity. This exclusion of foreign workers is a result of a conscious policy.
Labor migration to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are mostly governed under a sponsorship system known as Kafala. Migrant workers require a national sponsor (called Kafeel) and are only allowed to work for the visa sponsoring firm. The workers must obtain a no-objection certificate from the sponsor to resign and have to leave the country upon termination of the usual 2 to 3 years’ contract before being allowed to commence a new contract under a new sponsor. Tied to the sponsor, the migrants become immobile within the internal labor market for the duration of the contract. Consequently the sponsors benefit from non-competitive environments where they extract substantial economic rents from migrant workers at the expense of inducing significant inefficiencies in production.
The Kafeels pay workers an income above the wage in their country of origin and obtain economic rents equal to the difference between such earnings and the net marginal return from employing the migrant worker. Migrant workers are paid the initial nominal wage throughout the entire contractual period. They are even made to accept lower wages than contracted initially. Immobilized by labor restrictions, workers cannot command a higher wage even when there is demand for their services by rival firms willing to hire them in order to avoid the cost of hiring from abroad. Kafeels have also found other ways of extracting rents in recent decades by indulging in visa trading. They allow their names to be used to sponsor foreign workers in exchange for monetary gains.
Arguably, rents per-se should not directly create adverse effects because they are essentially redistributive transfers. Earnings paid to migrants are sufficient to motivate them to migrate. The migrants do not leave. But this view is over-simplistic. The combination of short contracts, flat wages, and lack of internal mobility kills the incentives for migrant workers to exercise higher effort levels in production and engage in activities that enhance their human capital. Any productivity gain would go to the sponsor in the form of rents. The system provides incentives to entrepreneurs to concentrate on low-skills, labor-intensive activities where the extraction of economic rents is easier. Such sponsor-worker behavior explains for instance why despite the massive investments in Dubai, the economy-wide efficiency levels (average labor productivity) have not improved in the last two decades while in Hong Kong, they doubled and in Singapore quadrupled.
More than 1.5 billion people today reside in countries affected by violence and conflict, most - if not all - of which also suffer from inadequate and poor access to basic services. By 2030, it is estimated that about 40 percent of the world’s poor will be living in such environments, where each consecutive year of organized violence will continue to slow down poverty reduction by nearly one percentage point.
A large portion of this group presently resides in conflict-affected parts of South Asia, a region that is home to 24 percent of the world’s population and about half the world’s poor.
Despite such challenging circumstances, research shows that in many settings, development aid is indeed working - albeit with frustrating inconsistency.
The 2011 World Development Report recognizes the strong link between security and development outcomes in fragile and conflict-affected contexts. However, what the evidence is yet to show us is how exactly do you get the job done right?