The standard definition of political instability is the propensity of a government collapse either because of conflicts or rampant competition between various political parties. Also, the occurrence of a government change increases the likelihood of subsequent changes. Political instability tends to be persistent.
Economic growth and political stability are deeply interconnected. On the one hand, the uncertainty associated with an unstable political environment may reduce investment and the pace of economic development. On the other hand, poor economic performance may lead to government collapse and political unrest. However, political stability can be achieved through oppression or through having a political party in place that does not have to compete to be re-elected. In these cases, political stability is a double edged sword. While the peaceful environment that political stability may offer is a desideratum, it could easily become a breeding ground for cronyism with impunity. Such is the dilemma that many countries with a fragile political order have to face.
Political stability is by no means the norm in human history. Democratic regimes, like all political regimes, are fragile. Irrespective of political regimes, if a country does not need to worry about conflicts and radical changes of regimes, the people can concentrate on working, saving, and investing. The recent empirical literature on corruption has identified a long list of variables that correlate significantly with corruption. Among the factors found to reduce corruption are decades-long tradition of democracy and political stability. In today’s world, however, there are many countries that combine one of these two robust determinants of corruption with the opposite of the other: politically stable autocracies or newly formed and unstable democracies.
Some see political stability as a condition that not only precludes any form of change, but also demoralizes the public. Innovation and ingenuity take a backseat. Many seek change in all sectors of life--politics, business, culture--in order to have a brighter future through better opportunities. Of course change is always risky. Yet it is necessary. Political stability can take the form of complacency and stagnation that does not allow competition. The principles of competition do not only apply to business. Competition can be applied in everything – political systems, education, business, innovation, even arts. Political stability in this case refers to the lack of real competition for the governing elite. The ‘politically stable’ system enforces stringent barriers to personal freedoms. Similarly, other freedoms such as freedom of press, freedom of religion, access to the internet, and political dissent are also truncated. This breeds abuse of power and corruption.
Vietnam, for example, is controlled entirely by the ruling party. The economy is one of the most volatile in Asia. What once was thought of being a promising economy has recently been in distress. Vietnam’s macro economy was relatively stable in the 1997-2006 period, with low inflation, a 7 to 9 percent total output expansion annually and a moderate level of trade deficit. But Vietnam could not weather the adverse impact from the 1997-98 Asian financial turmoil, which partly curbed the FDI flow into its economy. Starting in late 2006, both public and private sector firms began to experience structural problems, rising inefficiency, and waste of resources. The daunting problem of inflation recurred, peaking at an annualized 23 percent level for that year.
The success story of Maafushi, an island in the Kaafu Atoll in the Maldives, dates back to 2009 when the government liberalized its policy on local tourism. A visionary entrepreneur, Ahmed Naseer, lost no time in starting a four roomed guest house in 2010, to kick start the concept of local tourism in his home island Maafushi. And the rest is history!
Maafushi’s expansion from one guest house in 2010 to thirty guest houses to date is a remarkable success story which I was privileged to witness firsthand last week.
An island with 2000 locals had welcomed 600 tourists last year. They were coming in search of an affordable, simple holiday, just for the sun and sea experience, living amongst the islanders while experiencing theiruniqueculture and lifestyle. Maafushi’s model of attracting local tourists has provided an alternative to the high end tourism that Maldives is known world over for.
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:
Fallow lands in the coastal areas during the dry season
Such large areas of fertile lands are left fallow in spite of ample water available right there in the channels near the farms,” exclaimed Prof. M. Abdul Halim Khan in disbelief during our journey in mid-April to Patuakhali and Barguna. We were taking a trip to his agricultural research sites in the coastal region of Bangladesh.
Agriculture is one of the most important sectors of Bangladesh and its performance has tremendous impacts on poverty reduction, food security as well as overall economic development of the country. This is especially true for people in the coastal areas – mostly small rice farmers whose livelihood depend on the production of rice and other crops.
Despite that, most of the farm lands in the coastal areas remain unused in the dry season for as long as 6 months a year. The main causes of such underutilization of lands include: seasonal natural calamities such as cyclone and tidal surges as well as rising water salinity. There are two peak season for the formation of tropical cyclone in the Bay of Bengal; one in May and another in November. Likewise, salinity in drinking and irrigation water peaks from April to May. As a result, farming in the coastal areas is largely constrained to mono-cropping while double or triple cropping are common practices in other parts of Bangladesh.
To address this issue, Prof. Halim – a prominent professor at the Bangladesh Agricultural University (BAU) – launched a research project, “Strengthening Postgraduate Research Capability and Adaptation of Climate Resilient Cropping System in Vulnerable Coastal Region”, with funding of Taka 23 million (US$ 280,000) from the Academic Innovation Fund (AIF) program under the Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project (HEQEP).
Facilitating Bottom-Up Innovation through Video-based Learning Platform
Local villagers being trained to shoot videos
American Idol, a television show in the United States, has inspired thousands of people to make videos for stardom in music, dance, cooking and more. Can this phenomenon be applied in development? Digital Green, a non-profit, is doing exactly that by using a similar approach to improve agriculture development in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. It uses participatory video as a medium to create star farmers and facilitates a rural library of digital videos providing decentralized and localized agriculture solutions to farmers, using the thrill of appearing "on video" to amplify the organization’s reach within their social networks.
Digital Green’s mission is to solve one of the intractable problems of the agriculture sector – lack of localized knowledge and extension services. For instance, in India alone, the agriculture extension system employs more than 100,000 people but very few access it (less than 6 percent), and only 40 percent get information from other sources. Tackling this information gap is critical to enhancing the livelihoods of small and marginal farmers in India, who have low productivity and constitute over 80 percent of India’s farmers. Digital Green is offering an innovative solution, and initial results are promising.
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).