Promoting competition is considered the best available option for increasing economic well-being. The recent global financial crisis prompted policymakers to reconsider basic assumptions, but the virtues of competition were not among them. However, gone are the days when practitioners slept sound thinking the economy, if left alone, is self-correcting.
The limitations of competition as a force for universal good are well-known. Consumers can be inadequately informed, making it possible for firms to take advantage of them. The intrinsic difficulty of matching skills to positions and the costs associated with moving jobs may make workers stay with abusive employers. More basically, in a world where people have imperfect information and workers can’t always leave their employer, firms may be able to respond by cutting corners and abusing consumers and workers.
Is the problem with competition itself or the legal and informal institutions that yield this type of competition? The answer depends in part on one’s ideological lens—namely the belief of competition existing outside a regulatory framework, necessitating governmental intervention in the marketplace versus the belief that regulatory forces help create, define, and nurture competition in the market, necessitating improvements to the legal framework if competition is failing.
Some policies that supposedly restrict competition are justified for promoting competition. Intellectual property rights, for example, can restrict competition along lets say the use of a trade name. But the argument is that intellectual property and antitrust policies complement, rather than conflict, one another in promoting innovation and competition.
Life will surely be more stressful if we needed to compete for everything. Cooperation is often more relaxing. Society and competitors at times benefit when rivals cooperate in joint ventures to address collective needs. Competition can make people less cooperative, promote free-riding, and reduce contributions to public goods, thus leaving society worse off.
The point is not all forms of competition are beneficial. Just as athletic contests distinguish between fair and foul play, the law distinguishes between fair and unfair methods of competition. Bangladesh’s garment industry is a contemporary case in point. The collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh brought to the fore the pathetic state of working conditions in many factories serving the global supply chains. The structure of the supply chain itself—the relationship among regulators, buyers, suppliers, and workers—is fundamentally related to these problems.
The practice of subcontracting is routine in Bangladesh’s garment industry. The prevalence of competitive indirect sourcing strategies has resulted in a supply chain driven by the pursuit of nominal cost minimization. It has increased risks for business and workers by undermining prices, wages, working conditions, and investment in productivity and quality. The apparel units engaged in sub-contracting are mostly non-compliant particularly in paying wages and maintaining safety standards.
Question is why do compliant factory owners take recourse to such sub-contractors? Major global buyers see Bangladesh as a market where they can obtain the most competitive prices for a high volume of lower end products. Consequently, they set low price targets. The manufacturers compete for large orders by undercutting each other, further driving down the prices. They make delivery commitments far in excess of their capacity to produce without breaching compliance. When prices are dramatically driven down, the natural tendency of a garment manufacturer is to manage their unit at a least cost with regard to overheads and wages. The pressure to drive these down arise inevitably.
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.
Nepal needs to fix its budget process, remove hurdles to infrastructure development and cut down excess liquidiity.
At first glance Nepal’s economic fundamentals appear sound. Economic growth this year is expected to recover to 4.5%, after a lackluster FY13. On the fiscal and external fronts, indicators are well in the green. This year again, Nepal is likely to be the only country in South Asia to post a budget surplus (0.3% of GDP). Continued growth in revenue mobilization and higher grants will more than make up for the increase in government spending. In FY14, public debt is expected to fall below 30% of GDP, and Nepal’s risk of debt distress may fall from a “moderate” rating to “low”.
Unlike other South Asian countries, Nepal has remained largely unscathed by global monetary tightening, reflecting its limited integration into global financial markets as well as its healthy external balances. Nepali analysts often highlight the growing trade deficit as a cause for concern, but remittances (projected at over 30% of GDP) should push the current account to a comfortable surplus position of 2.4% of GDP.
The only apparent dark spot is inflation, which remains stubbornly high. With inflation close to double digits in January (year-over-year), it appears unlikely that the NRB’s target of 8.5% will be reached.
In short, Nepal appears to be doing well. Many European countries today can only dream of posting similar growth, fiscal or debt numbers. So what is the problem?
When it comes to primary education, there are many reasons to be optimistic. Enrollment has jumped across the world, and more children are in school than ever before. In the last decade, the number of out-of-school children has fallen by half, from 102 million in 2000 to 57 million in 2011.
But is showing up to school enough?
According to UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report, almost one quarter of the youth in the developing world cannot read a sentence. In countries with large youth populations, this can leave behind a crippling ‘legacy of illiteracy’. Despite almost universal primary enrollment in India – 97 percent – half of second grade students cannot read a full sentence, and almost a quarter cannot even recognize letters.
Reading is a foundational skill. Children who do not learn to read in the primary grades are less likely to benefit from further schooling. Poor readers struggle to develop writing skills and absorb content in other areas. More worryingly, learning gaps hit disadvantaged populations the hardest, limiting their economic opportunities. In Bangladesh, only one in three of the poorest quartile is literate, compared to almost nine out of ten in the richest.