Today I joined leaders and representatives from 70 countries and 20 international organizations and agencies at the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan. Together with its development partners, the World Bank Group pledged its continued support to the Afghan people and outlined a course of action to help all Afghans realize their dream of living in peace and prosperity.
Afghanistan has come a long way since 2001 and has made much progress under extremely challenging circumstances: life expectancy has increased from 44 to 60 years, maternal mortality has decreased by more than three quarters and, from almost none in 2001, the country now counts 18 million mobile phone subscribers.
Yet, enormous challenges remain as nearly 40 percent of Afghans live in poverty and almost 70 percent of the population is illiterate. This is made worse by growing insecurity and the return of 5.8 million refugees and 1.2 million internally displaced people. Much also remains to create jobs for the nearly 400,000 people entering the labor market each year.
To that end, here are five priorities we need to address to ensure a more prosperous and more secure future for all Afghans:
There is now a huge window of opportunity for South Asia to create more apparel jobs, as rising wages in China compel buyers to look to other sourcing destinations. Our new report – Stitches to Riches?: Apparel Employment, Trade, and Economic Development in South Asia – estimates that the region could create 1.5 million new apparel jobs, of which half a million would be for women. And these jobs would be good for development, because they employ low-skilled workers in large numbers, bring women into the workforce (which benefits their families and society), and facilitate knowledge spillovers that benefit the economy as a whole.
But for these jobs to be created, our report finds that apparel producers will need to become more competitive – chiefly by (i) strengthening links between the apparel and textile sectors; (ii) moving into design, marketing, and branding; and (iii) shifting from a concentration on cotton products to including those made from man-made fibers (MMFs) – now discouraged by high tariffs and import barriers. These suggestions recently drew strong support from panels of academics and representatives from the private sector and government when the report was launched mid-year in Colombo, Delhi, Dhaka, and Islamabad. South Asia is now moving on some of these fronts but a lot more could be done.
Moving up the apparel value chain
Stitches to Riches? finds that South Asia’s abundant low-cost labor supply makes it extremely cost competitive (except for possibly Sri Lanka). But rapidly rising living costs in apparel manufacturing hubs, coupled with international scrutiny, are increasing pressure on producers to raise wages. Plus, countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, who enjoy a similar cost advantage, are entering the fray, and some East Asian countries already pose a big challenge. The good news is that the policy reforms needed to keep the apparel sector competitive would likely benefit other export industries and transform economies (view end of the blog).
“Despite the global slowdown, India has been one of the few countries to have shown remarkable growth in the last financial year. While this has been an achievement in itself, this growth rate can be taken to double-digits.” This was the key message of Dr. Frederico Gil Sander, Sr. Country Economist, World Bank Group, New Delhi. Dr. Gil Sander was speaking to students at the IIM Ahmedabad as part of the World Bank - IIM Discussion Series. The discussion centered around “Financing Double-digit Growth: Current and Long-term Challenges of India’s Financial Sector”.
Dr. Gil Sander noted that urban consumption and public investment have been the key drivers for current growth. Additionally, a good monsoon this year is expected to give a boost to rural consumption. These, coupled with the promised emphasis on supply-side factors such as labour reforms, the inclusion of more women in the labour force, and the timely implementation of GST can boost economic growth. To further increase this growth rate, potentially to double-digits, these drivers will first have to be augmented by productive capacity investment, which in turn depends on ease of credit availability from banks. However, credit growth in India is marred primarily by high lending rates, priority sector lending regulations and rising non-performing assets (NPAs).
On a fine Tuesday morning Roghan Devi, a routine road maintenance worker from Dhanusha district visits the local branch of Mega Bank - a commercial bank in Nepal, to receive her monthly salary. She was notified about this through a text message in her mobile phone. Just a few years back, it was unimaginable for her, and for most of the women from her community, to have a personal bank account.
This initiative is part of a World Bank-supported Strengthening National Rural Transport Program (SNRTP) project that works in 33 districts employing over 1,800 routine maintenance workers- over 70% of them are women - to enhance the availability and reliability of transport connectivity for rural communities. To support this initiative, SNRTP forged a joint collaboration with the private sector.
There’s a lot of good news in the World Bank’s latest economic report on South Asia: the region is the fastest growing in the world and its limited exposure to global economic turbulence means that its near-term prospects look good.