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.
“I wanted to be a doctor,” said Batashi, a 13-year-old girl with an infectious smile, “But I had to leave school after class 3, there was no one else to look after my brothers.”
I met Batashi on a muggy afternoon in Korail, the largest slum in Dhaka city. Nestled in the shadows of the city’s glitzy condo buildings, Korail is home to 16,000 families that cram into just .25 square kilometers. Driven from their rural homes by poverty, about 500,000 people – roughly the population of Washington DC – migrate to the city each year.
This makes Dhaka one of the fastest growing cities in the world – a dubious honor for an already overstretched city. It is estimated that by 2030, close to 100 million people – almost half the population of Bangladesh – will be living in urban areas. Many of these migrants will inevitably end up in slums like Korail.
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.
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).