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What’s behind South Asia’s low exports?

Hans Timmer's picture
South Asian countries’ exports are only one-third of what they should be, had they mirrored the experience of economies with similar characteristics. Without further integration into global markets, South Asia will not sustain its growth. Photo: Shutterstock 

This blog highlights the findings from the recent South Asia Economic Focus: Exports Wanted

Bela Balassa worked for the World Bank from 1966 till his death in 1991. Luckily, his insights on international integration, revealed comparative advantages, trade diversion, and natural progress toward political integration have outlived him.

And what Bela is best-known for—and rightfully so—is the Balassa-Samuelson effect.

Put simply, this effect explains why a haircut or a restaurant meal is much cheaper in poor countries than in rich countries whereas the price tag for a car or a television is almost the same everywhere.

What’s behind this phenomenon is simple and can be summed up in three parts.

First, international competition equalizes the price of tradable goods like televisions across countries.

Second, the prices of non-tradable goods like haircuts can differ.

And third, the difference in productivity across countries is much more significant in tradable goods than in non-tradable goods. For example, a barber in Dhaka needs roughly the same amount of time as a barber in New York to cut my hair.

But manufacturers or farmers in Nepal need more labor to produce the same output than their counterparts in Germany.

Countries tend to be poor because their level of productivity in tradable goods is low.  

Undernutrition in South Asia: Persistent and emerging challenges

Ashi Kathuria's picture
Indian Bengali tribal mother is feeding her baby on her lap in a rural background. Indian rural lifestyle
Indian Bengali tribal mother is feeding her baby on her lap in a rural background. Credit: Abir Bhattacharya/ Shutterstock

Childhood stunting—or being too short for one’s age—is one of the most significant barriers to human development and affects about 162 million children under five across the world.

The good news is that several countries in the region, Nepal, India and Sri Lanka, are progressing towards meeting the 2025 World Health Assembly target of reducing the number of stunted children.

But overall, South Asia remains home to about 62 million stunted children.

In this context, it’s critical to confront failures that impede progress toward better health and nutrition in the region. Even more so since some undernutrition challenges persist, and new ones are emerging.

One persistent challenge is the inadequate diets young children receive, especially in their first two years.

This starts early in a child’s life as breastfeeding rates remain low. Though early initiation of breastfeeding has more than doubled to 40 percent between 2000 and 2016, more than 20 million infants are still not being breastfed within the first hour of birth.

Progress is also uneven across the region: breastfeeding initiation ranges from 18 percent in Pakistan to about 90 percent in Sri Lanka.

Also worrisome is that exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of life has improved by a mere five percentage points to 52 percent across South Asia.

Further to that, the diets of infants over six months continue to be one of South Asia’s biggest and most persistent challenges.  

Only 12 percent of South Asian children receive the minimally acceptable diet they need to grow healthy.

What will steer South Asia’s economic promise? Its people

Sanjay Kathuria's picture
 The Promise of Regional Trade in South Asia
Pedestrians cross the road in front of motorcycles, cars, and buses at the crossroads in Kolkata, India. Photo: Radiokafka / Shutterstock

This blog is part of a series that discusses a way forward for South Asian regional integration.

That South Asia is brimming with possibilities for economic growth is well-known. It’s what drove us to write A Glass Half Full: The Promise of Regional Trade in South Asia. Our research shows that if South Asian countries lifted man-made barriers, intraregional trade could triple and unleash greater prosperity for all

What we weren’t prepared for, however, was the overwhelmingly positive response the report received across the region. Government officials, members of the private sector, civil society, and particularly young people we met with were eager to learn more about how their countries could improve trade relations with their neighbors.

South Asia’s economic prospects are promising, but even more inspiring are its people who remain hopeful for change despite political circumstances that make it seem impossible.

In Pakistan, which suffers the biggest welfare loss because of non-cooperation, A Glass Half Full hit home in a variety of ways.

The country can increase its intraregional trade almost 8-fold, from $5.1 billion to $39.7 billion. This resounded with audiences at launch events in Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi, evoking a sense of loss for the missed opportunity. They asked how Pakistan and other countries could amend their discriminatory policies and enjoy the benefits of free trade.

Politics often trumps economic cooperation in South Asia, but many in Pakistan suggested politics wins because the cost is so low. If intraregional trade were to increase, lobbies would arise to protect those interests.

A week before our report’s launch, Pakistan and India had initiated the Kartarpur border corridor to facilitate visa-free visits for Indian pilgrims to Pakistan’s Sikh holy sites. This had locals brainstorming more initiatives for regional integration. Students lined up after talks to chat, insisting that I come to speak at their universities- their enthusiasm was infectious. 

WEPOWER: Why South Asia needs more women in its energy sector

Tehreem Saifey's picture
The World Bank Team, WePOWER Strategic and Institutional Partners (SIPs) and Nepal High School Female Students, Closing Session, Feb 21, 2019.
The World Bank team, WePOWER strategic and institutional partners, and high school female students from Nepal gathered at the closing session of the Women in Power Sector Network in South Asia (WePOWER), Feb 21, 2019. Photo: World Bank

“There is power in not being alone,”  
Demetrios Papathanasiou - Practice Manager, South Asia Energy Unit at The World Bank

The number of women working in the energy and power sector in South Asia is dismally low.

Across the region, women employees represent only 3 percent to 15 percent of energy sector staff.

As for women engineers and technicians, the proportion is even lower: less than 1 to 6 percent.

To promote opportunities for women in the power and energy sectors, especially in technical roles, the World Bank and its partners recently organized the first regional conference for Women in Power Sector Network in South Asia (WePOWER).

Held in Kathmandu Nepal, the event convened more than 250 engineers and energy-sector professionals from all over South Asia and provided networking and learning opportunities to women and girls.

It’s well established that role models and networks can help overcome stereotypes and biases that contribute to the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields.

A recent study found that investing in peer networks and building up proteges as two of the six things successful women in STEM have in common.
 
From a personal point of view, I have learned something powerful during the event: When strong and smart women work together and are supported by men who value women’s engagement as equals, let alone in the engineering or energy sectors, something magical happens.

South Asia can get more women to work

Hiska Reyes's picture
 World Bank
South Asian countries are making progress in clearing the way for women to get jobs and creating a safer work environment for them. Yet, too many women across South Asia are left out of the workforce—and that despite booming economic growth. Credit: World Bank

This blog is part of a series examining women’s economic empowerment in South Asia. Starting today on International Women's Day and over the next few weeks, we will be exploring successful interventions, research, and experience to improve gender equality across the region. 

Meet Fazeela Dharmaratne from Sri Lanka.
 
Her story, like that of millions of other women in South Asia, is one of struggle between family and work and a story worth telling as we mark International Women’s Day.
 
Unlike too many of her female peers, Fazeela was able to reinvent herself professionally.
 
As a young woman, straight out of school, she joined a bank in Colombo as a banking assistant. In 17 years, she climbed up the corporate ladder to become regional manager—a position she later quit to care for her children.
 
Unfazed, Fazeela started her own small home-based daycare business in 2012, initially serving only 4-5 children. Today, Fazeela is the director of the CeeBees pre-school and childcare centers serving several corporate clients in Colombo.
 
Fazeela’s success belies the fact that across South Asia too many women are left out of the workforce—and that despite booming economic growth.
 
And while employment rates have gone down across the region, women account for most of this decline.
 
Between 2005 and 2015, women’s employment declined by 5 percent a year in India, 3 percent a year in Bhutan, and 1 percent a year in Sri Lanka.
 
These numbers are worrying because a drop in female employment has important social costs.
 
First, when women control a greater share of household incomes, children are healthier and do better in school.
 
Second, when women work for pay, they have a greater voice in their households, in their communities, and society.
 
Conversely, the economic gains from women participating equally in the labor market are sizable.
 
A recent study by the International Monetary Fund estimated that closing gender gaps in employment and entrepreneurship in South Asia would help grow the economy by about 25 percent. 
 
The good news is that South Asian countries are making progress in clearing the way for women to get jobs and creating a safer work environment for them.  

Applauding the women leaders in South Asia

Hartwig Schafer's picture

I just ended my first round of country visits as the World Bank’s Vice President for the South Asia Region.  Over and above all, I have been immensely impressed by the resilience, determination, commitment and innovation of the women leaders that I had the privilege to meet during my visits.

These women are succeeding in a region where it is hard for women to realize their career dreams. In South Asia, only 28 percent of women ages 15+ are employed, compared to 48 percent worldwide.

What better opportunity than International Women’s Day to give a huge shout-out and applaud those women who are role models, entrepreneurs, and leaders in the eight countries of South Asia.

Neha Sharma, the district magistrate in Baghai village and Hart Schafer in India
Baghai village in Firozabad district, Uttar Pradesh, India. Photo: World Bank

In India, more exports can create better jobs and higher wages

Hartwig Schafer's picture
Exports to Jobs: Boosting the Gains from Trade in South Asia


South Asia has grown strongly to reduce poverty and create jobs, but the region remains a development paradox. Despite strong growth, job creation remains weak and is often of poor quality.

This is especially true for India, which grew at a rate of 7.2 percent in 2017 and which managed to reduce the number of poor people considerably.

But the growth of new job opportunities is below what many had hoped for; most Indians still lack a regular job in the formal economy, and huge differences in pay exist among workers. Strong population growth also puts pressure on labor markets, with millions of Indians entering the job market every year.

Employment creation is failing to keep up with labor force growth. And those who work often do so only in the informal sector, which is larger than in any other region in the world. Some groups, like women or workers in rural areas, are at particularly high risk of having to work in the informal economy, where wages are often lower.

Meanwhile, trade in goods as a share of the economy is much lower than in other regions. The trends in India and much of South Asia differ from other regions, where trade, growth, and jobs are directly connected and go hand in hand.

This South Asian paradox raises the question of how governments can boost job growth, and how to raise the quality of new jobs so that economic development brings more shared prosperity.

A new report by the World Bank and the International Labour Organization (ILO) finds that increasing exports through globalization has the potential to contribute to a broader strategy for promoting growth, job creation and shared prosperity.

The rise of India’s rural women entrepreneurs

Balakrishnan Madhavan Kutty's picture
Women at the custard apple collection centre
Women at the custard apple collection center. Photo credit: Rajasthan Grameen Aajeevika Vikas Parishad (RGAVP), Govt. of Rajasthan

Pehle mein apne ghar ka paanch hazaar (rupaye) mein bhi kharcha nahi chala paati thi, abh mein pandrah hazaar rupaye mein ghar ka kharcha chalati hu.

“Earlier I was not able to contribute even Rs. 5,000 ($69) to run my house. Today, I contribute Rs. 15,000 ($208),” beams Lakshmi Amol Shinde from Wardha Lakshmi as she recalls the harsh financial conditions she and her family faced after her husband lost his job.

This unexpected event motivated her to join a self-help group (SHG) and take out a loan to start a small snack (papad) business.

Initially, she sold her food delicacies in her village. Later, she expanded her business and catered to shops in Nagpur, Maharashtra’s winter capital.

Her hard work paid off, and eleven women from her group joined Lakshmi’s flourishing business.

Thanks to business and marketing training, the women’s business has grown and is now processing the famous turmeric from Waigaon, another town in the district.

How South Asia can become a free trade area

Sanjay Kathuria's picture
Women knit handicrafts for export at Everest Fashion Fair Craft in Lalitpur, Nepal
Women knit handicrafts for export at Everest Fashion Fair Craft in Lalitpur, Nepal. Photo: Peter Kapuscinski / World Bank

The South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) agreement has been in effect since 2006—with little success.

This is in sharp contrast to the ASEAN free trade area (AFTA), which started in 1992 with six six countries and later added more members, completing the ASEAN ten by 1999.

Between 1992 and 2017, intraregional imports as a share of global imports in ASEAN increased from 17 to 24 percent, and exports from 21 to 27 percent.

In South Asia, these shares were largely stagnant since SAFTA came into effect, at 3 percent for intraregional imports and 6-7 percent for intraregional exports.

In fact, intraregional trade in South Asia has been the lowest among world regions for quite some time, hovering around 5 percent of its overall trade with the world.

What’s keeping India in the dark?

Fan Zhang's picture
To boost and sustain its energy supply, India needs urgent investments and reforms to fix the inefficiencies that plague its entire electricity supply chain.
To boost and sustain its energy supply, India needs urgent investments and reforms to fix the inefficiencies that plague its entire electricity supply chain. Credit: World Bank

Statistics show that what is commonly perceived as an energy gap in India is actually an efficiency gap.

To boost and sustain its energy supply, India needs urgent investments and reforms to fix the inefficiencies that plague its entire electricity supply chain. 

But first, the good news. In 2018, every village in India got connected to the grid.  That same year, power shortages declined dramatically to 0.9 percent from 8.5 percent in 2012.  

As for clean power, India has become one of the world’s leading countries in renewable energy and aims to add 227 gigawatts of green electricity by 2022.

True, India today generates more power than ever. Yet, 178 million Indians still lived without access to grid-connected electricity in 2017.

On top of that, air pollution from coal-powered plants contributed to 82,900 deaths across India in 2015.

Given its rapidly growing economy, demand for power in India is expected to triple by 2040.

The country faces a monumental task to meet this demand while protecting its natural environment and the health of its people.

As I write in my new report, ‘In the Dark’, power distortions cost India much more than previously estimated: $86 billion in 2016—that is 4 percent of the country’s economy.

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