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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.

How to diversify Bhutan’s economy?

Yoichiro Ishihara's picture
Bhutan has made tremdendous progress in reducing poverty. But it needs to do a better job at diversifying its economy by improving its physical and human capital by using resource rents from hydropower.
Bhutan has made tremendous progress in reducing poverty. But it needs to do a better job at diversifying its economy by improving its physical and human capital by using resource rents from hydropower.

Will diversifying its economy help Bhutan address its youth unemployment, let alone its macroeconomic volatility and vulnerability?

With the right approach, yes.

And to that end, the latest World Bank Bhutan Development Report: A Path to Inclusive and Sustainable Development proposes solutions relevant to Bhutan’s context.

For more than ten years, developing the private sector through greater economic diversification has been Bhutan’s top policy as described in the 10th and 11th five-year plans.

Yet, youth unemployment, especially for educated Bhutanese, has remained high: 67 percent of bachelor’s degrees holders were jobless in 2016.

Diversifying the economy is touted as a standard prescription to cure such development ailments as joblessness, low productivity, and macroeconomic volatility.

However, international experience shows that this prescription does not always work.

Case in point: A World Bank’s analysis Diversified Development concludes that in resource-rich countries, investing in physical capital, human capital and economic institution are the best ways to sustain growth in the private sector.

Further to that, the development of specific sectors, which is often a common ingredient of diversification strategies in certain countries, is neither necessary nor sufficient for private-sector-led growth.

The main driver of Bhutan’s high growth and poverty reduction, hydropower has led the country’s development and will remain the backbone of its economy.

However, Bhutan needs to do a better job at diversifying its economy by improving its physical and human capital by using resource rents from hydropower.

Bhutan ranks 149 out of 160 countries on the 2018 Logistics Performance Index and 121 out of 176 countries on the 2017 ICT index.

Bhutan falls in the bottom half of the Human Capital Project rankings on critical indicators such as expected years of schooling.

South Asia: A bright spot in darkening economic skies?

Hartwig Schafer's picture
South Asia is set to remain relatively insulated from some of the rising uncertainties that are looming large on the global economic horizon. The region will retain its top spot as the world’s fastest-growing region. The Siddhirganj Power Project in Bangladesh. Credit: Ismail Ferdous/World Bank

If, like me, you’re a firm believer in New Year’s resolutions, early January ushers in the prospect of renewed energy and exciting opportunities. And as tradition has it, it’s also a time to enter the prediction game.
 
Sadly, when it comes to the global economy, this year’s outlook is taking a somber turn.
 
In the aptly titled Darkening Skies, the World Bank’s new edition of its twice-a-year Global Economic Prospects report shows that risks are looming large on the economic horizon.
 
To sum up:  In emerging market and developing economies, the lingering effects of recent financial market stress on several large economies, a further deceleration in commodity exporters are likely to stall growth at a weaker-than-expected 4.2 percent this year.
 
On a positive note, South Asia is set to remain relatively insulated from some of these rising global uncertainties and will retain its top spot as the world’s fastest-growing region.
 
Bucking the global decelerating trend, growth in South Asia is expected to accelerate to 7.1 percent in 2019 from 6.9 percent in the year just ended, bolstered in part by stronger investments and robust consumption.  

Among the region’s largest economies, India is forecast to grow at 7.5 percent in fiscal year 2019-20 while Bangladesh is expected to moderate to 7 percent in fiscal year 2018-19. Sri Lanka is seen speeding up slightly to 4 percent in 2019.
 
Notably, and despite increasing conflicts and growing fragility, Afghanistan is expected to increase its growth to  2.7 percent rate this year.

In this otherwise positive outlook, Pakistan’s growth is projected to slow to 3.7 percent in fiscal year 2018-19 as the country is tightening its financial conditions to help counter rising inflation and external vulnerabilities.

However, activity is projected to rebound and average 4.6 percent over the medium term.

Milk fortification in India: The journey so far

Edward W. Bresnyan's picture
 NDDB
In India alone, 185 million people don’t get enough nutrients. This hidden hunger is especially pervasive among children. as more than 70 percent of India’s children under five are deficient in Vitamin D, and 57 percent of all children in the country lack adequate levels of Vitamin A. Credit: NDDB
Globally, more than two billion people are deficient in key micronutrients, which are essential to their good health.
 
In India alone, 185 million people don’t get enough nutrients.
 
This hidden hunger is especially pervasive among children. More than 70 percent of India’s children under five are deficient in Vitamin D, and 57 percent of all children in the country lack adequate levels of Vitamin A. 
 
These deficiencies have contributed to high levels of stunting, wasting and underweight children.
 UNICEF 
Global micronutrient deficiency (as a percentage of the population). Two billion people in the world lack key micronutrients such as Vitamin A or iron. South Asia has the most critical malnutrition levels. Source: UNICEF 


Micronutrient availability can make or break a balanced diet
 
If accessible and affordable, nutritional supplements taken in the form of capsules or tablets can mitigate the symptoms of hidden hunger. But they can become toxic if consumed in large amounts.  
 
Unlike supplements, food fortification is a simple, preventive and low-cost approach to curb micronutrient deficiencies.
 
But except for mandatory iodine fortification of salt, India lags in adopting food fortification as a scalable public health intervention.  
 
This is a missed opportunity as a glass of fortified milk (320g) can provide approximately 34 percent of the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin A and 47 percent of Vitamin D.
 
In 2016, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India released standards for the fortification of five staple food items: rice, wheat, salt, oil, and milk. Further to that, regulations are now in place to fortify milk variants such as low fat, skimmed, and whole milk with Vitamin A and D.   
 
But despite its significant health benefits, and while established for more than three decades by companies such as Mother Dairy, a subsidiary of the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB), milk fortification is not yet common practice across the Indian milk industry.
 
To fill that gap, NDDB partnered in 2017 with the South Asia Food and Nutrition Security Initiative (SAFANSI), the World Bank, and The India Nutrition Initiative, Tata Trusts to explore the possibilities of large-scale milk fortification in India.
 
Over the last twelve months, this collaboration has enabled ten milk federations, dairy producer companies, and milk unions across the country to pilot milk fortification for their consumers. Fifteen others have initiated the process.

Game-changing technology empowers India’s women farmers

Paramveer Singh's picture
 World Bank
Since it started a decade ago, JEEVIKA, a World Bank program that supports Bihar’s rural communities, has mobilized more than nine million women into self-help and producers groups. Joining forces has helped lower costs and boost agricultural production. Credit: World Bank

It’s a dusty September morning, and Kiran Devi is finishing her chores at lightning speed.

 “Wouldn’t it be nice to keep 5,000 women waiting, especially when it’s a celebration,” she says with a touch of gushing pride and makes her way to the annual general meeting of the women-owned Aaranyak Agri producer company.

Located in Purnea district in Bihar—one of India’s poorest states—the company is made up of small local women small farmers and producers and lies in the most fertile corn regions in eastern India.

But until recently, small farmers did not fully reap the benefits of this productive land.

Local traders and intermediaries dominated the unregulated market. Archaic and unfair trading practices like manual weighing, unscientific quality testing, and irregular payments made it difficult for small farmers to get the best value for their produce.

 “The trader would come, put some grains under his teeth and pronounce the quality and pricing. For every quintal of maize [corn], 5-10 kilos additional grains were taken, sometimes through faulty scales and sometimes simply by brazenly asking for it,” says Lal Devi, one member of the company. “We had the choice between getting less or getting nothing.”
 

Kanchan Rani Devi bringing her corn to Sameli
Kanchan Rani Devi bringing her corn to Sameli. Credit: World Bank

Such practices stirred local women farmers into action, and they formed the Aaranyak Agri Producer Company Limited (AAPC) to access markets directly and improve their bargaining power.  

The company established a farmer-centric model and received funding and technical assistance through JEEViKA (livelihoods in Hindi), a World Bank program that supports the Government of Bihar and has achieved life-changing results for Bihar’s rural communities.

Since it started a decade ago, JEEVIKA has mobilized more than nine million women into self-help and producers groups. Joining forces helped lower costs and boost production. Together, the groups saved $120 million and leveraged more than $800 million in bank loans.

Further, digital technologies have been introduced as an innovative way to improve the production, marketing, and sale of small-farmers’ produce.

For example, women farmers receive regular periodic updates on their mobile phones to learn best practices to grow corn as well as weather information to inform farming decisions.

During harvest season, farmers receive daily pricing information from major nearby markets to help them stay abreast of the latest variations in prices.

An update on Bhutan’s economy

Tenzin Lhaden's picture
Accelerating the reform momentum after the 2018 elections is key to consolidating and furthering Bhutan’s development
Accelerating the reform momentum after the 2018 elections is key to consolidating and furthering Bhutan’s development. Credit: World Bank

Bhutan is one of the smallest, but fastest-growing economies in the world.
 
Its annual average economic growth of 7.6 percent between 2007 and 2017 far exceeds the average global growth rate of 3.2 percent.
 
This high growth has contributed to reducing poverty: Extreme poverty was mostly eradicated and dwindled from 8 percent in 2007 to 1.5 percent in 2017, based on the international poverty line of $1.90 a day (at purchasing power parity).
 
Access to basic services such as health, education and asset ownership has also improved significantly.
 
The country has a total of 32 hospitals and 208 basic health units, with each district hospital including almost always three doctors.
 
The current national literacy rate is 71 percent and the youth literacy rate is 93 percent.
 
The recent statistics on lending, inflation, exchange rates and international reserves (Sources: RMA, NSB) confirm that Bhutan maintained robust growth and macroeconomic stability in the first half of 2018.  

Gross foreign reserves have been increasing since 2012 when the country experienced an Indian rupee shortage.
 
Reserves exceeded $1.1 billion, equivalent to 11 months of imports of goods and services, which makes the country more resilient to potential shocks.
 
The nominal exchange rate has been depreciating since early 2018 (with ngultrum reaching Nu. 73 against the US dollar in early November).

Doing better business to fight poverty

Duvindi Illankoon's picture
The new Doing Business ranking places Sri Lanka at 100 out of 190 economies, compared with 111 last year. This year Sri Lanka made it easier for businesses to register property, obtain permits, enforce contracts and pay taxes. Credit: World Bank

End Poverty Day fell on the 17th of October. Two weeks later, the new Doing Business rankings come out for this year.

If you’re wondering what the link is, here’s a quick summary: business-friendly regulations can be instrumental in lowering poverty at the national level.

This is one of those happy instances where economics, common sense and the data align.

A better regulatory environment encourages more businesses to register and expand, bringing more employers to the economy.

Then the market responds- not only do these employers create more jobs, but also going to offer better jobs to attract capable workers to their companies.

Ultimately, a reliable source of income is the catalyst to moving out of poverty.

Sounds too simple? Trust the numbers.

Commitment to reforms improves business climate in South Asia

Hartwig Schafer's picture
 
Rikweda, an Afghan fruit processing company in the Kabul Province is well on its way to restoring Afghanistan as a raisin exporting powerhouse—a status the country held until the 1970s when it claimed about 20 percent of the global market. Credit World Bank


Imagine a state-of-the-art processing plant that harnesses laser-sorting technology to produce a whopping 15,000 tons of raisins a year, linking up thousands of local farmers to international markets and providing job opportunities to women.
 
To find such a world-class facility, look no further than Rikweda, an Afghan fruit processing company in the Kabul Province that’s well on its way to restoring Afghanistan as a raisin exporting powerhouse—a status the country held until the 1970s when it claimed about 20 percent of the global market.
 
In Afghanistan’s volatile business environment, let alone its deteriorating security, Rikweda’s story is an inspiration for budding entrepreneurs and investors.
 
It also is an illustration of the government’s reform efforts to create more opportunities for Afghan businesses to open and grow, which were reflected in the country’s record advancement in the Doing Business 2019 index, launched today by the World Bank.
 
Despite the increasing conflicts and growing fragility, and thanks to a record five reforms that have moved Afghanistan up to the rank of 167th from 183rd last year, the country became a top improver for the first time in the report’s history.
 
And Afghanistan is not the only South Asian country this year that took a prominent place among top 10 improvers globally.
 
India – which holds the title for the second consecutive year – is a striking example of how persistence pays off, and the high-level ownership and championship of reforms are critical for success. Its ranking has improved by 23 places this year and puts India ahead of all other countries in South Asia. This year, India is ranked 77th, up from 100th last year. 

Moving India’s railways into the future

Joe Qian's picture
Laying Tracks
Progress is being made on the largest railway project in India's modern history – the Dedicated Freight Corridor Program. 
View the 3D presentation here
Thump…thump…thump...like a slow rhythmic drum, concrete ties that hold the track in place are laid down one after another with the latest machinery as rails are placed precisely on top of them.

It’s nearing sunset near the town of Hathras in India’s state of Uttar Pradesh, home to 220 million people—more than the entire population of Brazil.

Progress is being made on the largest railway project in India’s modern history that will increase prosperity by helping move people and goods more safely, effectively, and in an environmentally-friendly way.
India’s Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC) program is building dedicated freight-only railway lines along highly congested transport corridors connecting the industrial heartland in the north to the ports of Kolkata and Mumbai on the eastern and western coasts.
India Trains
Passengers and freight trains currently share tracks in India which can cause congestion and delays. The project will help increase the speed of freight rail to up to 100km/h from the current 25km/h average. 

Through these efforts, DFC is expected to improve transport and trade logistics – bringing much needed jobs, connectivity, and urbanization opportunities to some of India’s poorest provinces – including Bihar and Uttar Pradesh while helping protect the environment. The electric locomotives will help ease India’s energy security issues and escalating concerns about traffic accidents, congestion, carbon emissions, and pollution created by road traffic. 

Near Hathras and simultaneously in different sites in the country, workers equipped with modern equipment and techniques efficiently lay 1.5 km of new track per day in different weather conditions. Once completed, electric cables are stretched above and signaling is installed, all in preparation for the electric locomotives reliably to carry their cargo across the country at maximum speed of 100km/h, compared to an average current speed of 25 km/h.

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