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Bhutan

An update on Bhutan’s economy

Yoichiro Ishihara'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).

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. 

Five takeaways for better nutrition in South Asia—and beyond

Felipe F. Dizon's picture
In many developing countries, governments and health authorities face the dilemma of how to feed their growing population while ensuring their food is nutritious. Credit: World Bank

Together with more than 1,500 academics, scientists, and policymakers, we participated last week in the Rice Olympics.
 
The event—formally known as the International Rice Congress (IRC)—provides a unique window on the latest innovations and policies about the globe’s most important staple crop.
 
For many, rice may not seem worth the cost of a conference trip. Yet, half of the world’s population depend on it as their main supply of nutrients and energy.  
 
Rice isn’t just a crop,” said Rajan Garjaria, Executive Vice President for Business Platforms at Corteva Agriscience. “It’s a way of life. A place can be made or broken, based on their rice crop.
 
The Congress discussed a breadth of topics, but what stood out the most is that rice can be instrumental in making people healthier and in sustaining the planet.
 
The South Asia Food and Nutrition Security Initiative (SAFANSI), a World Bank partnership that aims to improve food and nutrition security across the region, participated in the Symposium on Sustainable Food Systems and Diets and presented its latest research on linkages among food prices, diet quality, and nutrition security.  
 
Overall, the event underscored how governments and health authorities in many developing countries face the dilemma of how to feed their growing population while ensuring their food is nutritious and discussed relevant strategies to transform nutrition security challenges into opportunities.

Finishing the job of ending poverty in South Asia

Hartwig Schafer's picture
This Bangladeshi woman was born in poverty. With the right kind of education, life in poverty quickly became a story from the past for her. Credit: World Bank

"I have a four-year-old son back in my village. I want to make a better life for him,” says Sharmin Akhtar, a 19-year-old employee in one of Dhaka’s many flourishing garment factories.

Like thousands of other poor women, Sharmin came down to Bangladesh’s capital from her village in the country’s north to seek a better job and create a more prosperous future for her family—leaving behind a life of crushing poverty.

Today, as we mark End Poverty Day 2018, it’s important to note that Sharmin’s heartening story is one of many in Bangladesh and the rest of South Asia, where economic growth has spurred a dramatic decline in extreme poverty in the last 25 years.

And the numbers are striking: In South Asia, the number of extreme poor living on less than $1.90 a day dropped to 216 million people in 2015 from 275 million in 2013 and 536 million in 1990.

Even more remarkable, South Asian countries experienced an increase in incomes among the poorest 40 percent of 2.6 percent a year between 2010-2015, faster than the global average of 1.9 percent.

On a global scale, the highest concentration of poor shifted from South Asia to Sub-Saharan Africa in 2012. And India is likely to be overtaken, if it has not already been, by Nigeria as the country with the most people living in extreme poverty.

It’s worth thinking about how far South Asia has come – but remaining clear-eyed about how far we must go to finish the fight against extreme poverty.

Indeed, it is increasingly clear that poverty is more entrenched and harder to root out in certain areas, particularly in rural areas and in countries burdened by violent conflict and weak institutions.

Estimates for 2015 indicate that India, with 176 million poor people, continued to have the highest number of people in poverty and accounted for nearly a quarter of the global poor.

True, the extreme poverty rate is significantly lower in India relative to the average rate in Sub-Saharan Africa. But because of its large population, India’s total number of poor is still large.

And while there has been a substantial decline in the numbers and rate of people living below $1.90 in South Asia, the number of people living on less than $3.20 has declined by only 8 percent over 1990-2015 because of the growing population.

In 2015, 49 percent of the population of South Asia were living on less than $3.20 a day, and 80 percent were living on less than $5.50 a day.

Investing in people of South Asia for prosperity and quality of life

Hartwig Schafer's picture
A little girl in Balochistan, Pakistan, who now receives a quality education thanks to World Bank support. 
A little girl in Balochistan, Pakistan, who now receives a quality education thanks to World Bank support. Credit: World Bank 

Human capital – the potential of individuals – is going to be the most important long-term investment any country can make for its people’s future prosperity and quality of life.

Just look around the world: Technology is reshaping every industry and setting new demands for skills in every profession. The frontier for skills is moving faster than ever before.

To meet that challenge and be able to compete in the global economy, countries need to prepare their workforces now for the tremendous challenges and opportunities driven by technological change.  

To that end, the World Bank will launch next week its highly anticipated Human Capital Index to measure countries’ contribution of health and education to the productivity of the next generation of their workers.

The Index will be released on October 11 at the Bank’s Annual Meetings in Bali as part of the Human Capital Project, a global effort led by the Bank to accelerate investments in people for greater equity and economic growth.

No doubt, any country ranking gets high visibility and, sometimes, meets controversy. But I hope it triggers a dialogue about policies to promote investments in people.

To be clear, the important purpose of the Human Capital Index is to measure the distance of each country to the highest standard of complete education and full health—or the “frontier”.

The index, irrespective of whether it is high or low, is not an indication of a country’s current policies or initiatives, but rather reflects where it has emerged over years and decades.

Put simply, the index measures what the productivity of a generation is, compared to what it could be, if they had benefitted from complete education and good health.

The index ranges from 0 to 1 and takes the highest value of 1 only if a child born today can expect to achieve full health (defined as no stunting and survival up to at least age 60) and complete her education potential (defined as 14 years of high-quality school by age 18).

Building up Bhutan’s resilience to disasters and climate change

Dechen Tshering's picture
Building Bhutans Resilience
Despite progress, Bhutan still has ways to go to understand and adapt to the impacts of climate change. And with the effects of climate change intensifying, the frequency of significant hydro-meteorological hazards are expected to increase. Photo Credit: Zachary Collier


The 2016 monsoon was much heavier than usual affecting almost all of Bhutan, especially in the south.
 
Landslides damaged most of the country’s major highways and smaller roads. Bridges were washed away, isolating communities.
 
The Phuentsholing -Thimphu highway which carries food and fuel from India to half of Bhutan was hit in several locations, and the Kamji bridge partially collapsed, setting residents of the capital city and nearby districts into panic for fear of food and fuel shortages.
 
Overall the floods drove down Bhutan’s gross domestic product by 0.36 percent.

While not as destructive as the 2016 monsoon, flash floods, and landslides are becoming a yearly occurrence along Bhutan’s roads.

Announcing the winners of the 2018 #OneSouthAsia Photo Contest

World Bank South Asia's picture


Home to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, South Asia is one of the world’s most dynamic regions.

It's also one of the least integrated.

A few numbers say it all: Intra-regional trade accounts for only 5 percent of South Asia’s total trade; Intra-regional investment is smaller than 1 percent of overall investment.

South Asia’s transport corridors can lead to prosperity

Martin Melecky's picture
 World Bank
Transport corridors offer enormous potential to boost South Asia’s economies, reduce poverty, and spur more and better jobs for local people, provided the new trade routes generate growth for all and limit their environmental impact. Credit: World Bank

This blog is based on the report The Web of Transport Corridors in South Asia -- jointly produced with the Asian Development Bank, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, and the Japan International Cooperation Agency

No doubt, South Asia’s prosperity was built along its trade routes.

One of the oldest, the Grand Trunk Road from the Mughal era still connects East and West and in the 17th century made Delhi, Kabul and Lahore wealthy cities with impressive civic buildings, monuments, and gardens.

Fast forward a few centuries and today, South Asia abounds with new proposals to build a vast network of transport corridors.
 
In India alone—and likely bolstered by the successful completion of the Golden Quadrilateral (GQ) highway system—several transport proposals extending beyond India’s borders are now under consideration. 
 
They include the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), linking India, Iran and Russia, the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, and the Bangladesh, China, India, and Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor.
 
The hope is that these transport corridors will turn into growth engines and create large economic surpluses that can spread throughout the economy and society.

Arguably, the transport corridor with the greatest economic potential is the surface link between Shanghai and Mumbai.
 
These two cities are the economic hubs of China and India respectively, two emerging global powers.
 
The distance between them, about 5,000 kilometers, is not much greater than the distance between New York and Los Angeles.
 
But instead of crossing a relatively empty continent, a corridor from Shanghai to Mumbai—via Kunming, Mandalay, Dhaka, and Kolkata—would go through some of the most densely populated and most dynamic areas in the world, stoking hopes of large economic spillovers along its alignment.
 
“Build and they will come” seems to be the logic underlying many massive transport investments around the world.
 
However, the reality is that not all these investments will generate the expected returns.
 
Worse, they can become wasteful white elephants—that is, transport infrastructure without much traffic—that would cost trillions of dollars at taxpayers’ expense.
 
So, how can South Asia develop transport corridors that have a positive impact on their economies and benefit all people along the corridor alignments and beyond?  
 
First, countries need to change the mindset that transport corridors are mere engineering feats designed to move along vehicles and commodities.
 
Second, sound economic analysis of how corridors can help spur urbanization and create local jobs while minimizing the disruptions to the natural environment, is key to developing successful investment programs.
 
Specifically, it is vital to ensure that local populations whose lives are disrupted by new infrastructure can reap equally the benefits from better transport connectivity.
 
The hard truth is that the development of corridor initiatives may involve difficult tradeoffs.
 
For instance, more educated and skilled people can migrate to obtain better jobs in growing urban areas that are benefiting from corridor connectivity, while unskilled workers may be left behind in depopulated rural areas with few economic prospects.
 
But while corridors can create both winners and losers, well-designed investment programs can alleviate potential adverse impacts and help local people share the benefits more widely.
 
In that vein, India’s Golden Quadrilateral, or GQ highway system, is a cautionary tale. 
 
No doubt, this corridor had a positive impact. 
 
Economic activity along the corridor increased and people, especially women, found better job opportunities beyond traditional farming.
 
But this success came at a cost as air pollution increased in the districts near the highway.
 
This is a major tradeoff and one that was documented before in Japan when levels of air pollution spiked during the development of its Pacific Ocean Belt several decades ago.
 
Another downside is that the economic benefits generated by the GQ highway were distributed unequally in neighboring communities.  

Has Bhutan’s growth been jobless?

Tenzin Lhaden's picture
Bhutan's youth unemployment rate has increased from 10.7 percent in 2015 to 13.2 percent in 2016
Bhutan continues to maintain solid growth and macroeconomic stability but job creation is lagging; its  youth unemployment rate has increased from 10.7 percent in 2015 to 13.2 percent in 2016. This indicates that high growth has not been able to generate enough jobs for youth. 

“The main driver of growth in Bhutan continues to be the hydropower sector, but electricity generation does not create job,” said a senior government officials attending the presentation of The World Bank’s South Asia Focus on Jobless Growth on June 28th in Thimphu. The report was presented by Martin Rama, World Bank South Asia Region Chief Economist and was attended by senior government officials, parliamentarians and development partners. The presentation alongside the launch of Bhutan Development Update was a great opportunity for the policy makers to better understand and synthesize Bhutan and the South Asia region’s development opportunities.

In the case of Bhutan, it seems clear that growth alone will not allow it to attain higher employment rates as enjoyed by some other developing countries.

"More than 1.8 million young people will reach working age every month in South Asia through 2025 and the good news is that economic growth is creating jobs in the region,” said Martin Rama,. “But providing opportunities to these young entrants while attracting more women into the labor market will require generating even more jobs for every point of economic growth.”

The report informs that the fall in employment rates has been much faster in the region particularly in India, Bhutan and Sri Lanka and especially for women, risking foregoing the demographic dividend. While it is evident that the number of working age people is increasing, the proporation who are at work has declined owing to prioritization of the households to education, health and other commitments with increasing level of income.

How to boost female employment in South Asia

Martin Rama's picture
What's driving female employment in South Asia to decrease


South Asia is booming. In 2018, GDP growth for the region as a whole is expected to accelerate to 6.9 percent, making it the fastest growing region in the world. However, fast GDP growth has not translated into fast employment growth. In fact, employment rates have declined across the region, with women accounting for most of this decline.

Between 2005 and 2015, female employment rates declined by 5 percent per year in India, 3 percent per year in Bhutan, and 1 percent per year in Sri Lanka. While it is not surprising for female employment rates to decline with economic growth and then increase, in what is commonly known as the U-shaped female labor force function (a term coined by Claudia Goldin in 1995), the trends observed in South Asia stand out. Not only has female employment declined much more than could have been anticipated, it is likely to decline further as countries such as India continue to grow and urbanize.

The unusual trend for female employment rates in South Asia is clear from Figure 1. While male employment rates in South Asia are in line with those of other countries at the same income level, female employment rates are well below.
From the South Asia Economic Focus
Source: South Asia Economic Focus (Spring 2018).

If women are choosing to exit the labor force as family incomes rise, should policymakers worry? There are at least three reasons why the drop in female employment rates may have important social costs. First, household choices may not necessarily match women’s preferences. Those preferences reflect the influence of ideas and norms about what is women’s work and men’s work as well as other gendered notions such as the idea that women should take care of the children and housework. Second, when women control a greater share of household incomes, children are healthier and do better in school. Third, when women work for pay, they have a greater voice in their households, in their communities, and in society. The economic gains from women participating equally in the labor market are sizable: A recent study estimated that the overall gain in GDP to South Asia from closing gender gaps in employment and entrepreneurship would be close to 25 percent.


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