As we today mark UN Women’s Day, it is worth considering what the inequality between men and women costs South Asian countries and what can be done about it.
One big cost of inequality is that South Asian economies do not reach their full potential. In Bangladesh, for example, women account for most unpaid work, and are overrepresented in the low productivity informal sector and among the poor. Raising the female employment rate could contribute significantly to Bangladesh achieving its goal in 2021 of becoming a middle-income country. Yet even middle-income countries in South Asia could prosper from more women in the workforce. Women represent only 34 percent of the employed population in Sri Lanka, a figure that has remained static for decades.
Improvements in the education and health of women have been linked to better outcomes for their children in countries as varied as Nepal and Pakistan. In India, giving power to women at the local government level led to increases in public services, such as water and sanitation.
Just as the costs of inequality are huge, so is the challenge in overcoming it. The gaps in opportunity between men and women are the product of pervasive and stubborn social norms that privilege men’s and boys’ access to opportunities and resources over women’s and girls’.
In Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, you cannot miss the slum neighborhoods. More than 5,000 slum communities, accounting for 40 percent of the population, are spread across the city, often located right next to luxury penthouses, hotels, and high-rise office buildings. Most slum dwellers are limited to low-quality housing in precarious areas, often prone to flooding. The limited access to adequate shelter is an important factor that – according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2015 livability rankings – makes Dhaka one of the least livable cities in the world. These communities are among the most neglected in the city in terms of urban policy, planning, and development, although the people who live in the slums make up the lion’s share of the work force, which drives the city’s economy, contributing significantly to the garment and leather industries, construction, waste management, and many other informal sectors.
Living in slums puts enormous social, economic, and financial burdens on households, and it can lead to intergenerational poverty. Many argue that slum dwellers are caught in a poverty trap—that living in slums makes it harder for households to escape poverty. Several slum-related factors contribute to the perpetuation of poverty, including poor health outcomes; an inability to access finance or leverage property assets; and lack of access to basic services. The existence of slums is a symptom of a shortage of affordable housing, the provision of which can be viewed as a valuable goal in its own right and as a critical ingredient in addressing the broader challenges of poverty.
Inclusion means that all people and communities have access to rights, opportunities, and resources. Urbanization provides cities the potential to increase prosperity and livability. However, many suffer from poor environments, social instability, inequality, and concentrated pockets of poverty that create exclusion. In South Asia, as in other regions, segregation within cities cause poorer areas to suffer from the lack of access to facilities and services that exacerbate misery and crime.
Medellin, Colombia was once the most dangerous city on the planet with astounding gaps between the wealthy and the poor, vastly different access to services, and the highest homicide rate in the world. Its turnaround has been impressive. Much of the progress has been attributed to the thoughtfulness of its planning to ensure greater inclusion. What can South Asian cities learn from this South American city?
Planning policies and action have often been concentrated on the broad structures and functions of cities. However, drilling down the details can realize an inclusive urban environment that improves life for all in public spaces. In our definition, inclusive cities provide:
- Mobility: A high level of movement between different neighborhoods that provide opportunities for jobs, education, and culture;
- Services: All neighborhoods have a basic level of facilities and affordable necesities such as housing, water, and sanitation;
- Accessibility: Urban spaces are designed so that everyone can easily and safety enjoy public spaces.
What happened in Medellin, Colombia? Medellin offers an inspiring example of how improved planning and sound implementation can increase social inclusion. Two decades ago, Medellin was the homicide capital of the world. Illicit drugs were a major export and hillside slums were particularly affected by violence. In response, the government created public facilities inclusive of libraries and schools, public transportation links, and recreational spaces in the poorest neighborhoods; and connecting them with the city’s commercial and industrial centers. As a result of a planning model that seeks to serve all residents, the city has become safer, healthier, more educated and equitable.
Urbanization provides the countries of South Asia with the opportunity to transform their economies to join the ranks of richer nations. But to reap the benefits of urbanization, nations must address the challenges it poses. Growing urban populations put pressure on a city’s infrastructure; they increase the demand for basic services, land and housing, and they add stress to the environment.
Of all these congestion forces, one of the most serious for health and human welfare is ambient air pollution from vehicle emissions and the burning of fossil fuels by industry and households, according to the World Bank report, “Leveraging Urbanization in South Asia: Managing Spatial Transformation for Prosperity and Livability.”
Particularly harmful are high concentrations of fine particulate matter, especially that of 2.5 microns or less in diameter (PM2.5). They can penetrate deep into the lungs, increasing the likelihood of asthma, lung cancer, severe respiratory illness, and heart disease.
Data released by the World Health Organization (WHO) in May 2014 shows Delhi to have the most polluted air of any city in the world, with an annual mean concentration of PM2.5 of 152.6 μg/m3 . That is more than 15 times greater than the WHO’s guideline value and high enough to make Beijing’s air—known for its bad quality—look comparatively clean.
But Delhi is far from unique among South Asia’s cities.
Need to know how sustained infrastructure investments could boost Bangladesh’s economy? How the delay in implementing key reforms on the domestic front, a weak trade performance and the recent slowdown in rural wage growth pose risks to growth in India? Or how Pakistan could achieve sustained and inclusive growth through reforms in energy and taxation, and increasing investment?
There is a one-stop place to find out what the World Bank is doing in your country and what it thinks about economic prospects there.
Robert Solow once said: “Livability is not a middle-class luxury, it is an economic imperative.” But how related are livability and economic development? Furthermore, how can we define and measure livability?
Recently as part of the South Asia Urbanization Flagship Report, Leveraging Urbanization in South Asia: Managing Spatial Transformation for Prosperity and Livability, our team compared a sample of South Asian cities with peers from around the world. The report’s framework considered livability (along with prosperity) as being a key outcome of urbanization.
We wanted to highlight that while urbanization has undoubtedly contributed to economic growth in South Asia, its impact on livability is more complex. As they have grown, South Asian cities have faced challenges arising from the pressure of their populations on basic services, infrastructure, land, housing, and the environment. This has helped to give rise to what the report terms “messy” urbanization, characterized by slums and sprawl, not to mention levels of ambient outdoor air pollution that rank amongst the highest across cities globally.
The report suggests that to have a full understanding of the urbanization process in South Asia, it is necessary to discuss not only the positive productivity benefits that are associated with urban size and density, but also the negative “congestion” forces. How successfully South Asian cities manage these forces will help to determine the quality of life not only of the region’s current half a billion urban residents, but also of the additional 250 million that will be added over the next 15 years.