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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.

South Asia's new superfood or just fishy business?

Pawan Patil's picture
Across South Asia, four known species of indigenous, fully mature, small food-fish – now dubbed ‘NutriFish’ have nutritional and health benefits for pregnant and lactating women and young children when consumed over the first one thousand days. Here, children from Kothi, Odisha in India show their curiosity and share their excitement with a new kind of harvest happening in their village. Credit: Arun Padiyar
Kale, Kefir, and Quinoa have now joined the ranks of better-known foods like Blueberries, Orange Sweet Potato, and Salmon on family dinner tables across the world.

Considered superior for their health and nutrition benefits, these so-called ‘Superfoods’, often considered “new” by the public are now ever-popularized by celebrity chefs and have become all the rage of foodies from San Francisco to Singapore.   

We live in a world of paradox, where old world and almost forgotten food like Quinoa (which dates back as a staple food over three thousand years to Andean civilization but largely disappeared with the arrival of the Spanish) is now back on the menu.  

Salmon, a staple part of Nordic diets from paleolithic times and woven into the culture of native populations across northwestern Canada and many other superfoods share comparable stories.

And, there are many other old world foods, indigenously known, disappearing but not fully forgotten, yet to be re-discovered.

Food is also now advancing to the front-line of the war on poverty

A health and human capital crisis is now sweeping the world, and a lack of diverse, accessible, affordable, and available nourishing foods is increasingly blamed.  

For example, obesity, from poor diet and poor exercise has tripled since 1975 to almost two billion people today.  

Undernutrition contributes to 45 percent of all deaths of children under five years old (3.5 million each year), much of it avoidable, but difficult to detect as it remains “hidden.”  

Policy makers and stewards of national economies are starting to wake up to the fact that poor nutrition has massive economic implications too, reducing GDP by 3-11 percent, depending on the country. 

While economies such as Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan may look strong, just as bellies look full, critical micronutrients and vitamins, essential for healthy physical and cognitive development over the first 1,000 days of life are largely missing from diets of many developing countries and are a proven drag to educational attainment and economic prosperity.  

And parents, from both rich and poor nations alike, seem to know something is not quite right. 

If healthier food choices that are accessible, affordable, and readily available are better known, would parents purchase such food from the market for their families?     

With a small grant from the World Bank-administered South Asia Food and Nutrition Initiative (SAFANSI) supported by the EU and the United Kingdom, a partnership with WorldFish was established to test this premise.  

A 60 second TV spot, a collaboration between scientists, economists, a private sector digital media company, broadcasters and the Government of Bangladesh, was created and broadcast across the nation on two occasions and watched by over 25 million people.  

A parallel radio program was also developed and aired reaching millions more, particularly the rural poor and marginalized communities.
 
NutriFish1000 TV

 

New year with a fresh start: Addressing urban poverty in Bangladesh

Wameq Azfar Raza's picture


Although Bangladesh has achieved much in the way of poverty reduction and human development, progress has been slower in some urban areas.

Issues such as slow-down of quality job growth, low levels of educational attainment (notably among the youth), and lack of social protection measures have taken the wind out of the proverbial urban reduction “sail.” As the country starts fresh in the new year, it is an opportune time to reflect on some of the key issues affecting urban poverty.

Despite the steady growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), successive Household Income and Expenditure Surveys (2005 to 2010 and 2010 to 2016) suggest that the rate of poverty reduction has been slowing down while the absolute number of extreme poor have been increasing in urban Bangladesh. Given the accelerating rate of urbanization, it suggests that more people live in extreme poverty in 2016 than they did in 2010. With nearly 44% of the country’s population projected to be living in an urban setting by 2050, this issue is only likely to intensify.  

Several factors may be driving this trend. Absence of education and skills dampen labor market participation and productivity. Among those who participate in the labor-force in urban areas, 19% of men and 28% of women are illiterate. For those who received at least some training, a recent study shows that only 51% of eighth-grade students met equivalent competency in the native language subject (Bangla). The figures were markedly lower for other subjects. Similar trends carry through to technical diploma and tertiary level institutes. As a result, many prospective employers report reluctance to hiring fresh graduates.

Toward a livable Dhaka

Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez's picture
Toward a Liveable Dhaka


The Dhaka Metropolitan Area is the economic and political center of Bangladesh and has been the country’s engine of economic growth and job creation. Dhaka’s role as a commercial hub has led to rapid population growth, with the population increasing 10 times in 40 years to about 18 million in 2015. This has contributed to Bangladesh having one of the fastest rates of urbanization in South Asia.

Today, more than one-third of Bangladesh’s urban population lives in Dhaka, one of the world’s most densely populated cities with 440 persons per hectare – denser than Mumbai (310), Hong Kong, and Karachi (both 270).

Dhaka is also one of the least livable cities in the world. It is ranked 137 on livability out of 140 cities, the lowest for any South Asian city surveyed. The low livability in Dhaka disproportionately affects vulnerable populations, such as the poor, women, and the elderly.

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. 

Too often, Dhaka remains inaccessible for people with disabilities

Shigeyuki Sakaki's picture
 World Bank 
Tajkia Mariam Jahan, a wheelchair user from Dhaka, Bangladesh was confined to her home for seven years due to the road environment. The city roads are unwelcoming not only for people in a wheelchair like her but also for persons with all types of disabilities. Credit: World Bank 

An ever-growing urban population with overflowing and at times chaotic vehicular traffic can make life difficult even for the most well-abled pedestrian.

The challenges become higher for a person with a disability.

How can I go out of my home?’ asks Tajkia Mariam Jahan, a wheelchair user from Dhaka, who was confined to her home for seven years due to the road environment.

The city roads are unwelcoming not only for people in a wheelchair like her but also for persons with all types of disabilities.

Hawa Aktar, a woman with hearing impairment, needs clear, visible signs and signals on road crossings and from vehicles. And Bashir Uddin Molla, a student with visual impairment, needs sounds and guidance when she is walking.

None of these facilities are available to people with disabilities living in Dhaka.

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).

Connecting communities through India and Bangladesh's cross-border markets

Nikita Singla's picture


In remote border regions in Bangladesh and India, a government-to-government initiative is changing cross border relations, shifting the focus from smuggling and skirmishes to mutual economic gains and building a coalition for peace and cooperation.

In 2011, Bangladesh and India flagged off the first of their border haats, representing an attempt to recapture once thriving economic and cultural relationships that had been truncated by the creation of national borders.
Border Haats are local markets along the Indo-Bangladesh border that stretches 4100 Kms and runs through densely populated regions.

Conceived as Confidence Building Measures between India and Bangladesh, 4 Border Haats were set up between 2011 and 2015.
  • Balat (Meghalaya) – Sunamgunj (Sylhet)
  • Kalaichar (Meghalaya) – Kurigram (Rangpur)
  • Srinagar (Tripura) – Chagalnaiya (Chittagong)
  • Kamalasagar (Tripura) – Kasba (Chittagong)

Initially only local produce was permitted for trade. But subsequently, the range of items has been broadened to include goods of household consumption.
 

Bringing the People of Bangladesh and India Together Through Border Markets
Overall, border Haats have been strongly welcomed by participants. The positive experience of border haats has prompted both the governments to flag-off six more Border Haats: two in Tripura and four in Meghalaya. More Haats mean more trade, more people to people connect and more trust, one leading to another. This will go a long way in linking marginalized border communities to more mainstreamed trade and development.  


But border haats are not only about trade.

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