For a number of years, a majority of South Asians have been painfully aware that climate change is real and, if left unfettered, has the potential to reverse the significant gains the region has made on poverty reduction and other Millennium Development Goals.
In 2009, the government of the Maldives held a Cabinet meeting underwater to remind the world that the country – which is on average 2.7 meters above sea level – will be completely wiped out if oceans rise.
Nepal’s government held a Cabinet meeting at the base of Mount Everest – at an altitude of 5,242 meters above sea level – to stress that 1.3 billion Asians depend on the seven major rivers with headwaters originating from the vulnerable Himalayan glaciers for their livelihoods.
As the World Bank Group, we are dedicated to a world free of poverty. Poverty has many manifestations, of course, but few are sadder than child hunger and malnutrition. It is not just the heart-rending pangs of hunger or the susceptibility of a malnourished infant or child to ailments and diseases. The persistent effects are even more troubling. Poor nutrition impairs physical and mental development so that children benefit less from education and are less productive as adults. It leads to increased morbidity and mortality, causing output losses and increased spending on health and social support. Long ago William Blake wrote "some are born to endless night," poignantly capturing the tragedy of lives blighted by childhood deprivation.
If the extent of hungry children in the world – more than 350 million – is an inconvenient truth, their numbers in the South Asia region are acutely embarrassing.
Like a Bollywood dance sequence, South Asia’s growth numbers tend to dazzle. It is the second-fastest-growing region in the world after East Asia. But behind the glamour lies a paradox. Despite robust economic growth, the total number of people living in poverty in South Asia has not fallen fast enough. Today, there are more poor people living under $1.25 a day in South Asia than in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Social indicators are lagging as well. South Asia has the highest rates of malnutrition in the world, with 250 million children undernourished. More than 30 million children still do not go to school. Gender discrimination remains a scar. Women’s labor-force participation in the region is among the world’s lowest, boys outnumber girls in school enrollment, and legal and judicial systems still do not address systemic gender violence.
Last week a group of Bank staff joined our clients from the South Asia region for an Urbanization Knowledge Platform event on green cities. The event was held in Seoul and Daegu, respectively the largest and third-largest cities in Korea. It was hosted by the Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements (KRIHS), Korea’s premier institute responsible for urban, regional, infrastructure, land, and housing planning and research. The idea was for clients and Bank staff to learn firsthand about green city development as it happens on the ground in Korea. The following are my six takeaways from the workshops and field visits during the week.
"It's Possible!" read the roadside sign as our bus pulled into Sejong, the Republic of Korea’s future face to the world. We soon understood why Sejong is being billed as "Asia’s Green Metropolis of the Future" and Korea's new growth engine.
Our trip to Sejong this week was organized by the Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements (KRIHS), a partner with the World Bank’s flagship program on urbanization in South Asia. The program has formed a network of city leaders, policy makers, urban planners and practitioners from across the region to put the world’s best knowledge and data in their hands, and to harness urban growth for faster poverty alleviation and better development outcomes. The idea behind the trip was to take inspiration from Korea’s vision of becoming one of five top-ranked Green Economies by 2050 and to learn from cutting-edge Korean examples in green urban development for possible application in South Asian cities as they grow in size and numbers.
Over the last quarter-century, the number of urban dwellers in South Asia has more than doubled to almost 500 million. In India alone, the number of city dwellers has grown by 122 million. Delhi, Karachi, Kolkata and Dhaka have all joined Mumbai in the league of mega-cities. And yet, urbanization in South Asia has barely begun. With about 30% of its population living in cities, South Asia is the least urbanized in the world. But in the 20 years to come, South Asia will urbanize faster than any other region of the world, with the exception of East Asia. This rapid urbanization can be a powerful engine in accelerating poverty alleviation. But most cities in the region are struggling to cope with even the current level of urbanization. Can South Asian cities support the growing urban economy and population and become centers of shared prosperity, or will they become centers of grief?
On June 6th, CGAP launched its annual and ever-growing photo contest that highlights the diversity and dynamism of microfinance around the world. Each year, the CGAP Photo Contest receives stunning photographs from around the world that help tell the story that CGAP’s work addresses.
Now in its 7th year, CGAP has asked entrants to focus on the broader issues that surround financial inclusion to help show the variety of formal and informal ways in which finance is woven into the fabric of poor people’s day-to-day activities. CGAP is continually trying to build upon the Contest’s success by challenging photographers to use their imaginations to capture microfinance in distinctive ways and diversify the representations of microfinance. In particular, photographers from South Asia that have consistently dominated the top prizes will need to continue wowing the judges for place as a finalist as more and more photographers from Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East deliver compelling work.
The results are in! The selection committee has chosen 25 winners in the World Bank’s Imagining Our Future Together art contest for young artists.
"With sensitive brush strokes and unusual photo angles, the young artists of Imagining our Future Together offer jointly for the first time a harmonious and joyous regional song of beauty, poetry, irony, and talent," said Marina Galvani, art curator for the World Bank.
“While unemployment is around 5% in Sri Lanka, youth unemployment is nearly 3 times that. Youth unemployment is a critical challenge for us right now”, I said, in my remarks on Sri Lankan perspectives at a South Asian youth dialogue on the sidelines of the World Bank–IMF Spring Meetings last month. “Hey, what are you complaining about? Youth unemployment is almost 50% in Greece right now!”, was the immediate response I got from a World Banker in the audience. I was taken slightly aback, but it made it very clear to me - the youth unemployment issue is a gripping issue for many of the world’s economies right now, and even if the numbers may not always be on the same scale and each country has different reasons for why it’s a high-priority policy issue right now.
The last year and a half has seen everyone sit up and take notice of youth unemployment like never before – either because of the Arab Spring or protests by discontent educated youth in European capitals. The attention of economists and governments alike is on it – how did it become such a challenge? How can we address it?
Last week, I discussed the optimistic and pessimistic views of South Asia's development potential. As I highlighted in my book, Reshaping Tomorrow, South Asia is among the fastest growing regions in the world, but it is also home to the largest concentration of people living in conditions of debilitating poverty, human misery, gender disparities, and conflict.
I also ask if South Asia is Ready for the Big Leap. The optimistic view is that India will achieve double-digit growth rates benefiting the rest of South Asia. The pessimistic view is that growth will be derailed by structural and transformational challenges. In this entry, I will make some suggestions on how South Asia could realize the optimistic view.
What can be done?