Buy a leather case for your wife’s smartphone on Amazon, select shipping from China with an estimated delivery time of 4-6 weeks, and then be pleasantly surprised when it turns up on your Virginia doorstep in 11 days. The marvels of the modern age – of technology, globalization, and shrinking distances.
Where does South Asia stand on export delivery? Figure 1 illustrates that compared to other economic units around the globe, it is a lot more difficult to trade with(in) SAFTA (South Asia Free Trade Agreement). It also shows that bureaucratic hurdles and the time it takes to trade go hand-in-hand. While the region does relatively well on trade with Europe or East Asia, intra-South Asian trade has remained low and costly. It costs South Asian countries more to trade with their immediate neighbors, compared to their costs to trade with distant Brazil (see below)! In fact, it is cheaper for South Asian countries to export to anywhere else in the world than to export to each other (Figure 3). In other words, South Asia has converted its proximity into a handicap.
Image: Author's Illustration
Freakonomics Radio recently aired a podcast entitled “If Mayors Ruled the World”, based on Benjamin Barber’s new book of the same title, which contends that cities are a good template for governments to rule by, largely due to their mayors who are often uniquely positioned and focused on solving actual city problems. So much so, that he argues for the formation of a “Global Parliament of Mayors” to solve the world’s problems.
Even so, being a mayor of a South Asian city is no easy task. The challenges of city management in South Asia are compounded by its burgeoning urban population. In fact, according to the UN, roughly 315 million people are expected to be added to urban areas in the region by 2030. That number weighs in close to the entire population of the US today. It is no surprise that the theme of managing the challenges of urban transformation was at the top of the agenda at the recent South Asia Regional Workshop and Mayors’ Forum, hosted in Kandy, Sri Lanka.
The Mayors’ Forum, attended by a number of mayors and city leaders from South Asian countries and around, provided insights to what some successful mayors have done for their cities. By being visionary, and at the same time pragmatic problem solvers, mayors have seized opportunities to transform their cities, and quite often out of necessity and within highly constrained environments. Mayors took the opportunity to show how, despite significant institutional and financial limitations, they were able to take proactive initiatives to transform their cities. These were what they had to say:
Last month, the World Bank released Pakistan’s first ever Consumer Protection and Financial Literacy (CPFL) Diagnostic Review along with convening a workshop where 200 financial sector professionals discussed the recommendations, a first such deliberation on consumer protection and financial literacy in the country.
The assessment compares Pakistan’s performance standards, covering four segments of the financial sector - banking, microfinance, insurance, and securities markets. This approach brought out cross-cutting findings and a comprehensive set of recommendations. The overall objective of the review is to foster a responsible financial system that offers (a) transparency, (b) appropriate choices, (c) redress mechanisms, and (d) privacy of consumer information.
Financial exclusion in Pakistan is high – 56% of the population currently uses no formal or informal financial products – but decreasing. The past decade has seen rapid growth in household lending in Pakistan, leading to many taking on risks and obligations they do not fully understand. This growth underscores the need for CPFL to prevent unfair practices, and improve transparency and efficiency by reaching potential customers to increase their understanding of financial services.
Overall, the report identifies certain gaps and overlaps in the legal, institutional, and regulatory framework for consumer protection in Pakistan and finds that there is a need for some consolidation and much more coordination amongst a fragmented range of consumer protection institutions, including regulators, industry associations and ombudsman offices. Key stakeholders agree that a consolidated approach to regulating market conduct is necessary. One critical area is the microfinance sector which serves close to 3 million active borrowers and 6 million savers. Many of these clients have limited access to consumer protection institutions or information, leaving them vulnerable to consumer rights malpractices. In this sector, microfinance banks (MFBs) are regulated by the State Bank of Pakistan, but other non-deposit taking microfinance institutions (MFIs) are unregulated. In a number of geographical areas, both MFBs and MFIs are serving the same clientele, but there is a difference in market conduct regulations on consumer protection. For example, a microfinance bank is mandated by the prudential regulations of the State Bank of Pakistan to disclose annualized lending and deposit rates in the contract signed with their clients, and to also have an officer read out these terms to their clients. In contrast, a non-deposit taking institution is not subject to these regulations and has the discretion of quoting, say, rupee amounts that might not be representative or comparable.
The key finding on transparency and disclosure is that although financial regulators have strengthened disclosure requirements, there is a lack of standardized, comparable pricing information on financial products. As a result, consumers do not always have simplified, adequate, and comparable information about the prices, terms and conditions, and inherent risks of financial products and services. Regulators, market participants, and other stakeholders agreed with the recommendation on introducing a standard Key Facts Statement sheet, but also stressed the need for some demand-driven research on what information would be most beneficial to Pakistani consumers and what would be most effective way of communicating this information.
Sewing Floor, Armana Apparels, Dhaka. Photo: Shobha Shetty
Contradictory trends in female labor force participation in South Asia continue to pose a puzzle for policymakers. On the one hand, Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry, one of the mainstays of the national economy, has a high female labor participation rate of 85%. On the other hand, the female labor force participation rates continue to fall in India in spite of recent high economic growth. During my recent visit to Dhaka, I was once again reminded about the enormous challenges of tackling these issues.
I was in Dhaka to attend the 7th Meeting of the BEES (Business, Enterprise and Employment Support for Women in South Asia) Network. Founded in May 2011, the BEES network, facilitated by the World Bank, brings together 15 civil society organisations that work for the economic empowerment of poor women across South Asia. Currently, the network represents women at the bottom of the economic pyramid, with a collective reach of over 100 million. It was a sombre coincidence that the week of our visit marked the first year anniversary of the horrific Rana Plaza disaster in which over 1,100 perished.
The rise of the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh in the last decade has been stunning by every measure. By 2013, about 4 million people - almost 85% women - were working in the US$22 billion-a-year industry. The industry now contributes to over 75% of Bangladesh’s export earnings and accounts for over 10% of GDP, making it the world's second-largest apparel exporter after China.
But what does it mean for the millions of women employed in this industry? Thanks to Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), one of the Bangladesh BEES network members and co-host of the Dhaka meeting, I was lucky to visit the Awaj (“voice”) Foundation to understand this issue better. Founded in 2003, the organisation focuses on empowering female RMG workers. We got an opportunity to meet Nazma Akter, the feisty General Secretary of the foundation and a former garment worker. After spending 7 years in the ready-made garment industry as a young girl, she turned to activism on behalf of her fellow women workers. She is now a well-recognised national name and Awaj has a direct outreach to 60,000 women workers (and 600,000 indirectly).