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After visiting a government office, residents in Punjab may be surprised to find a familiar voice on the phone – their Chief Minister. “You have recently registered property,” the voice of Shahbaz Sharif booms, “Did you face any difficulties? Did you have to pay a bribe?” (Hear the robo-call here!)
It is an uncomfortable question – but one that tackles a stubborn social issue in Pakistan. In a country of 180 million, a culture of bribery and pretty corruption plagues public service delivery.
When visiting a land services official, a staggering 75 percent of households reported paying a bribe, according to Transparency International. Over half of households said they bribed the public utilities or a police officer in the last year. Endemic corruption is not just a drag on economic activity and poverty reduction efforts – it erodes trust between citizens and the state.
See also: Anniversary of the New Delhi Attack Reminds Us that Tackling Violence is Urgent
December 16, 2012 will in the foreseeable future be remembered as the day in which six men savagely gang raped a 23-year old female student on a bus in New Delhi. The young woman died from her injuries 13 days later. The event shocked the nation and sparked unprecedented uprisings in the Indian capital and across the country. It put the international spotlight on India and reminded us that violence against women remains a leading cause of female mortality worldwide.
Today, on the one-year anniversary of what is simply referred to as the “Delhi Rape”, we are compelled to pause and reflect. Four men were sentenced to death for the crime in September – did this bring closure? Beyond the protests and public appeals for change, has there been meaningful change in India?
I will never forget October 8, 2005, a day that changed my life forever as it did for hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis.
I remember my house shaking violently like never before and my instinctive reaction to get myself and my family to safety outside the house. This was an earthquake that felt distinctly different from others. Things were shaking and moving too much and for too long. When we started seeing plumes of smoke rising from where a high rise apartment building had once stood, we knew this was really bad. Watching the terrified look of affected people on TV shook me inside and forced me to think about difference I could make. When I went back to my job and my life, the question kept nagging at me. When I was presented with the opportunity to work on the earthquake reconstruction project for the World Bank, I took it and have never looked back.
Why Sanitation Access Doesn’t Work Unless the Entire Village Buys In
Jitender is a four-year old boy with forward-thinking parents. Although it’s common in his village, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, for most people to defecate in the open, his parents have taken the lessons of the government’s sanitation campaign to heart. They know that open defecation spreads disease—so they construct a private toilet that hygienically isolates their waste from human contact. Nonetheless, a few months later, Jitender develops persistent diarrhea. He is often dehydrated, loses weight, and becomes pale. His immune system is weakened by multiple bouts of disease, and for the next several years he struggles with recurrent illness. He has trouble keeping up with his schoolwork, and, more perniciously, even though he ate more than enough calories each day, the diarrhea eventually caused malnourishment. He remains small for his height and suffers from subtle intellectual deficits that make it difficult for him to follow the teacher’s lessons even during those periods when he does manage to attend. Because of his low marks, his family isn’t able to fulfill their dream of sending him on to university. The village takes note of Jitender’s example and concludes that improved sanitation doesn’t provide much, if any, benefit. This is a fictional story; however, similar stories are being heard every day in South Asia.
South Asia is the least integrated region in the world. Intra-regional trade in South Asia is less than 2% of GDP compared to over 20% in East Asia. Labor mobility and regional travel is minimal, with few exceptions. Even remote communication is low – only 7% of international telephone calls in South Asia are to countries within the region, compared to 71% for East Asia. The case for closer integration has remained strong for a while now, and it is refreshing to see that some movement, albeit watchful, in addressing some of the region's deep rooted political economy issues, particularly between India and Pakistan.
The discussions around closer integration have centered on energy, trade, connectivity and stability. All of these offer strong potential to enhance growth in the region. However, financial sector integration overall, and access to finance in particular, hardly ever make it to the agenda of regional integration forums and deliberations. This is unfortunate, because the region has a long way to go in providing adequate access to financial services and insurance products, especially to the vulnerable segments of the population. Given that South Asia is home to more than half a billion of the world’s poor, this becomes a poverty reduction goal as much as a financial inclusion goal.