World Bank estimates regional growth will fall to between 1.8 and 2.8 percent in 2020, the region’s worst performance in the last 40 years. Large job losses and significant reduction of livelihoods are predicted. On the other hand, the dive in economic activity has dramatically improved air quality and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, giving temporary reprieve from two critical challenges.The
Will it be one where jobs are restored but ecosystems are degraded, the air and water polluted, and carbon emissions elevated? Or, will countries take the sustainable option and grow back stronger and greener?
Employed to restore the environment
To recover from the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched a large-scale employment program called the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s. The CCC provided quick employment to young men across the country through conservation works on public lands. In the first three months, 250,000 men were employed and throughout the nine years of the program, three million individual jobs were created. This amounted to five percent of the total male population in the United States. The program was credited for planting 2.3 billion trees and arresting erosion on more than 20 million acres over its course. It also created infrastructure for almost all of America’s parks, including the iconic Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and Shenandoah National Parks, that today serve as the backbone of a thriving nature-based and heritage tourism sector.
The World Bank estimates regional growth will fall to between 1.8 and 2.8 percent in 2020, the region’s worst performance in the last 40 years.
South Asia’s readiness for a Roosevelt-style Deal
The CCC addressed two major challenges facing the United States at that time- high rates of unemployment and widespread environmental degradation. Countries in South Asia face very similar challenges but at a much larger scale.
When the CCC program was established, the greatest threat to U.S. parks was forest fire. The CCC helped to erect 3,470 fire towers, build 97,000 miles of fire roads, and devote 4,235,000 person-hours to fighting fires. As the recent joint Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change and World Bank report – Strengthening Forest Fire Management in India – notes, (Figure 1). Forest fire is a challenge in other countries in South Asia, along with forest degradation and soil erosion.
Many countries in South Asia have large areas (over 20 percent) under forests or designated as protected areas, which can serve as the basis for such a conservation program (Figure 2). In some countries like Bhutan, the forest and protected area coverage is over 70 percent.
Green public works program can support economic recovery
But to qualify as a credible economic recovery program,
Public works programs on public lands are labor intensive, shovel-ready and can be implemented quickly, as CCC as shown. The CCC recruits were trained to perform skilled tasks, and though the bulk of those employed were relatively low-skilled urban unemployed youth, local landscape architects, artists, and historians were also employed. CCC projects moreover created partnerships and enabled workers to gain skills that helped them build small and medium enterprises (SMEs), some of which still exist today. In South Asia, SMEs account for more than 90 per cent of establishments (ASEAN) and will desperately need government support to enable continuity. CCC also launched the first student internship program for college graduates in the United States. (UNICEF 2019). Strong investment in skills development through a government funded-internship program could help get the youth ready for skilled jobs.
A public works program must: (i) create many jobs quickly; (ii) create valuable assets whose benefits are greater than the cost of the program; and (iii) create significant income multipliers
Green public works programs also pass the cost-benefit test. A recent World Bank report Valuing Green Infrastructure: Case Study of Kali Gandaki Watershed in Nepal – has shown that well designed forest and watersheds management programs benefit a range of economic sectors – agriculture, hydropower, roads, water supply, and disaster risk management -- and that the benefits of these programs exceed costs (Figure 3). These programs can also produce climate co-benefits, increasing carbon sinks and making landscapes and livelihoods more resilient.
Finally, there is growing evidence that green public works programs generate significant income multipliers. (US NPS). A recent study of conservation and development choices in Kenya – When Good Conservation Becomes Good Economics: Kenya’s Vanishing Herds – has estimated that every dollar invested in conservation and wildlife tourism could generate benefits that range from $3 to $20.
Such a program can show a way forward where there is no trade-off between economic recovery and sustainability.