A green economic recovery for South Asia

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Women working at the forest department's Bamboo Plant Nursery in Maharashtra, India. Photo: CRS PHOTO / Shutterstock.com
Women working at the forest department's Bamboo Plant Nursery in Maharashtra, India. Photo: CRS PHOTO / Shutterstock.com

The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed an unprecedented global health crisis in South Asia, with dramatic economic consequences.  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. 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.

Planning for economic recovery has begun and the big question is what form this new  economy might take?  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. The majority of unemployed people in South Asia are low-skilled, daily wage earners working in the informal sector without social safety nets. 

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, forest fire is the leading driver of forest degradation in India and forest departments have lacked resources for basic fire management investments, including labor  (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, a public works program must meet three conditions: (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. 

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. Prior to COVID-19, South Asia had nearly 100,000 young people entering the labor market each day, making it the largest youth labor force in the world  (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.   A $3 billion annual appropriation by the U.S. Congress for national parks in 2018 was estimated to generate 329,000 jobs and $23.4 billion in value-added in economic output for the national economy  (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.

A Green New Deal inspired by the CCC but adapted to the social and cultural context of South Asia could help countries to grow back their economies stronger and greener.   Such a program can show a way forward where there is no trade-off between economic recovery and sustainability.  

Authors

Urvashi Narain

Lead Economist; Environment, Natural Resources, and Blue Economy

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