A new playbook for South Asia: Reflections after my first year


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Women constructing solar cookers at the Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan, India
Women constructing solar cookers in Tilonia, Rajasthan, India. Photo credit: PradeepGaurs/ Shutterstock

A year into my new job as World Bank Vice President for South Asia, it’s time for a first stock-take. I confess, I am writing this with some trepidation. South Asia has no lack of eloquent observers from within the region. Luckily, I have excellent colleagues to help me, who will join me in a series of subsequent blogs.

The World Bank also has a new President who grew up in South Asia. Ajay Banga has laid out his vision for a new playbook for the World Bank. It fits our region well, adding ambition and urgency to the focus on green, resilient and inclusive growth that has been central to our work.

In each of the blogs in this series, we will look at examples of policies, investments, and partnerships that are delivering results and that could be scaled to match the ambition of our new playbook.

I remain fundamentally optimistic about South Asia’s prospects in the coming years. India is likely to do well, and this will help its neighbors – more so if regional cooperation improves.

South Asia is now the fastest growing region in the world. There is justified excitement about the opportunities South Asia’s 2 billion young and increasingly better educated people offer for global supply chains, and their growing incomes as a source of demand.

Of course, the optimism is not shared equally across the eight countries in the region. The global multi-crises have sent Sri Lanka and Pakistan to the economic emergency room and forced a course correction in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives and Nepal. Afghanistan remains on the brink of humanitarian disaster after decades of war, and with recent policies against women sapping half of its potential economic energy.

Nonetheless, I remain fundamentally optimistic about South Asia’s prospects in the coming years. India is likely to do well, and this will help its neighbors – more so if regional cooperation improves. However, for growth to be sustainable South Asia will need to get better at greening its development, creating jobs, and making its economies and its people more resilient to shocks. 

Let me start with greening South Asia’s development. I believe this is fundamentally an investment opportunity rather than a liability. The shift to green infrastructure does not necessarily cost a lot more than what countries already invest in energy, transport, water and sanitation, irrigation and flood protection. Moreover, there is immense potential to attract private financing, as we are already seeing in India and the Maldives. Unlocking these opportunities will require policy reforms and increased concessional funding to encourage a just transition. It will also require greater efforts to raise domestic revenues to ensure that countries can meet health, education and social protection needs.

If green growth is South Asia’s investment opportunity, resilience is its investment imperative.

Second, South Asia remains a region of fragility. Around half of South Asia’s population has been affected by one or more climate related disasters in the past decade, including cyclones, heatwaves, flash floods and other extreme weather events. Dirty air and contaminated water resources weigh on people’s health and productivity – affecting their quality of life. What’s worse, the poor bear the brunt of fragility, as they are often more exposed and less able to cope and adapt.

If green growth is South Asia’s investment opportunity, resilience is its investment imperative.  Sadly, the issue is not getting enough attention. Investments in building resilience can generate economic, social and environmental benefits, but more work is needed to estimate the costs, incorporate them into public budgets, and explore the potential for private investment. We also need to push for system-wide thinking which does not often come naturally to governments and development partners organized along sectoral lines. And more work is needed to understand how the poor and small businesses adapt.

Now, let me turn to jobs. South Asia is growing fast, but it is also growing unequally. One important reason is that too few youth and women have had access to employment opportunities. This reduces South Asia’s economic potential, keeping GDP around one quarter below what it could be. It also has more fundamental effects on human dignity, creating a potential political timebomb. We have spent considerable effort to understand the causes of slow employment growth in South Asia, and in particular the strikingly low participation rate of women. The problem is complex and a solution will require public and private sector to work together. But few objectives could be more important for us at the World Bank than helping South Asia create more jobs.

After a year in South Asia I feel optimistic about the region’s prospects, humbled by the scope of its challenges, invigorated by the lively debate we are having both within the Bank and with external partners about the best ways to address them, and strongly motivated by the ambition of our emerging new playbook and the urgency of the tasks ahead. I hope you will feel the same and I invite you to join this conversation in the weeks ahead.

This blog is the first in a series of blogs on how the South Asia region can chart a path towards green, resilient and inclusive growth through policies, investments, and partnerships that deliver results.

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