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South Asia’s prosperity will require more women to work for pay

Annette Dixon's picture

Women in the Work Force

South Asia has enjoyed a growth rate of 6 percent a year over the past 20 years. This has translated into declining poverty and improvements in health and education. While worthy of celebration as we mark International Women's Day, the success could have been more dramatic if more women worked for pay. Only 28 percent of women in South Asia have a job or are looking for one, compared to 79 percent of men. This is the second lowest in the world, after the Middle East and North Africa region at 21 percent.

With the largest working-age population and growing middle class, South Asia’s development potential is vast. But the lack of women in employment and economic participation reflects lost potential. In India and Sri Lanka, tens of millions of women have dropped out of the work force over the last twenty years.

Many factors are holding them back. Almost half of South Asia’s adult women are illiterate and its girls suffer from the highest malnutrition rates in the world. Rates of violence against women and maternal mortality remain among the highest in the world. All these factors translate into a labor market characterized by low participation, high unemployment and persistent wage gaps for women.

What can be done to better prepare and encourage women to participate in the work force? It starts with valuing our daughters as much as our sons – providing them with the same access to nutritious foods and investing in their education for them to reach their potential. Let’s spark the interest of young girls in subjects like science and mathematics, and convince them that they are just as capable as boys –that they too can build careers in engineering, scientific research, IT, and other fields that are in demand by employers. We must also raise our sons to respect girls and women, and make it clear that there is zero-tolerance for gender-based violence.

Protecting wetlands: Lessons from Sri Lanka and Maldives

Mokshana Wijeyeratne's picture
Sri Lanka and Maldives are home to rich wetlands that are habitats for a variety of fauna and flora but also benefit the ecosystem
Sri Lanka and Maldives are home to rich wetlands with a variety of fauna and flora that benefit the ecosystem.


Sri Lanka and Maldives share much more than the tag of tourism hot spots, beautiful beaches, and similar cultural traits. Both island nations have a range of unique environments that are rich in biodiversity and serve a myriad of ecosystems functions.

Both countries are home to rich wetlands with a variety of fauna and flora that benefit the ecosystem, including flood protection, water purification, and natural air conditioning and provide food and support to local communities.

Sri Lanka has actively been working to ensure these essential ecosystems are protected. The Maldives has too commenced such great work. This work has produced a wealth of knowledge and innovations on how to manage and conserve wetlands. 

Managing wetlands in Sri Lanka and Maldives

The wetland management and land use planning effort undertaken in Colombo under the World Bank-financed Metro Colombo Urban Development (MCUDP) project showcases resilience in urban land use planning and highlights how a city can become more livable by intermingling green spaces to its urban fabric. All this, while protecting wetlands and reaping the benefits of their natural ecosystem functions.

The MCUDP used robust strategies and sustainable economic models, such as wetland parks, to help save urban wetlands from threats such as encroachment and clearing. Through the Climate Change Adaptation Project (CCAP), funded by the European Union and the Government of Australia, Maldives has also taken steps to manage threats to its largest wetlands.

While the approaches to wetland management in both countries have been different there are many key lessons that can be shared.

Guarantees light the way for clean energy through renewable auctions

Arnaud Braud's picture


Photo: Scaling Solar project in Zambia

What is a common thread between Argentina, Maldives, and Zambia? In each of these countries, the World Bank provided guarantees to support transparent auctions for renewable energy. Through these, I have seen how the Bank’s involvement helped increase private investors’ confidence, attract world-class developers, and ultimately reduce tariffs.

Drawing on 10 years of diverse experience in the power sector in both public and private organizations, my role is to help bridge the divide between public and private parties and help each side better understand the other. The World Bank is ideally positioned for this. Both sides understand the World Bank carries out a detailed due diligence and ensures the auction meets international standards. Both sides appreciate the World Bank will be an honest broker if issues arise. Because of its long term and continuous involvement in our client countries, the World Bank can help identify and solve issues early on. As such, no World Bank project-based guarantee has ever been called.

Resilient transport investments: a climate imperative for Small Island Developing Countries

Franz Drees-Gross's picture
This blog post was co-authored by Franz Drees-Gross, Director, Transport and ICT Global Practice, and Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez, Senior Director, Social, Urban, Rural and Resilience Global Practice.



Transport in its many forms – from tuk-tuks in Thailand to futuristic self-driving electric cars – is ubiquitous in the lives of everyone on the planet. For that reason, it is often taken for granted – unless we are caught in congestion, or more dramatically, if the water truck fails to arrive at a drought-stricken community in Africa.

It is easy to forget that transport is a crucial part of the global economy. Overall, countries invest between $1.4 to $2.1 trillion per year in transport infrastructure to meet the world’s demand for mobility and connectivity. Efficient transport systems move goods and services, connect people to economic opportunities, and enable access to essential services like healthcare and education. Transport is a fundamental enabler to achieving almost all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and is crucial to meet the objectives under the Paris agreement of limiting global warming to less than 2°C by 2100, and make best efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C.

But all of this depends on well-functioning transport systems. With the effects of climate change, in many countries this assumption is becoming less of a given. The impact of extreme natural events on transport—itself a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions—often serve as an abrupt reminder of how central it is, both for urgent response needs such as evacuating people and getting emergency services where they are needed, but also for longer term economic recovery, often impaired by destroyed infrastructure and lost livelihoods. A country that loses its transport infrastructure cannot respond effectively to climate change impacts.

Measuring South Asia’s economy from outer space

Martin Rama's picture
New technologies offer an opportunity to strengthen economic measurement. Evening luminosity observed from satellites has been shown to be a good proxy for economic activity.
New technologies offer an opportunity to strengthen economic measurement. Evening luminosity observed from satellites has been shown to be a good proxy for economic activity.
Economic growth is a key concern for economists, political leaders, and the broader population.

But how confident are we that the available data on economic activity paints an accurate picture of a country’s performance?

Measuring Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the most standard measure of economic activity, is especially challenging in developing countries, where the informal sector is large and institutional constraints can be severe.

In addition, many countries only provide GDP measures annually and at the national level. Not surprisingly, GDP growth estimates are often met with skepticism.
 
New technologies offer an opportunity to strengthen economic measurement. Evening luminosity observed from satellites has been shown to be a good proxy for economic activity.

As shown in Figure 1, there is a strong correlation between nightlight intensity and GDP levels in South Asia: the higher the nightlight intensity on the horizontal axis, the stronger the economic activity on the vertical axis.
Figure 1 Nightlight intensity increases with economic activity
Figure 1 Nightlight intensity increases with economic activity

However, measuring nightlight is challenging and comes with a few caveats. Clouds, moonlight, and radiance from the sun can affect measurement accuracy, which then requires filtering and standardizing.

On the other hand, nighlight data has a lot advantages like being available in high-frequency and with a very high spatial resolution. In the latest edition of South Asia Economic Focus, we use variations in nightlight intensity to analyze economic trends and illustrate how this data can help predict GDP over time and across space.

Fresh thinking on economic cooperation in South Asia

Nikita Singla's picture
 Aamir Khan/ Pakistan, Sreerupa Sengupta/ India, Sanjay Kathuria/ World Bank, Mahfuz Kabir & Surendar Singh/ Bangladesh) Photo By: Marcio De La Cruz/ World Bank
Young Economists sharing the stage with Sanjay Kathuria, Lead Economist and Coordinator, Regional Integration (Left to Right: Aamir Khan/ Pakistan, Sreerupa Sengupta/ India, Sanjay Kathuria/ World Bank, Mahfuz Kabir/Bangladesh & Surendar Singh/ India). Photo by: Marcio De La Cruz/ World Bank


That regional cooperation in South Asia is lower than optimal levels is well accepted. It is usually ascribed to – the asymmetry in size between India and the rest, conflicts and historical political tensions, a trust deficit, limited transport connectivity, and onerous logistics, among many other factors.

Deepening regional integration requires sufficient policy-relevant analytical work on the costs and benefits of both intra-regional trade and investment. An effective cross-border network of young professionals can contribute to fresh thinking on emerging economic cooperation issues in South Asia.

Against this background, the World Bank Group sponsored a competitive request for proposals.  Awardees from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, after being actively mentored by seasoned World Bank staff over a period of two years, convened in Washington DC to present their new and exciting research. Research areas included regional value chains, production sharing and the impact assessment of alternative preferential trade agreements in the region.

Young Economists offer fresh thoughts on economic cooperation in South Asia

Mahfuz Kabir, Acting Research Director, Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies and Surendar Singh, Policy Analyst, Consumer Unity Trust Society (CUTS International) presented their research: Of Streams and Tides, India-Bangladesh Value Chains in Textiles and Clothing (T&C). They focus on how to tackle three main trade barriers for T&C: a) high tariffs for selected, but important goods for the industries of both countries; b) inefficient customs procedures and c) divergent criteria for rules of origin classification.

Sreerupa Sengupta, Ph.D. Scholar at Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi discussed Trade Cooperation and Production Sharing in South Asia – An Indian Perspective. Reviewing the pattern of Indian exports and imports in the last twenty years, her research focuses on comparing the Global Value Chain (GVC) participation rate of India with East Asian and ASEAN economies. Barriers to higher participation include a) lack of openness in the FDI sector; b) lack of adequate port infrastructure, and long port dwell times; and c) lack of Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRAs).

Aamir Khan, Assistant Professor, Department of Management Sciences, COMSATS Institute of Information Technology, Islamabad presented his work on Economy Wide Impact of Regional Integration in South Asia - Options for Pakistan. His research analyzes the reasons for Pakistan not being able to take full advantage of its Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China, and finds that the granting of ASEAN-type concessions to Pakistan in its FTA with China would be more beneficial than the current FTA arrangement. The work also draws lessons for FTAs that are currently being negotiated by South Asian countries.

Disasters, funds, and policy: Creatively meeting urgent needs and long-term policy goals

Zuzana Stanton-Geddes's picture

Photo: tro-kilinochchi / Flickr

When it comes to responding to disasters, time is of the essence. Help needs to come immediately to save lives; recovery and reconstruction have to start swiftly to lessen the impact.

However, while money is critical to this response, it’s not just about funding. Indeed, funds need to match the event scale, target the right areas and sectors, and smoothly flow to communities in need. But in order for that to happen, sound public policy on risk and frameworks have to be in place.  

To address both urgent financial needs while pursing strategic disaster risk management policy goals, countries have been using the World Bank’s development policy loan with a catastrophe deferred drawdown option or, more widely known as the Cat DDO.  

Women can play a greater role in realizing South Asia’s potential

Annette Dixon's picture
Mumbai Train
The suburban train system in Mumbai is used by millions of women and men everyday, who rely on safe transport to access education and job opportunities. 

Last week, I took a journey on Mumbai’s suburban train system, which carries a staggering 8 million women and men, equivalent to the entire population of Switzerland, every day to where they live, work, and spend time with family and friends. Although stretched, the system has reduced mobility constraints and increased independence for millions of women who rely on safe transport to access education and job opportunities; contributing to the city’s dynamism and growth. There are similarly inspiring examples from all countries in South Asia.

As we mark International Women’s Day, we celebrate the progress made in improving women’s inclusion and empowerment, while seeking to better address continuing challenges, which are estimated to cost South Asian economies $888 billion, through devising and implementing solutions that will bridge remaining gaps.

Much to be proud of­a lot more remains to be done

South Asian countries have seen encouraging increases in greater access and gender parity in education. At the same time, the region has achieved substantial decreases in maternal and child mortality. Countries have made great strides in healthcare access through training more female healthcare workers while providing affordable care for mothers and children. The region also boasts many inspiring female leaders and role models, as well as the countless individuals positively contributing to their communities and societies against difficult odds. 

However, much more needs to be done in order to nurture all women and men to realize their potential. As South Asian countries become more prosperous, their growth trajectory will be less assured if hundreds of millions of women remain excluded from education and employment opportunities. South Asian countries will need to substantially expand their workforce in order to meet their economic growth goals and, at the same time, adequately support their increasingly large populations. Studies show that only around 1 out of 4 women in South Asia participate in the labor force, about half of what is typical in middle-income countries in other regions. Too many women face restrictions in decision-making, mobility, public safety; and far too many experience gender-based violence—the most egregious cases making headlines around the world. What can help bridge these gaps?

Involving communities to achieve sustainable development

Annette Dixon's picture
Discussing community priorities
Former refugee Jeyaranjini discusses community initiatives with her local project officer in northern Sri Lanka.
Photo Credit: Joe Qian/World Bank

Jeyaranjini lives near Kilinochchi in Northern Sri Lanka with her husband and daughter. They have been rebuilding their lives through the North East Local Services Improvement Project (NELSIP), which uses a Community Driven Development (CDD) approach to tailor projects based on community needs in this conflict affected region. 

The project has helped build 611 km of roads, 23 km of storm drains, 400 community public spaces such as markets, parks, and playgrounds, as well providing improved access to water and electricity across Sri Lanka.

“Each community member used to be alone, but now we learn, exchange ideas, and make decisions together,” she said.

South Asia has a strong tradition of local participation

Let me offer a couple of other examples: Nepal’s Self Governance Act in 1999 decentralized services delivery to villages and districts. In Afghanistan, Community Development Councils (CDCs) receive funds, in which they then manage to support their villages.

In post-disaster contexts, CDD has shown to be fast, flexible and effective at re-establishing basic services. In fragile or conflict-affected states (FCS), the approach has also helped rebuild trust within communities, and between communities and governments.

Projects incorporating CDD approaches give control over planning and investments to community groups, and aim to empower communities to deliver services to the poor and vulnerable.

CDD principles can contribute to the realization of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a roadmap for the international development community to  promote sustainable economic, social, and environmental development by 2030.

Currently, the World Bank has 41 active CDD projects worth $6.1 billion in South Asia, including 21 projects in India worth $4.2 billion.


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