Briefing Notes for the Launch in Dhaka, April 2007
Sustained strong economic growth but inflation a genuine concern
- Bangladesh's economy grew by 6.7% in 2006, despite persistent high oil prices and the phasing out of the Multi-Fibre Agreement. Agriculture rebounded sharply after the flood-related setbacks of 2005 and industry expanded as a result of export-oriented manufacturing.
- On the demand side, buoyant private consumption led the growth momentum. Surging workers' remittances featured as a critical component of private consumption demand. Investment, particularly private investment, maintained a positive posture with 8% growth in 2006.
- Most countries in South Asia felt inflationary pressures in 2006 on the back of high oil prices. Food prices also rose significantly in several countries, hurting the poor particularly. In Bangladesh, inflation marginally increased to 7.2% in 2006.
- To contain inflation, most countries in the subregion pursued tighter monetary policies. In Bangladesh, the Government's anti-inflationary policies included effective managing supply and demand for essential consumer goods and raw materials by means of a liberal imports policy.
- In Bangladesh, the budget deficit fell from 4.5% in 2005 to 3.9% in 2006, partly due to a shortfall in development expenditure. Public sector debt is comparatively low and stands at 47.1% of GDP, with the external debt component hovering around 30% of GDP, largely on concessional terms.
- Large workers' remittances were important in Bangladesh, which recorded 25% increase and helped the current account to register surplus in 2006. Exports, helped by a sharp depreciation of domestic currency in the previous year, grew by 21.6%, imports by 12.2%. The country has successfully weathered the phasing out of the Multi-Fibre Agreement, with garment exports seeing robust growth. More than 70% of the country's total exports consist of textiles and clothing.
- Reform needs to be maintained to sustain high growth and rapid poverty reduction. With fiscal adjustment still a challenge, more progress is needed in tax collection and resource mobilization to reduce large budget deficits. This will allow redirecting resources from servicing public debt to economic development and social programmes, while at the same time creating an enabling environment for private investment.
- Increase in consumer prices is a genuine concern in most countries in South Asia. Striking an appropriate balance between promoting economic growth and price stability remains a challenge because inflationary pressures accompany rapid economic expansions.
Rural physical infrastructure for rapid poverty reduction in South Asia
- Physical infrastructure reduces poverty in two ways. It promotes growth, which generally benefits the poor. And it directly benefits the poor by improving their incomes and the quality of their lives. Since most of the poor in countries of South Asia still live in the rural areas, rural infrastructure is key to reducing poverty rapidly.
- Rural physical infrastructure covers roads, electricity, irrigation, telecommunications and much more. The impact of various types of infrastructure on rural economies and poverty reduction is maximized when provided in unison. The research feature in the Survey is focused on rural roads and electricity.
- In South Asia, only 65% of the rural population lives within two kilometers of an all-weather road, far less than the 95% in East Asia. Only 43% of the population has access to electricity, far less than the 88% in Eat Asia. The situation in rural areas is much worse.
- Numerous empirical studies concluded that rural roads and electricity improvements had a significant impact on poverty reduction. In India, a million rupees spent on roads led to seven times the poverty reduction as a million rupees spent on specific anti-poverty programmes. In China, the situation repeated itself, though the gain was of a smaller magnitude. The logic is simple: roads are the arteries that go where poor people live, improving their lives in concrete, immediate ways.
- To distribute electricity to smaller populations scattered over vast rural areas through conventional means, such as extending the electricity grid, can be complex and expensive. More preferred is distributing energy by using locally available resources, mainly renewable resources such as small hydropower, solar power, wind power and biomass power.
- Countries in South Asia are aware of deficits in infrastructure and making efforts to close those. It is important to remember that mega projects may be essential to accelerate growth, but projects that directly benefit the rural poor should be given equal importance, if not more. In the absence of interest from the private sector, more public investment should go to rural infrastructure.
- Pricing of electricity is complex because of efficiency and equity considerations. Tariff rates should be competitive and reflect market conditions, with some provisions for poor households. All the countries have been raising tariff rates over the years, which are increasingly becoming unaffordable for the poor.
- Tariff rates should be kept low, affordable for small consumers. To cover the losses of public utilities on this account, the Government can allocate a certain amount of subsidy in its general budget and pass it on to public utilities distributing electricity. A more targeted approach of giving vouchers to the poor so that they can pay electricity bills at market rates is worth considering. Poor households can be asked to pay a fixed percentage of the electricity bill, with the remainder covered through the voucher.
- Transmission and distribution losses of electricity are enormous in most countries, mainly due to theft. By improving accountability and governance, losses if not eliminated can certainly be reduced substantially, which will reduce constant pressure of raising electricity tariffs.
Gender inequality continues – at great cost
- Gender discrimination has widespread ramifications and clear economic and social costs. The Asia-Pacific region has made good progress in reducing gender discrimination in recent years, but appalling disparities remain. The region is losing US$42-US$47 billion per year because of lower labour force participation rates of women – and another US$16-US$30 billion per year because of gender gaps in education resulting in lower productivity of women. Those are just the economic costs – added to them are social and personal costs.
- Gender discrimination in the region is most visible in the low access of women and girls to education and health services, to economic opportunities and to political participation. In South Asia, female school enrolment ratios in most countries tend to be lower than in other subregions of Asia. The female-to-male ratio in the population is deteriorating, partly reflecting women's inadequate access to health services. Meanwhile, violence against women continues, unabated, indicating how voiceless women are in households and in countries.
- One of the fundamental reasons women are subject to discrimination is that they do not have a voice in decision-making at home or in society, even when the matters are directly related to themselves.
- To overcome barriers for women in decision-making positions, particularly at the local levels, the Governments of Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan have introduced quota systems for women in elected bodies of local governments. This approach is effectively helping in reducing gender barriers in local governments and society at large.
- In Bangladesh, microcredit programmes have increased mobility and strengthened networks among women who were previously confined to the homes. Borrowers build solidarity through their participation in lending circles and village organizations. Some studies also suggest more far-reaching social impact, including decrease in fertility rates, which are linked to increased financial self-reliance and greater voice in family matters for women.
- The report proposes several specific recommendations in four critical dimensions: economic participation, education, health and empowerment. It recommends provision of free primary education, addressing safety and privacy concerns and provision of scholarships for girls. Governments should improve health services for women and involve NGOs and civil society organizations to improve health outcomes. They should ensure that women are not discriminated against in recruitment, wages, or promotions. The public sector should be a model for the private sector.
- Best practices highlighted from across the region and elsewhere show that gender balance can be achieved with limited resources, but this requires changes at the household, societal and national levels. In particular, political leadership and commitment will go a long way towards correcting abject discrimination against women.