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Region at Cross Roads- Towards a closer South Asia

September 4, 2013

South Asia represents a thriving trade and economic hub. While GDP, industrial output, and consumption have soared across the region over the past decade, power, water, and transport systems have struggled to keep pace. Despite significant growth, the reality is that South Asia is a region at a crossroads. Its continued growth relies on deeper regional cooperation and integration from a policy perspective, and market-driven intervention by businesses that aspire to expand their footprint across the national borders. This expansion is significantly restricted by weak regional trade cooperation and corresponding infrastructure support to enable this to happen.

Improved trade cooperation and significant integration depends deeply on the policy makers and governments. Perhaps the key is also to look beyond historically complex relationships and look at the region with a more open mind and in a more strategic long-term manner. Like the panel experts this afternoon stated, integration is no longer an option, it is a necessity for the region, at this point.

Another significant area that needs to be perhaps examined carefully is the understanding of growth. Across the world, including our very own South Asian countries, GDP has remained to be a strong indicator for success. All of the countries such as India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and others have seen impressive numbers and “sustained growth”. But, GDP is a complex arena- it measures income, but not equality, it measures growth, but not destruction, and it ignores values like social cohesion and the environment. It does not measure household economy, capital depreciation, economic facilities, governance and others, all of which are major characteristics of the region.

In Bangladesh, for example, we have seen impressive and sustained GDP of 6%, but it remains to be significantly constrained by poor infrastructure, low levels of trade, regulatory and governance issues. The question comes here, should we continue to be comfortable with the “sustained and impressive” growth rates or look beyond this indicator?

A second area of discussion which came strongly in the expert panel discussion of SAES 2013 was the issue of connectivity- infrastructure needs.

Over the years, attempts have been made in improving infrastructure systems within the region through transport corridor planning, infrastructure improvements in the areas of water, transport, power and others. Further planning is in place through Public-Private-Partnership options among others, but the question remains- how can we ensure that these infrastructure facilities are in planned appropriately, financed in a manner which can be dealt with in the long term, implemented effectively and managed for improved development and integration within the region?

Guest Post by Tahmina Shafique, WB-SAES Youth Delegate from Bangladesh @ http://southasiaeconomicsummit.wordpress.com/page/5/

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Inclusive Growth- A dream or a possibility?

September 4, 2013

Guest Post by Tahmina Shafique, WB-SAES Youth Delegate from Bangladesh at http://southasiaeconomicsummit.wordpress.com/page/3/

It is an interesting afternoon in the SAES 2013- Inclusive growth is the key focus of discussion.

Over the past decade, the Asia region has successfully reduced income-based poverty and improved living standards for all, including the poor and those vulnerable to poverty.

A significant portion of Asia populations live on less than $1.25 per person a day and another significant portion are vulnerable to poverty ($2). Despite various critical challenges, the poverty incidence in the region has further declined over the last years.

In terms of economic benefits and access to social services, large numbers of people are being left behind or left out. In our region, economic inequality has increased in the past decade. Without steps to address these disparities, the risks this trend poses – including social instability – will continue to grow.
It is in this context that “inclusive growth” has emerged as either a desire or a necessity. The topic embraces both income and non-income dimensions of well-being. The talk on this, is on the table.
But, this concern for inclusive growth, or a growth pattern that includes all income strata, is not new at all. What is different is the urgency for achieving greater inclusiveness – and the sudden realisation that without it sustained growth will not be possible in the future.

Various people speak about various dimension of this concept. First, they state, that there is a direct relationship between growth and poverty reduction. The idea is that when growth is more inclusive, poverty is reduced much more.

The second concept is that political stability and peace is positively correlated to inclusive growth, meaning, political stability is significantly promoted when there is inclusive growth.
Third concept, which is being discussed among key stakeholders in South Asia is the confidence that inclusive growth leads to growth in itself.

All of the above are rationale and logical concepts. It is a reality. As we continue to live in a more globalized world, within the context of resource constraints, it is evidently difficult to ensure participation and economic growth.

But if we are to look at the reality within South Asia- perhaps the objective of inclusive growth should not be equal outcomes regardless of the efforts, an approach that can hurt the incentives for growth.

Instead, inclusiveness means levelling the playing field, getting rid of special enticement for lopsided development, and making the effort to engage every segment of the population.

For example, the key should be on expanding on the existing record. When we speak about access to basic education, perhaps it is time to focus on the relevance and quality education and the linkage with skills that meets the corresponding demand. Real outcomes need to be reached more realistically. All our capacity building and development approaches now needs to take a close look at the exact needs, exact linkages and desired outcomes.

But, the bigger questions remain- inclusive growth entails massive transformations; can South Asia make this a reality? Transformation of stringent characteristics that defines South Asia as a region, is a hard one to break through. Will South Asia be able to bring about improved infrastructure, governance, human capital and much much more?

Is South Asia ready to take up the challenge to break through the extreme barriers and bring about inclusive growth? If so, who will drive this? Will the governments, civil societies, private sector really bring this change?

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Still a man’s world!

September 4, 2013

Guest Post by Tahmina Shafique, WB-SAES Youth Delegate from Bangladesh  at http://southasiaeconomicsummit.wordpress.com/

A session to address gender disparities in the economic context held this afternoon, had approximately 70% women participation and very few men! Well, there we go with disparity!

One does not need to go into details of the massive levels of gender disparity that exists in South Asia. It is prominent in every sphere of our lives. Despite representing about 50% of the total population in each country in the region, and having achieved much progress, we have not been able to break that boundary. Participation of women in all levels have been significantly slow and a battle that we continue to fight.

So, as we continue to speak about growth, inclusive growth, we must bring about the issue of gender disparities. One may argue that this is of course a given. But, in the context of South Asia, given the backdrop of a traditional social structure that deems women secondary, such an economic summit must bring the issue of gender disparity on the forefront. How does South Asia as a region achieve that higher growth without gender parity?

This afternoon’s parallel session on “Mind the Gap” questioned exactly this. Numerous studies revealed during this session, stated that massive levels of inequality exist and need urgent attention. Inequality exists in the household decision making process, labour force participation, education, and more. Participation in parliaments and politics remains to be significantly low. Turns out gender inequality index remains to be low even in a country such as Sri Lanka, which battled to be out there in terms of gender parity from the 70s. Despite the improvements in education levels, it seems that the demand for jobs remains to be low to cater to the growing number of woman. The types of jobs and legislation are still written from a man’s perspectives.

If we take the case of Bangladesh, private sector is a thriving sector. It has been, by and large the driver and engine for economic growth. If we look at the thriving sector RMG, approximately 80% of the workers are women. But, wait a minute, all of these women are employed at the lowest levels. Move to the supervisory or managerial roles, their participation is insignificant.

Our development agenda and goals do focus on gender parity and gender mainstreaming. But one thing that we have been unable to move away from this obsession with representing women as the recipient of growth, a “trickle down” effect of growth, or being the poor, minority segment.

The truth is, we are not minority in any possible shape or form. We represent 50% of the population. So why are we not moving into mainstreaming women in the economy to achieve growth, instead of making them a side-kick or the victim who has benefited from growth?

If we are to continue this discourse on gender equality, than we must begin this in practices. Civil society needs to play an active role in ensuring that each levels of distribution system looks at inclusion and means of inclusion of women.

Economic concepts cannot be looked at in an isolated manner. It needs to linked with social aspects.

Mind the Gap

If the societal values need to be looked at, it needs to start from home. It needs to start from education. It is within the children that we need to instill the values that are not characterized by patriarchy. It is here that the value systems develop and it is here how the view of a woman and her worth is shaped within our homes and societies.

 

This gender parity battle has been fought for way too long. And this battle for prosperous economic growth cannot be won in a man’s world. Turn it around, and it all might just start shifting.

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And, What about Human Capital

September 4, 2013

Guest Post by Tahmina Shafique, WB-SAES  Youth Delegate from Bangladesh  http://southasiaeconomicsummit.wordpress.com/page/2/

South Asia is the story of a massive workforce, rising youth population- ours is the story of people, their hard work, their contributions. South Asia, in economic terms, is the story of human capital. It is the integral part of our economy. Yet, harnessing human capital, and investing on human capital, remains to be at the far end of the critical agendas of each economy. In a way, we have lost that L (Labour) in our production functions, as Shekhar Shah, the chair of this afternoon’s session, rightly pointed out. The L within our production function has just become a random, sweeping arena.

How long will these economies really be able to sustain with low levels of investment, low quality public education, low levels of skills development and more?

Employment, jobs seems to be an “easy” issue in South Asia, but the time has come to look at this issue with eyes wide open. With increased number of youth population in South Asia, it is important to look at the issue of employment. Are there enough jobs for the large and growing youth population? Even if jobs are created through informal sector, can we produce good quality and productive workforce?
Now there are multiple areas to think about- we have an informal sector and formal sector, the education system, skills training and finally the cross cutting arena: politicization.

The informal sector dilemma: Starting with the informal sector, million of workers in Asia, account for almost two third of the total workforce who are engaged to informal work. The growing size and scale of the informal economy shows that it has become the normal and predominant economic activity for workers in Asia. When investments are being made, how does one attempt to increase the productivity levels of these informal markets which are characterized by low levels of productivity? A lot of the learnings do happen through spillovers, in that case, does greater integration help?

The story of formal sector: Meanwhile in the formal sector, informalization is institutionalized through deregulation of labour law promoting flexibilization of the labour market. As a result, the power of trade unions is dismantled. The absence of the right to collective bargaining and freedom of association then exacerbates the working condition of informal workers. Isn’t it time to address these collectively? Does the private sector have a responsible role to play here?

Education systems: The education sector in South Asian countries remains to be weak. The public education does not have enough expenditure allotted to this sector, which results in poor quality education. To add to that, politicization within the education sector remains to be rampant where for example, vice chancellors are appointed in accordance to political influence rather than the experience and required qualifications. In the private sector, while the quality of education starts off well, they are expensive which means access is a major issue. In addition to this, private sector education institutes grow at a fast rate, as in case of Bangladesh. In this case, the overall quality drops significantly.
Skills development: While private and public institutions are in place, they remain to be characterized by poor quality and majority are inadequate to respond to the growing and changing demand and market patterns and employment needs.

Having explored all of the above, which were discussed this afternoon in the plenary session, it is important for all stakeholders to think about that diminishing and decaying L. Are we doing enough? What role does the civil society have to play here? There is clearly an urgent need for higher expenditure by each of the governments? Can the civil society advocate for this? Who will work towards ensuring that bomb that is ticking doesn’t explode?

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April 15, 2012
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Where is the Revolution?

March 18, 2012

Having spent the first decade of our lives in the Middle East, my sister and I grew up listening to stories of home, the historical and cultural significance of our land- of love for language, of songs of freedom, of beauty of the rivers, of people’s power and of revolution. It was our parent’s way of making sure we were in touch with our land despite the distance. We were always told, desh is not just a piece of land, or a geographical location. It is what you carried with yourself, wherever you go and wherever you maybe.

My parents spoke a lot about history, literature and revolution. The history and revolutionary stories were not just limited to the birth of Bangladesh, and the various movements that the country went through, but it extended to insignificant stories of young men and women, who through their own expressions of freedom, sought for a change mechanism in the country. My mother would tell us stories of college friends who would go all out, defy norms, and display their beliefs through mediums such as different forms of art, writings, and more.

For them, the societal issues were important, and they believed it was in their hands to change minds, change society, the psyche of people and only then real change would come about.

Coming back to Bangladesh at the age of 10 did not really feel that different then. But, growing up did bring that realisation to life. The stark realities of the society, the way it is shaped, the way it is administered and the way it is moulded became much more distinct and harder to look past.

After all these years of living here, living through many developments, events and socio- political changes, desh is really a hard place to be in. There is a vacuum, a gap that makes one feel incomplete and disintegrated.

Over the years, a deep sense of mistrust has developed among us regarding politics. It is not just the politics – there is a profound disconnection between the way this country is run, and the romanticised version of democracy we learned from books and western news. Is it the flawed governance, the lack of transparency, or the sheer absence of any form of accountability – be it in development planning, public expenditure system, or policy implementation? Ever since we learned the phrase “people power”, we’ve known that we elect our governments through a democratic system – yet when it comes to access to minimum rights, or even information, we are suddenly not as important as we were during elections.

Bangladesh’s politics remains characterised by political power built upon family legacies, a lack of connection to those families disenfranchises us from the basic rights we assumed we had when we voted. And once this realisation sinks in, it brings with it a malaise that softly blends into apathy. Is it still a wonder that many analysts continue to ask – are we, the young generation, at all interested to bring change?

Across the world, there are several cases where the young generation has come forward to bring change in societies and countries. For them, it is not about recreating the halcyon politics of generations ago, but the recognition that new patterns of citizenship call for new processes and new institutions that reflect the values of the contemporary public, while keeping the essence of their land and what it stands for alive.

Last year, on September 17, 2011, the world saw a people powered movement representing a significant number of youth start ‘Occupy Wall Street’. The movement began in Liberty Square in Manhattan’s Financial District, and has spread to over 100 cities in the United States and actions in over 1,500 cities globally. This movement is fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations.

This movement was followed after the extraordinary uprisings that the world witnessed in Egypt and Tunisia, and it aims to fight back against the richest 1 percent of people that are writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is impacting the future of the young generation.

Aside from revolutionary movements, the young generation is bringing revolution through changing societies. Take the example of the Greek society, which is experiencing significant economic, political and social change. While there are various changes at work, one of the remarkable phenomena is the change in the society through the young generation. The Greek young generation is now called to resolve social anomalies inherited by older generations. Young Greeks experience enormous uncertainty and insecurity about the future and they are trying to create their own mechanisms to cope with the unknown, and they are really coming forward and bringing reforms in the way the society’s behaviour was administered for decades.

In Marxist terms, increasingly, all across the world, subjective conditions are beginning to align with the objective conditions. The young generation, led by those in the Middle East, is beginning to wake up to the realisation that they are living and consequently inheriting a world that is simply not sustainable. It is said that, when subjective conditions align with objective conditions, revolution generally ensues. And, increasingly, as world based on these objective conditions continues on, it is inevitable that revolution will spread to other countries. The young are, and will begin to wake up to the lack of sustainability in every country across the world, including Bangladesh.

In Bangladesh, while it is true that we notice a certain degree of disengagement of this generation in politics, there are a wide range of ways in which the young generation is making its voice heard beyond the election and political processes. These people have held their own voices, through mediums such as social media platforms, electronic and print media, groups, networks for various causes to express their opinion. Increasingly, this generation is seen to be participating in protests, signing petitions, expressing their opinions through steady movements.

In this regard, the stereotype of a politically disengaged younger generation is not fully accurate in Bangladesh. This generation in Bangladesh is increasingly finding other ways to be involved in public life through their very own voices. Having said that, it is also true that this is represented only by a small segment of the larger number of youth in the country. This small segment of the population is spread around, spread out, as though they are separated atoms, unable to come together and stand together, and represent a singular strong voice.

There are various factors that are at work here, one of them being the need for change in mindset, which is characterised by stern practices, jealousy, pettiness, norm of silence due to stigma, gender inequality and the lack of acceptance of the young generation and its abilities.

This need for change in society is not an easy task to achieve. There is a need to reach out to a wider range of the young generation across all socio-economic backgrounds, those who have a minimum or no access to basic necessities and those who represent what they call a ‘post-emotional’ generation, who lack the anger, the edge, the passion, and have the principle desire to live lightly. The latter segment, despite having access to education and almost all the priviledges of life, seems to focus in the material comfort and move through a selective process of seeing things, perceiving them and acting on them.

So, in this context, how do we change minds, and in the end, change societies? It is perhaps in the hands of those segregated atoms to come together, as much as they can, and perhaps the rest will follow the lead.

The time has probably come, to reshape this land that we call desh- perhaps it is time for the subjective condition to align with the objective condition. The road to revolution may be the longest and the hardest one, but it would surely be worth it, for it would be for a dream that we are yet to achieve – a truly independent Bangladesh that we are yet to experience, for us, and for many generations to come.

Published in The Daily Star: http://www.thedailystar.net/suppliments/2012/anniversary_2012/section2/where.htm

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Climate Change and Pandora’s box

November 2, 2010

It was different experience in Colombo this past week, as twenty youth traveled all the way to meet, enthuse, engage and empower each other. We all had gathered because we have one common belief- that we will tackle the impacts of climate change together. The South Asian Youth Climate Action Network (SAYCAN) consisted of youth participants from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Maldives, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka- countries that are most vulnerable to the impacts of Climate Change.

All these youth were different in there own ways with extremely diverse backgrounds. Some studied Environmental Management, some, Economics, some Computer Engineering, some Journalism and Mass Communication and some Literature or Law. They speak different languages, different dialects, in different ways. Some are passionate about science, and others about art.

They have different tastes too, mind you. Some like shopping till they drop, and some like sight seeing. Some are into books and philosophy, some into music and some into photography. They look at life differently and live differently. Some believe in the peace of finding calm and quite within themselves to lead life. some find solace in finding little things in life beautiful and making the best out of it.

They all work on projects and programs, relating to environment and climate change. Their designs are different, so are their models. They have lots of ideas, and energy.

How do you bring them under the same roof, how do you get them to agree on the same goal, vision, and action plan for the South Asian youth?

This was the challenge for SAYCAN- to bring all these youth to explore and agree on common goals and aspirations and make them draw the road map for the network. There is a always a fear for these attempts to turn into talk shops, to deviate into something completely different.

Lets face it. Climate Change movements have been extremely challenging. Following last year’s BIG failure at COP 15, challenges seem to take a greater toll.

Many articles continue to suggest different pictures of this big game- some say it is time to give up, the political order of liberal democracy is just incapable of rising to this challenge. Others, continue to believe that the world’s biggest polluters will not bend and the rest bring in new models to combat climate change. Stephen Hawking being the man of physics, suggests that mankind should colonise distant planets. James Lovelock thinks the remnants of humanity will seek refuge on the tropical shores of the Arctic.

Moving to the scientists, some suggest climate change does not exist to begin with and other scientific data now strongly suggests that physical and biological changes in the planet are increasingly greater than those defined by the modelling in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. Despite the steadily rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, even countries expressing commitment are having little impact compared to the huge task in hand.

Governments continue to fight, focusing on the monetary values than trying to just solve the issue first. Everything is being calculated. Survival of people is being negotiated. It is all about the money. It is all about mandates. It is all about negotiation.

In the middle of this, you have youth movements striving everyday to fight for this cause. You can tell, that some of these passionate people would one day give up and just walk away, instead of watching the whole climate debate go no where. After all, isn’t that the only way to not hurt?

I myself, could not help, but wonder what it was that had brought some 20 of us together to fight for a cause that is under so much criticism and how we would agree on anything by the end of it all. More often than not, all around us, passion seems to seep away and leave behind just uncertainties and insecurities. This cause has the same potential.

Then, why, despite all questions, have all these youth come together for this conference? Why spend so many hours, all day long brainstorming, planning and designing action plans to tackle climate change in our own little ways? Our governments do not recognize our strength and we are never a part of the policies that run our lives. Then why bother?

Some of these people have stayed up nights to make this possible, run around from one funding organization to the other, in hope of organizing a conference for youth. Some have skipped their biggest events, some have paid out of their own savings, just to be here. together.

It was during the first night at the beach that I stared at the distant endless ocean, waves slapping against the hot sand of the beach, while I felt my feet burrowing into the deeper depths of the cool sand. I wondered, why I was here? Why all these people were here? why so many of these youth were working so hard in their own country for this cause?

I could not help but think of this Greek myth.

Greek myths never failed to fascinate me. Somehow, I seem to have had the greatest fascination of all towards the Greek mythology since God knows when. Staring at the beach, the story of Pandora’s Box came to my mind so many times.

According to Greek myth, Pandora was the first woman on earth created by the Greek Gods. She was stunning and she was created by Zeus to take revenge on mankind. It is said that the Gods would give her gifts. Each one of them. Which is why her name meant ‘the bearer of gifts’. Pandora was given a beautiful box by the Gods and asked never to open it. Pandora, however, could not resist herself and had finally opened the box, which let out all the misdeeds, diseases, hatred, greed, jealousy, pain and sufferings in the world.

Pandora shocked and guilty, had closed the box as soon as possible to ensure nothing else came out of that box to destroy the world. Zeus wanted Pandora to open this box, so she could bring sufferings into this world. It is said that this story explains the world we live in today- the world where we are consumed by jealousy, anger, selfishness, hatred, greed and many more.

However, the myth also suggests, the box was closed and there was still something left there, and that was Hope.

Greek myths never explained further as to why hope was left in the box- if hope should be taken in absolute sense or narrow sense. There have been millions of interpretations of this myth since then. Archaic and classic Greek literature went further to explain the concept of hope. One thing that came out of the mythographers was that hope was not gone. Hope was inside that box, intact, to ensure that mankind has the ability to live through all the odds that life has stored for us.

True or not, personally, I have believed this version of the story- that hope is intact and will keep us going come what may. I would have died, had I not seen a glimpse of hope in my life. In the worst times of my life, hope pulled me through. Every morning that I wake up, I wake up with hope, as though it is a part of me, a part of who I am and the sheer reason for my survival.

And I realised, it is hope, too, that brought all these South Asian Youth Together, to ‘enthuse, engage and empower’ in the middle of all the stories of Climate Change and failure.

For us youth, science or economics is not the basis for negotiation of our survival. True, there may be big failures, and true, there may not be any end to this long debate and our efforts may never be recognized. True, negotiations may never come to an agreement.

But, it is hope that keeps us going. Everywhere. Everyday. And we continue to work, together, in our little ways with that one thing that keeps us together- and that is hope. for better days to come.

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