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South Asia : Getting Out of the Vicious Poverty Trap
Shahiduzzaman Khan

          Challenge for the countries of South Asia lies in finding the right balance. It's a balance between growth and welfare objectives--balance between pro-active roles for the state while minimising its involvement in actual implementation. It's also a balance between embracing the opportunities of the global marketplace while resisting the inequities and asymmetries of the globalisation process.
A more realistic approach to economic growth too is necessary. The critical importance of economic growth for faster poverty reduction needs to be recognised but greater attention has to be paid to the poverty growth interface.
Experience has also shown that growth by itself is inadequate to address the multi-dimensional problems of poverty due to the structural rigidities and complexity of socio-cultural environments in South Asia.
According to World Bank report, proportion of people living in extreme poverty (less than $1.0 a day) in developing countries dropped by almost half between 1981 and 2001, from 40 to 21 per cent of global population. But while rapid economic growth in East and South Asia has pulled over 500 million people out of poverty in those region alone, the proportion of the poor has grown or fallen only slightly in many countries. This uneven progress raises concerns that the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The first of which is to reduce the 1990 poverty rate by half by 2015, may be beyond the reach for some countries.
Deliberations in a recent semunar suggest that the struggle against poverty would never succeed if it continues to be an encyclopedic list of do's and don'ts hopelessly bereft of any sense of strategic priority. Poverty is so pervasive in South Asia that a million priorities will not exhaust the agenda but to get the momentum going, the energies of South Asian nations have to be galvanised around a few catalytic agendas.
There is no denying South Asia has made substantial gains in the fight against poverty. Notwithstanding specific areas of progress, however, breaking wholly free of the poverty chains remains by current trends a distant goal: the MDGs of halving the number of poor by 2015 can only be reached by 2025.
This is a prospect neither necessary nor inevitable. While the statistics may look frightening, there is hope and optimism in a new ground reality being forged, a reality of initiatives by countless men and women across the countries of South Asia and their escalating refusal to remain content with the vagaries of a poverty-laden fate.
In the manifold nurturing of their livelihood dreams, the poor or the region have already embraced the possibility of a poverty-free South Asia. If the groundswell of this popular energy can fuse with a new level of political determination, a goal which may appear over-ambitious by today's statistics can quickly become the reality of tomorrow.
Getting serious on a poverty-free South Asia requires, however, a hard-headed assessment as to how far South Asian countries have come on the poverty front and how far they have to go. It also requires a sharper engagement with issues of implementation.
Countries of South Asia face new global realities, which carry both opportunities and risks. Share of exports as a share of global trade has increased but only to the every modest level of 0.9 per cent. South Asia's share in the burgeoning FDI into developing countries remains virtually unchanged. SAARC countries have been more successful in accessing overseas employment: India and Bangladesh are in the top 10 recipients of workers' remittances while the other countries too have followed not far behind.
While telephone mainlines per 1000 people has more than trebled in the region between 1985 and 2000, South Asia, home to 23 percent of world's population, still has less than I.0 per cent of internet users. GDP growth of South Asia on an average was higher than the average of developing countries and poverty has declined both in terms of depth and severity but the rate of decline has been modest and disparity has persisted. Rising inequalities have fuelled social conflicts.
Though HDI has improved at a rate higher than the average for developing countries but the level remains quite low. Clearly, greater economic integration into the world economy has yet to translate into sustained growth for the majority of South Asian countries. Regional economic opportunities, which are enormous, remain largely unexploited.
The current status of dollar-a-day poverty incidence in South Asia is around 37 per cent but with large variations across the region. Only Sub-Saharan Africa compares to such a poverty level; East Asia and Pacific and Latin America and the Caribbean have poverty rates in the region of 15 percent. In terms of national poverty incidence, the poverty rate showed decline to a varying degree in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka and increase in Pakistan over the 1990s. However, income inequality is a rising concern for much of the region: the ratio of income share of the richest 20 percent to that of poorest 20 percent has varied from 4.0 in Bangladesh to 5.0 in India.
South Asia has shown better progress in under-5 mortality rate, from 148 to 94 deaths per 1000 births in 2000, a drop of 54 deaths per 1000 births in a span of ten years. There are, however, large variations across the region, from a low of 19 deaths per 1000 births in Sri Lanka to 110 deaths per 1000 births in Pakistan. The rate of progress has been much faster for Bangladesh and Nepal compared to India and Pakistan. Infant mortality rate too declined from 97 in 1990 to 68 deaths per 1000 births in 2000. On this indicator too, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal made faster progress than India and Pakistan while Sri Lanka enjoys a significantly better rate of only 17 deaths per 1000 births.
South Asian countries present an abiding paradox in the pessimism of its macro trends and the rich tapestry of 'best practices', which cut across sectors and regions. Indeed, a number of these 'best practices' have gone on to attract global renown. A comprehensive inventory of best practices and a better understanding of what characteristics underlie them has been an important lacuna in the various analysis and initiatives on poverty in the region.
Efficient documentation and appropriate dissemination of the lessons of best practices can offer a critical ray of hope to those who are struggling against all odds to create a more conducive South Asian ground reality, A best practice data-base can build a bridge between empirical solutions, research and policy. South Asia lacks such a evidence-based knowledge storehouse and a SAARC-level initiative in this regard may indeed be very timely.


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