Volume 23 Issue 5, May 2019


By Tahir Habib Cheema

It may not be an option, anymore, for the South Asian countries to keep ignoring social sector growth without realizing the need to set priorities right. Rapid but isolated and unsustainable economic growth will stay under the looming threat of an ultimate pull-down by the deepening vacuum in social development – a fear equally shared by the Asian Development Bank in its recent reports on the region.

The status of South Asia as a fast growing region is just not translating into real growth and development for its population as the region remains one of the poorest in the world with abysmally low global rankings when it comes to social development indicators primarily related to health and education. Either the growth objectives are set very narrowly; or, they have been failing to impart the desired impact on social development.

With a growth rate of around seven percent and even higher projections for the coming years, all countries in South Asia seem well-focused on their economies or are at least making efforts to perform well economically. This is, no doubt, an exceptional achievement for South Asia, especially being one of the least integrated regions in the world and missing out on the opportunity of quick and greater returns.

High but uneven and inequitable growth in the region is mainly driven by domestic demand which further points towards the damaging fragmentation and isolation in the region. The situation is a consequence of misplaced and politically defined priorities, keeping the lower and middle classes at a continuous disadvantage, exhibited by the deep-rooted multidimensional poverty despite the region’s rapidly increasing share in the global economy.

This race and pace of economic growth has conveniently diverted attention from more important and vital areas of social development. Health and education are still struggling to improve both in access and quality. The region has hardly seen any significant advancement in the social sector though there is a noticeable increase in the gross domestic product. However, sustaining this accelerated economic growth will remain a difficult challenge in the presence of extreme poverty and largely unmet health and educational needs of almost one-fourth of the world’s population that lives in South Asia.

Regardless of moving from the Low to Medium human development category, as classified by UNDP under HDI, the countries in South Asia are still far behind the level of social development achieved by OECD and European countries. Life expectancy in the region is almost 10 years less than the average life people are living in Europe where there are around 25 physicians for every 10,000 people as compared to a mere 7.8 for an equal number of people in South Asia. Infant mortality rate in Europe is 3 per 1,000 live births as compared to a much higher rate of 36 per 1,000 live births in South Asia as reported by the World Bank. This is further discounted by the fact that no data or analysis on the healthfulness and quality of the years lived in a region like South Asia is available on record, which might worsen the real outcomes if accounted for.

As in the health sector, the situation is equally abominable with regard to the level of improvement achieved in the area of education. More than 32 million children of primary and lower-secondary school age in South Asia do not go to school, as recently reported by UNICEF. The region, with a student-teacher ratio of 1 teacher for 35 pupils at primary level, is only better than Sub-Saharan Africa where every teacher caters to 39 students against the OECD’s standard ratio of 1 teacher for 16 students.

Such statistics are indicative of the fact that the region has been facing notable socio-economic inequities for a long period of time resulting in significant gaps in the fair and easy access to quality healthcare and inclusive education, based on which researchers have been referring to South Asia as the poorest, most illiterate region with the highest level of human deprivation.

This impediment may not only stunt economic growth in the region but could also result in a huge economic burden as growth in developing countries is largely led by either loans from international financial institutions or through financial support of bilateral and multilateral partners, compounding the future payouts. This pushes these economies into a never-ending vicious cycle. General expectation associated with the likely shift towards subsequent social development could only hold convincing ground if the economic growth is founded on indigenous factors, undertaking the inbuilt ability to sustain.

Evidence has shown that such situations are further aggravated by weak policies coupled with ineffective enforcement in the absence of an independent accountability mechanism – the predominant features of developing countries. Thus, the concerns stay quite high in such regions not only for domestic stakeholders but for the world at large, including donors and international development partners.

While recognizing the critical importance of attaining inclusive and equitable development, countries in South Asia may channel their resources towards evidence-based analytical studies to devise policies encompassing concurrent economic and social development for comprehensive sustainable growth. The development partners may also facilitate by adding to the region’s capacity to effectively cope with the development challenges of innovation, inclusiveness and integration.

There are multiple successful development models and good practices to learn from – not restricted to developed economies but also of comparable economies within the region such as Sri Lanka, which has been an exception in the neighbourhood with better social outcomes and low poverty incidence owing to the country’s right focus towards providing free education and health services under safety net programs.

The writer is a Public Policy Professional, graduated as a Fulbright Scholar from Carnegie Mellon University. He can be reached at tahir.cheema@fulbrightmail.org

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