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Will Bangladesh fall into a Sri Lanka-like crisis?

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Over the last few months, Sri Lanka has been stuck in its worst economic crisis since independence. The island nation is battling severe shortages of critical items, as well as a severe lack of patrol, medicines, and foreign reserves amid an acute balance of payments crisis.

The financial crisis has led to public outrages and violent protests against the ruling government, compelling Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his Cabinet to resign and a new Prime Minister to be appointed.

Though Bangladesh is in a much more comfortable position than Sri Lanka in terms of all economic indicators, some economists speculated that Bangladesh’s increasing trade deficit and foreign debt could lead to a similar crisis in the upcoming years. However, most international and local observers have debated the possibility of such a situation and addressed why the case of Bangladesh is different from Sri Lanka.

The economic turmoil of Sri Lanka is not a mere accident rather it is the outcome of a series of disastrous economic policies of the government. During the last decade, the Sri Lankan government implemented a lot of unnecessary mega-projects like the Hambantota Sea Port, Rajapakse International Airport, Chinese Colombo City, and some unviable highways which are called “white elephant” projects by critics. While most of these projects are not profitable, they have been implemented with high-interest loans from China. The government also collected $9 billion from the international market in exchange for debt bonds which are short-term in nature and comes with higher interest rates of almost 8%. As a result, the island nation’s total foreign debt reached $51 billion, whereas its GDP was only $80 billion. Therefore, Sri Lanka failed to repay the loan installment which was valued at almost $8 billion, and was compelled to declare itself bankrupt.

In contrast, the situation in Bangladesh is mostly different. The government has taken some well-calculated and viable mega projects like the Padma Bridge, Karnafuli Tunnel, Metro Rail, Dhaka Elevated Expressway, Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant, and the Payra Sea Port which are all infrastructure oriented and set to attract more investment. The signature project “The Padma Bridge” is set to be opened this June which will help increase the annual GDP of the southern part of Bangladesh by 2.0 percent and the overall GDP of the country by more than 1.0 percent. Consequently, the completion of the other infrastructural projects will also boost the economy and bring further investment to Bangladesh. Moreover, the bulk of foreign loans to these projects was from multilateral lenders like the World Bank, ADB, IDB, and JICA. And the interest rates of such loans are also very low (1.4%) with grace periods and long repayment systems.

It is also to be noted that Bangladesh has no commercial or sovereign bonds like Sri Lanka. The 2020 World Bank report points out that Bangladesh has a GDP of 324.2 billion USD which is bigger than the GDP of Pakistan and Sri Lanka combined. While Sri Lanka’s foreign debts account for almost 50 percent of its GDP, the foreign debts of Bangladesh account for only 17 percent of its GDP. As a result, the per capita debt of the people of Bangladesh is only one-fifth of Sri Lanka. According to Prof Mustafizur Rahman, a distinguished fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), “Bangladesh is still in a good position in two main indicators of debt management. One is the outstanding foreign debt-GDP ratio and the second is debt servicing liability as a percentage of foreign exchange from export.”

In recent years, Sri Lanka has largely failed to earn revenues from the key pillars of its economy. In 2019, the Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa took the erroneous decision of reducing VAT to eight percent from fifteen percent and also withdrew the rebuilding tax. As a result, the Sri Lankan economy lost its one-third of revenue overnight. In the following year, the government made another blunder by banning imports of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to promote organic agricultural production. That flawed policy led to the collapse of agricultural production of the island nation and prompted severe food shortages. In addition, the Russia-Ukraine war and its impact on the global food shortages have fueled the already dire situation in Sri Lanka.

On the other hand, Bangladesh has enjoyed 15% revenue growth in the last eight months, private sector credit growth has been almost 11% – including a promising growth in the exports. As private sector credit growth continues to surge, exports and reserves will increase more in the upcoming years. In terms of food, Bangladesh is not dependent on staple food imports and it is heading towards sustainable food security.

The final nail in the Sri Lankan coffin was the Covid 19 pandemic as it hit hard the tourism sector – the largest source of income for Sri Lanka. The two years long covid-induced travel ban almost paralyzed its economy. Afterward, the simultaneous decline of remittances coming through legal channels left the government with no alternative to earn foreign reserves. As a result, Sri Lanka ended up in a severe financial crisis with almost no viable foreign reserves to import its essential needs.

Bangladesh’s economy, on the contrary, has withstood the Covid 19 chocks pretty well. The largest source of foreign reserve i.e., the RMG sector was also active during the lockdown period. In the meantime, Bangladesh received record $22B remittances in 2021 through legal channels due to its smart policy and the hard work of the labor migrants which has braced its robust foreign currency reserve.

In a recent interview, Hans Timmer, the chief economist of the World Bank for South Asia, said that Bangladesh is not at risk of the crisis that Sri Lanka is currently facing and the situation in Bangladesh is very different. Foreign currency reserves in Bangladesh can cover more than six months of imports, which is very solid, he said. However, the economist also stressed that the government should be cautious about its domestic fiscal policies as there is a worldwide impact of the Russia-Ukraine war on inflation and food crisis.

The decades-long political instability of Sri Lanka and its poor leadership to manage geopolitical implications have also helped shape the ongoing crisis. Meanwhile, Bangladesh has enjoyed uninterrupted political stability in the last decade, and with prudent leadership, it has benefitted from the new geopolitical environment.

Against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan crisis, the Bangladesh government has already taken several steps to slash spending and save foreign reserves. It has decided to suspend overseas trips of government officials in a bid to cut government expenditure and postponed some less important projects that require imports from other countries.

In conclusion, challenges like the increasing inflation rates and the fiscal deficits should be addressed by careful fiscal policies of the government. In terms of expanding the export market, Bangladesh needs to diversify its export industries as it is highly concentrated in the Ready-Made Garment (RMG) sector. While the Sri Lankan crisis is not comparable to Bangladesh, it has worked as a cautionary lesson for the rising nation to further embolden its politico-economic milieu.

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Economy

World Order Is Old Order: New World Order Is No Order

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The grand hallucinations: When there is any order, it always becomes visible as an orderly progression, when it is supposed to be a secret or an invisible order, then it is grand hallucinations for a cult of illusionists. Observe how the World Order is an old order, and notice how the new world order is no order. The random engagements in illusionary cultish acts of chaos sold as order. Fakery sold and resold as victory, illusions pushed as hallucinations of success. Courage is needed to see the big magical acts of grand hallucinations.

The feel of afternoon-high: Across the world, free economies are already bent, twisted or broken, while procedures, policies and laws, everything on sale for the right price. Mighty-money, delivered crisply stacked, shrink-wrapped as freshly printed solutions, to buy more chaos, spread misery and create the economic hallucinations and stage the smoke and mirrors, all without any totals, balances or columns. Sold to feel a real afternoon-high.

The interchange: When integrity gone, fakery dominates, when real value-creation gone value-manipulation regulates, when vision gone illusions thrives, when national economics gone hallucinations declared as great success and reality interchanges to fakery.  

The elasticity left: Needed across the free economies of the world, no further proof required, a total change, no further verification needed, as political power no longer economical power, no further help needed, as most nations in need of basic diaper change. Visible damage to skills and competency, inability to understand and articulate the real problems with grassroots solutions is now a big tragedy of our times. Nations already stretched via rubber band economy, some with elasticity left before going bust.

The truth: Which nation has the capacity to face the truth? Which nation can fix itself not just top reshuffle, but rather from top to bottom to the real core? Which nation can uplift its citizenry to stand up to global age skills and cope with global speed and competitiveness? Which nation is capable of understanding and has the right to mobilize its hidden national entrepreneurialism and provide a future for the next generation?

No electricity and missing bulbs: Is there any value left in the most cherished Machiavellian style political power without ever creating any economic power? Is there any remaining value in economic power play of today without entrepreneurial growth models? What good are economies when stuck in waste paper baskets still without digitization like a nation being without electricity? What real economic value is created when odd mindsets playing with economic development procedures like creating light but with no bulb?  

Welcome to cold facts and warm realties.

The branded nations: Why each and every single nation of our planet is now branded every single day of the year? Like it or not, agree with what is said, disagree with what gossiped, simple fact of the day,  each nation is branded, between each sunrise and sunset. Here is some advanced level insight for the national leaderships on global corporate communication challenges, as what may be altering their efforts on global affairs, what might mold their global trades as the deep undercurrents of global ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ from the global populace shape their national global image and rate of popularly and any level of respect on world stage.

The global opinion: Observe how fast the world changed, how the ocean of “global opinion” is now drowning ponds of “national opinion”. Notice, nations already intoxicated, in joy over the popularity of their own national opinion, while having just an opposite global opinion on the world stage. What does this mean to a nation’s image supremacy, how does this translate into economic impacts? Why is any global opinion of any kind important anyway? Be cautious, if such important topics are not discussed in your boardrooms, check out the restrooms.

The fabric of humankind. Every huge, little, deadly, serious or funny incident of any kind, becomes ‘alive’ in global social media, where despite all controls its is processed with common sense with common emotions, commented and circulated around the world, many times, registered, measured, analyzed, criticized and humanized as good, bad or ugly in the minds of the global populace.  No one can stop it. Facing truth is now a new global challenge of moral strength, something that increasingly demands insight and awareness. Shunning, arguing or defending and fighting has little or no power, as the real power hidden is in critical thinking to solve common good, humankind issues.   

The 200 nations, now under their own global digital spell, responding, and adjusting their own feedback and updating reality checks, influenced by the five billion, connected populace driving the world opinion.  The voices are no longer the big old-media, as they have already lost their credibility and power,  but across the world the new known and unknown big and small clusters of people sharing their thoughts amongst their local and global connectivity and surroundings. The truth rises, because this is how the critical needs for common good and social justice advances. The fabric of humankind stretches, starts to cover all nations.

Weaponization of Ideologicalism:  Why are most nations increasingly unable to control their restless citizenry? How much more will the citizens of these nations, continuously influenced by the global opinion, facing common sense, chasing truth, turning internal tribalism, into cultural wars defining limits of ideologies, as Weaponization of Ideologicalism slowly ripping local social fabric and crushing economies. Where are the repairmen, where are the solutions, which leadership is ready to articulate and bring national mobilization of entrepreneurialism as an untapped national treasure. Which nation is ready to face reality and show their advanced skills?

The aimless directives: When nations appear aimlessly drifting into hallucinations, the lack of vision, absence of social justice, unable to control internal tribalism, cultural wars move to ideological wars. Nations fragmented and splintered, now facing street by street mental wars. The visible lack of skills at the top management, lack of speed of execution at middle level and the absence of any motivation at remaining workforces now seriously limits all new options.

The coming revolution: The next global revolution, driven by economic chaos based on social failures, while the middle classes already disappeared, may not be about the mobs of commoners with broom-sticks but most likely the imploding calm and silent systemic collapse of bureaucratic administrative blockades and fall of economic intellectualism for destroying the fabric of humankind.

The absence of dialogue, only proves lack of real pragmatic solutions, skills and competence. Electioneering, sloganeering and fakery of wars to remain in power with no real economic solution, in global opinion a colossal failure.  Therefore, “Self Mastery” urgently needed to differentiate between a mesmerized mind with an enlightened one will possibly be a way to face the new challenges. Economies will only improve when old methodologies declared broken

The new world order: No other time in the history of civilization, so many globally connected will hold responsible the so few in power for destroying the remains of world order and bringing the world to a nuclear war.  A war, suggested to eliminate five billion people. It is possible, the coming revolutions to be less about anarchy but more about establishing real meritocracy. The need to search, find and strive for real value creation to answers grassroots prosperity affairs and eliminate lingering bureaucracies with fermented layers of incompetency. How soon will the five billion connected reach a critical point to select the right players with right policies and declare common good the new ultimate goals? This may eventually lead to a new world order. Pandemic was just a sneeze, economy, now like a hole in the empty pocket, leadership like a circus show, while billions looking up. Acquire mastery. Get ready for major global shifts of major economic behaviorism. The rest is easy. 

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Mosul’s recovery moves towards a circular economy

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Five years since the end of the ISIL(so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) conflict in 2017, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Iraq and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), with funding from the Government of Japan, has established a debris recycling centre in Mosul. After its initial use, the centre has now been handed over to Mosul Municipality for its continued, sustainable operation.

“On behalf of the Iraqi Government, the Ministry of Environment expresses its gratitude to the Government of Japan for generously supporting this important project and to UNEP and IOM for enabling the sustainable management of the huge quantities of conflict debris and restabilization of the liberated areas in an environmentally sustainable manner,” said Iraq’s Minister for Environment, Dr. Jasim Abdulazeez Humadi.

The handover of the Mosul debris recycling centre marks a significant step in the sustainable management of the huge volumes of debris — an estimated 55 million tonnes — created by the ISIL conflict. It also opens the way for the recycling of routine construction and demolition waste, contributing to ‘building back better’ and an increased circularity in Iraq’s development.

UNEP West Asia Regional Director, Sami Dimassi, emphasized that “by reducing waste, stimulating innovation and creating employment, debris recycling also creates an important business opportunity.” Indeed, construction companies in Mosul have expressed interest in purchasing the recycled aggregate, thereby underscoring the longer-term sustainability of debris recycling.

“This project supports recovery and livelihoods by drawing on principles of a circular economy, wherein waste and land pollution is limited through production processes that reuse and repurpose materials for as long as possible,” explained IOM Iraq Chief of Mission, Giorgi Gigauri. “Collaboration and sustainability are key priorities in IOM’s work toward durable solutions to displacement, and we are pleased to have partnered with UNEP and the Government of Japan so that this is represented not only in the function of the plant itself, but also in its functioning, by supporting local authorities to be prepared to effectively operate the plant moving forward.”

On 28 July 2022, Mosul Municipality hosted an event to officially hand over the debris recycling centre, attended by senior government officials and academia, as well as representatives from IOM, UNEP and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI).

Masamoto Kenichi, Charge d’Affaires, Embassy of Japan to Iraq stated: “We are glad to know that the project funded by the government and people of Japan has contributed to cleanup of debris and reconstruction of Mosul. We would like to commend UNEP, IOM and the city of Mosul for their tremendous efforts of turning the legacy of ISIL’s devastation into building blocks of reconstruction”.

Through the rubble recycling project, nearly 25,000 tonnes of debris have been recovered and sorted, of which around half was crushed into recycled aggregate. Material testing of the recycled aggregate endorsed by the National Center for Structural Tests of the Ministry of Planning confirms its compliance with the Iraqi State Commission for Roads and Bridges design standards for road foundational layers and its suitability for several low strength end-use applications such as concrete blocks and kerbstones.

The project created 240 much-needed jobs through cash-for-work schemes targeting vulnerable persons, including 40 women.

Building on this experience, IOM has set up two other debris recycling operations in Sinjar and Hamdaniya in Ninewa Governorate, and a third in Hawija in Kirkuk Governorate, where a pilot phase using a mobile crusher was implemented in al-Buwaiter Village in 2021. In addition, two other conflict-affected governorates — namely Salah al-Din and Anbar — have  also shown a high-level of interest in replicating and scaling up debris recycling in their own regions. 

UNEP has been supporting Iraq in cleaning up the huge volumes of debris created by the ISIL conflict since June 2017. Initially, this included carrying out technical assessments and planning workshops with UN-Habitat, and subsequently designing and implementing debris recycling pilot projects to support returns in Mosul, Kirkuk and other conflict-affected areas in cooperation with IOM.

UNEP

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Digital Futures: Driving Systemic Change for Women

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Authors: Erin Watson-Lynn and Tengfei Wang*

As digital technology continues to unlock new financial opportunities for people across Asia and the Pacific, it is critical that women are central to strategies aimed at harnessing the digital financial future. Women are generally poorer than men – their work is less formal, they receive lower pay, and their money is less likely to be banked. Even when controlling for class, rural residency, age, income, and education level, women are overrepresented among the world’s poorest people in developing countries. Successfully harnessing digital technology can play a key role in creating new opportunities for women to utilise formal financial products and services in ways that empower them. 

Accelerating women’s access to the formal economy through digital innovations in finance increases their opportunity to generate an income and builds resilience to economic shocks. The recently issued ESCAP guidebook titled, Harnessing Digital Technology for Financial Inclusion in the Asia Pacific, highlights the fact that mechanisms to bring women into the digital economy are different from those for other groups, and that tailored policy responses are important for women to fully realise their potential in the Asia-Pacific region.

Overwhelmingly, the evidence tells us that how women utilise their finances can have a beneficial impact on the broader community. When women have bank accounts, they are more likely to save money, buy healthier foods for their family, and invest in education. For women who receive Government-to-Person (G2P) payments, there is significant improvement in their lives across a range of social and economic outcomes. Access to safe, secure, and affordable digital financial services thus has the potential to significantly improve the lives of women.

Despite the enormous opportunity, there are numerous constraints which affect women’s access to financial services. This includes the gender gap in mobile phone ownership across Asia and the Pacific, lower levels of education (including lower levels of basic numeracy and literacy), and lower levels of financial literacy. This complex web of constraints means that country and provincial level diagnostics are required and demands agile and flexible policy responses that meet the unique needs of women across the region.

Already, across Asia and the Pacific, governments are implementing innovative policy solutions to capture the opportunities that come with digital finance, while trying to manage the constraints women often face. The policy guidebook provides a framework to examine the role of governments as market facilitators, market participants and market regulators. Through this framework, specific policy innovations drawn from examples across the region are identified which other governments can adapt and implement in their local markets.  

A good example of how strategies can be implemented at either the central government or local government levels can be found in Pakistan. While central government leadership is important, embedding tailored interventions into locally appropriate strategies plays a crucial role for implementation and effectiveness. The localisation of broader strategies needs to include women in their development and ongoing evaluation. In the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, 50,000 beneficiary committees comprising local women at the district level regularly provide feedback into the government’s G2P payment system. The feedback from these committees led to a biometric system linked to the national ID card that has enabled the government to identify women who weren’t receiving their payments, or if payments were fraudulently obtained by others.

In Cambodia and the Philippines, governments have implemented new and innovative solutions to support remittance payments through public-private-partnerships and policies that enable access to non-traditional banks. In Cambodia, Wing Money has specialised programs for women, who are overwhelmingly the beneficiaries of remittance payments. Creating an enabling environment for a business such as Wing Money to develop and thrive with these low-cost solutions is an example of a positive market intervention. In the Philippines, adjusting banking policies to enable access to non-traditional banking enables women, especially those with micro-enterprises in rural areas, to access digital products.

While facilitating participation in the market can yield benefits for women, so can regulating in a way that drives systemic change. For example, in Lao People’s Democratic Republic and India, different mechanisms for targets are used to improve access to digital financial products. In Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the central government through its national strategy, introduced a target of a 9 per cent increase in women’s access to financial services by 2025. In India, their targets are set within the bureaucracy to incentivise policy makers to implement the Digital India strategy and promotions and job security are rewarded based on performance.

These examples of innovative policy solutions are only foundational. The options for governments and policy makers at the nexus of market facilitation, participation and regulation demands creativity and agility. Underpinning this is the need for a baseline of country and regional level diagnostics to capture the diverse needs of women – those who are set to benefit the most of from harnessing the future of digital financial inclusion.

*Tengfei Wang, Economic Affairs Officer

This article is the second of a two-part series based on the findings of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) Policy Guidebook: Harnessing Digital Technology for Financial Inclusion in Asia and the Pacific, and is jointly prepared by ESCAP and the Griffith Asia Institute.source: UNESCAP

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