South Asia is a region of contrasts and paradoxes. The birthplace of two major religions of the world Hinduism and Buddhism, it also houses the world's largest concentration of followers of Islam and contains a significant Christian minority. Over millennia, it has successfully absorbed foreign ideas and culture and woven them into a tapestry of many designs and colors. It has strong traditions of tolerance and pluralism and of local autonomy and diversity. From ancient times it has made major contributions to world civilization in all fields of human endeavor. Yet it is also a land of deep social and religious cleavages and of most blatant forms of prejudice and discrimination. A region which sent the world a message of compassion and non-violence is torn asunder by seemingly endless episodes of bloody conflicts. Despite its vast markets, and impressive tradition of learning and technological innovation and outstanding entrepreneurial and professional talents, it remains an economically backward region with the world's largest concentration of poverty, hunger, ill-health and illiteracy.
Its development experience since independence has some distinctive features. Its growth rate over the past five decades has been respectable but by no means spectacular. It has lagged behind the sterling performance of Northeast and Southeast Asian countries but has also avoided the economic catastrophe of Africa. Its economic growth over the period may have been less impressive than several Latin American countries but it has also been spared their profound inequalities and the great crisis of the lost decade of the 1980s. South Asia has made some progress in recent decades in poverty reduction measured in income or consumption terms. But in terms of human development - literacy, schooling, child mortality, life expectancy, malnutrition and gender inequalities, its record is deplorable the worst in the world despite the outstanding performance of Sri Lanka and the Indian state of Kerala.
South Asia, with more than 1.1 billion people, accounts for more than one-fifth of the world population. In terms of numbers, it has the highest concentration in the world of hunger, malnutrition, child mortality and illiteracy. Thus its socio-economic experience is of profound importance from the point of view of the welfare of humanity. In this regard, two aspects of the recent development experience of the South Asian countries are of special interest.
Firstly, the region is in the midst of wide-ranging changes in economic organization and policy. With the exception of Sri Lanka, the other countries have only recently launched economic reforms that have swept most part of the world. As elsewhere, these reforms comprise trade and foreign exchange liberalization, reduction of government budgetary deficits, lifting of administrative controls on domestic economic activity and encouragement of foreign investment resulting in a greater role for markets and the private sector in the economy. If fully implemented, it is highly likely that the reforms will contribute to a significant acceleration in the growth rate in the short to medium term. But as experience elsewhere indicates, they are also likely to result in an accentuation of economic inequalities. Furthermore, unless the process of economic expansion is broad-based, there is no inherent reason to believe that it will necessarily lead to reduction in poverty and improvement of human development indicators. It is, therefore, profoundly important that economic growth be rooted in strong employment expansion, asset creation and redistribution for poor communities and increase and restructuring of government expenditure on mass literacy and universal basic education and primary health care. A special effort will have to be mounted to ensure the access of these services to girls and women and underprivileged castes, tribes and communities.
The second distinctive aspect of the South Asian experience relates to social movements and grassroots and micro initiatives. Of all the developing regions of the world, South Asia has generated the most impressive and diverse range of civil society initiatives spanning such themes as women's subordination, discrimination against girl child, caste and tribal oppression, environmental destruction, violations of human rights, communal violence and struggle against poverty, ill-health, illiteracy and ignorance. Some of these initiatives have become world famous and have inspired private and public development agencies around the world. Many of them have been recognized to be extremely effective in poverty reduction and promotion of human development. The key to their success is the building up of participatory organizations of homogenous groups and their strengthening through awareness raising, education, learning by doing and capacity building.
These elements of the South Asian experience raise some important issues concerning the pace and pattern of development in the region in the coming years and decades. What are the possibilities of a huge expansion of the successful micro initiatives to mount a massive assault against hunger, malnutrition, illiteracy, ill-health, ignorance and gender inequalities? While some of the best known examples of such initiatives have been able to scale up to cover hundreds of thousands and in rare cases a few million families, the overwhelming majority remain tiny and fragile. Taken together, while their contribution has been significant, it has fallen far short of the needs of the population. The question thus arises whether the lessons from their experiences can be incorporated in the development activities of the State. Most of the problems being addressed by civil society initiatives are the responsibilities of agencies of the State. There can be few such simple and effective policies to eradicate poverty and promote human development that the systematic incorporation in the State development agencies of the central principles and procedures responsible for the brilliant achievements of the leading private initiatives based on people's organizations becomes imperative.
Another major issue concerns the impact of economic reform on poverty eradication. As indicated above, if these reforms are to be meaningful in terms of human welfare, they will need to sustain a growth pattern creating new economic and social opportunities for the poorer masses. This has implications for the entire spectrum of economic and social policies. But it also raises the vital issue of the relationship between the policies of economic reform and the performance of the civil society initiatives. A grand strategy of development must address the theme of how the potential of the forces of economic reform and civil society can be harnessed to advance the objectives of poverty eradication, human development and environmental improvement.
The importance of this book is that it addresses these strategic issues. The present volume is the latest in a series of books sponsored by groups of South Asian scholars under the leadership of Ponna Wignaraja who has devoted his entire professional life to promoting thought and action for participatory and people-centered development. In addition to drawing upon earlier volume on the theory and practice of social movements in South Asia, this book contains important material from the Independent Poverty Commission established under the aegis of SAARC. The report of the Commission, which seeks complementarities between measures of economic reforms and people-centered initiatives for poverty eradication, has been endorsed by the SAARC Summit. The report of the Poverty Commission and efforts to promote implementation of its recommendations must be seen as contributing to the realization of the Programs of Action adopted by the series of world conferences in the 1990s and, most especially, the World Summit on Social Development held in Copenhagen in 1995.
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