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Today that number is far smaller and getting smaller still. By 2030, just 0.1% of the population of East Asia is expected to live below the extreme poverty line. In South Asia, the figure will be only 2% Put another way, half of the world’s population in 2025 will likely live in Asian middle-income countries. Today, almost all of the region’s nations already enjoy middle-income status. And more are moving beyond USD 4000 per capita income, signifying a shift from lower middle-income to upper middle-income status. By 2025, only Afghanistan and Nepal are expected to remain officially poor. This progress is positive. Millions have been lifted out of extreme poverty over the past decade alone, with just as many now benefitting from improved education and health. But it also requires a rethink of the policy obstacles that Asian countries must now overcome, and the way in which they interact with bilateral and multilateral development institutions. Middle income challenge Middle-income status does not mean development gets suddenly easier. While Asia’s growth still outpaces global growth, it has slowed since the global financial crisis. This has led some to argue that Asia is facing a middle-income trap, where growth slows after reaching middle-income levels and the transition to high-income levels seems a distant prospect. Malaysia and Indonesia are often mentioned as examples. Equally worrying is that several middle-income Asian economies suffer from persistent pockets of poverty, while their people remain vulnerable to sudden changes in income. Some countries continue to confront fragile situations associated with long-term and often subnational conflict. Afghanistan has seen three decades of armed conflict between the government and the Taliban, while Myanmar is engulfed in a crisis involving the Rohingya people.1 Ageing populations are another challenge, particularly in China, South Korea and East Asia.2 This will translate into rising dependency ratios, increasing elderly care costs and probably higher taxation. Moving nations out of extreme poverty also tells us little about the extent to which their people are vulnerable to falling backwards. This vulnerable group of people — those who hover precariously above the poverty line but do not advance quickly towards middle-class status — is expanding in Asia. In countries from India to Indonesia to the Philippines and Bangladesh, this category now covers hundreds of millions of citizens. Although growth has lifted millions above the breadline, the quality of that growth has not always been pro-poor. Recent decades of growth have often exacerbated income inequality levels across Asia. Gini coefficients (a common measure of income equality) have declined in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Papua New Guinea.3 Tackling these challenges requires different policies by governments in Asia, both to continue to push growth but also to make it more equitable. Improving innovation, tertiary and vocational education, digital infrastructure, financial access for small businesses, elderly care and pensions systems and institutions can help put Asia on the path to developed, high-income status. These policies should be tailored to individual national circumstances along with gradual opening up. The days of transplanting a one-size fits all development model – be it a Washington neo-liberal consensus or a Beijing consensus of an eclectic approach to free markets and a big role for state enterprise - are over. Questions for Sri Lanka Sri Lanka aspires to become an upper-middle income economy. In 2019, however, country faces the prospect of tepid growth of 4% or thereabouts with rising inequality. Additionally, a debt to GDP ratio well in excess of 70% and downgrading of debt rating implies limited head room for raising public expenditure. This depressing domestic economic scenario could be complicated by unpredictable weather affecting agriculture, and political instability. Multiple global risks are also looming on the country’s horizon including escalating trade tensions between the US and China, capital outflows from emerging markets, and geopolitical tensions. Once the political dust settles, a national debate is needed to move on from the political crisis to a policy agenda for the next couple of years. Seven important questions come to mind.
- How does political uncertainty affect private investment and growth?
- Do high debt service payments mean fiscal austerity?
- How can lagging productivity be improved?
- How might the digital economy take root?
- Is rising inequality temporary or permanent?
- How can the cost of living be reduced and development be spread outside Colombo?
- What economic reforms are necessary?