Individually and as a whole, the nations of South Asia have made great strides in economic development and human security in the past decade. However, as the United Nation’s Development Programme argues in the 2013 edition of its Human Development Report, further progress is being hampered by the slow pace of normalization between the region’s biggest powers, India and Pakistan.

The report points to promising results from the global South, noting a significant drop in the proportion of the global population living in extreme income poverty: from 43 percent in 1990 to 22 percent in 2008 (see the highlights in this Al-Jazeera infographic). Incredibly, as UNDP Administrator Helen Clark noted in introducing the report, not a single country had a lower composite score in 2012 than it did in 2000. The international community was able to meet one of its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), reducing the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day by 50 percent, thanks to large reductions in income from rapidly developing countries, including China, Brazil, and India (where 32.7 percent of the population live below the MDG threshold, down from 49.4 percent). The report’s authors credit much of this success to expanded trade and technological progress within the South itself, combined with specific policy decisions that reinvested economic gains into human capital (including education and social welfare). “The critical combination of external openness with internal preparedness allowed countries to prosper in the global marketplace, with positive human development outcomes for the population at large.”

The report is instructive for those concerned with furthering the economic and personal security of civilian populations in South Asia in South Asia (the countries of the region are ranked from highest to lowest: Sri Lanka [92]; Maldives [104]; India [136]; Bhutan [140]; Bangladesh and Pakistan [tied for 146]; Nepal [157]; and Afghanistan [175]). It is clear from the policies UNDP identifies that human development progress in South Asia is being critically delayed by political tensions between its two largest countries, India and Pakistan. While it is certain that internal policies are to blame (UNDP specifically calls out austerity measures that target the social safety net), lack of bilateral trade and accelerating defense spending are also dragging down economic potential. Trade benefits are increasingly accruing to countries within the global South in general: “The share of South-South trade in world commerce has more than tripled over the past three decades to 25%; South-South foreign investment now accounts for 30-60% of all outside investment in the least developed countries.” Foreign direct investment has expanded similarly, especially within regions of the global South. For South Asia, however, those potential benefits have suffered at the hands of India-Pakistan tensions. According to research published by the New America Foundation, bilateral trade has the potential to grow to ten times its much-restricted current level. The UNDP report correctly notes the continuing drag of non-tariff barriers, which the New America research clearly demonstrates is pervasive in the India-Pakistan bilateral context. Unfortunately for the region, the normalization process has suffered since the beginning of the year after killings of military personnel along the Line-of-Control dividing Pakistan from Indian-administered Kashmir, leading to delays in the implementation of relaxed visa restrictions and a general sense that the process had stalled.

The disparity within South Asia, according to UNDP, is principally concentrated on per capita income and mean years of schooling. While incomes may be rising in general, multidimensional poverty, a broader poverty measure that focuses on health, education, and living standards, shows continuing challenges, with what the UNDP calls high-intensity deprivation in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. Gender disparities also continue to plague South Asia. Despite a history of female leadership at the highest political levels, the region suffers from low female participation rates in legislative bodies (18.5 percent). This exists alongside traditional deficiencies in female education (only 28 of women have completed secondary schooling) and low labor force participation (31 percent). Countries like India are in some ways victims of their prosperity, as access to medical technologies, such as ultrasound has increased the propensity for sex-selective abortions. South Asia has most unequal distribution of education access. This, in addition to governmental policy and social reform, has a knock-on effect of reducing gender inequality, as education allows many women to have better health outcomes, more autonomy, and decision-making authority within their households.

UNDP also identifies the potential for climate-related externalities to slow and even reverse economic growth in the developing world: “The number of people in extreme poverty could increase by up to three billion by 2050 unless environmental disasters are averted by coordinated global action.” This warning is particularly apt for South Asia as a whole. One of the biggest issues in the acute environmental crisis facing South Asia is access to clean water. The Asian Development Bank, in its report on water security published earlier in the week, found that South Asian nations score very poorly on sanitation, urban water security, environmental water security, and resilience to water related-disasters (including drought and monsoon season). Further progress also needs to be made in securing clean energy resources. Far too much power generation still relies on coal, which, while fueling economic growth, contributes to the very human development deficiencies that continue to hold back millions on the Subcontinent. Unfortunately, critical joint energy projects are held hostage to security and political concerns.

A further drag on human development, according to UNDP, is accelerating defense spending, especially in the developing world. South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific, and the Arab States in particular have seen spending rise. According to the Stockholm International Peace Institute’s Military Expenditure Database, India increased its defense spending from $25.8 billion in 2000 to $44.2 billion in 2011 (in constant 2010 U.S. dollars); Pakistan saw an increase from $4.1 billion to $5.6 billion. As the UNDP report underscored, however, this spending increase, mostly directed to threats by other states, is occurring during a period when intrastate conflict is arguably a more pressing threat: “In South Asia, for example, all nine countries have experienced internal conflict in the last two decades, and the resulting casualties have outnumbered those from interstate conflicts.” The report further argues that internal threats are less amenable to a strictly military solution. In India’s struggle against its Maoist insurgency, for example, policing and economic redistribution schemes, especially for the scheduled tribes, so far have been effective in containing the threat. While a robust normalization process between India and Pakistan would only slow defense spending in the long-term, any slowdown, especially in the nuclear arena, would be a welcome step not only for international peace and security, but for the economic well-being of both countries’ citizens.

In sum, the UNDP’s Human Development Report gives credit where it is due for progress to-date, while laying out an ambitious agenda for further reform. Governments throughout the region face long-term pressure to deliver growth and services to their rapidly growing populations, but with economic and social development currently being held hostage to political and security considerations, achieving further development will be difficult.

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