A casual observer walking through the heart of a city like Sylhet or Rangpur in northeastern Bangladesh would be impressed by the economic vitality of these bustling district capitals. But despite the ubiquitous signs of a vibrant economy, doing business in Bangladesh can be far from easy. Business people here often complain about cumbersome administrative procedures, unfair tax administration, obsolete regulations, and a general lack of transparency from authorities.
This year, for the first time in Bangladesh, where The Asia Foundation works with micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) at the district level, business people from 19 districts across the country were surveyed for their opinions on their local business environments. The combined results are reported in the 2010 Bangladesh Economic Governance Index (EGI) (released in July and available for download) which ranks each district according to the ease of doing business.
Using a rigorous methodology pioneered by The Asia Foundation, the 2010 Bangladesh EGI measured 10 sub-indices, such as cost of entry, informal charges, and transparency that affect the local business environment. Survey respondents were selected randomly from a listing of 55,736 formal and informal enterprises throughout the 19 districts. This listing, compiled by Data International prior to the survey, shows that Bangladesh’s economy is dominated by micro-enterprises – more than 97 percent employ less than 10 workers. The listing also confirms that the private sector in Bangladesh is dominated by men, with fewer than half of 1 percent of businesses owned by women.
Among the 19 districts ranked in the 2010 EGI, there are clear “high” performers and “low” performers, but roughly 42 percent are clustered in the “medium” category, suggesting that, with some effort, these districts could easily climb in the rankings. The transparency sub-index reveals that many districts do have problems with transparency-related issues. However, with targeted reform efforts, these districts could improve their ranking.
As these examples suggest, reliable information like the Economic Governance Index can help the private sector and national and local authorities to better understand the particular strengths and weaknesses of each district, identify best practices across districts, and devise specifically targeted programs to improve the business environment for the nation’s vital small enterprises.
Often, when the parties to a civil war achieve a peaceful settlement at the national level, citizens at the local level will continue to suffer the effects of violence and social upheaval. Such is the case today in Nepal, after nearly a decade of open warfare. As the Constituent Assembly struggles toward a national resolution, much of the population faces intractable local problems, from the resettlement of displaced people and disputes over private property, to an increase in the culture of violence and vengeance, and the lingering effects of wartime trauma. And because local outbursts of violence, chaos or unrest can derail the national accord, effective national peacebuilding must also address these local roots of conflict and crisis.
Recognizing this need, The Asia Foundation has launched the Community Mediation Program in Nepal to help communities defuse local conflicts and address their underlying causes. Since its inception in 2004, this community-based program has helped contain and resolve conflicts in 118 localities throughout the country.
The Community Mediation Program involves facilitation, mediation, and problem-solving processes that strengthen people’s ability to analyze situations, consider the perspectives of others, and envision practical, long-term solutions. Disputants are trained to listen to each other’s experiences, and how to respect the other person’s point of view. Mediation sessions can transform adversarial tensions among neighbors and families into cordial relationships based on values of equality, mutual respect, and participation.
Community mediators, trained in basic peacebuilding concepts and methods, do more than just resolve cases. Research by The Asia Foundation shows that community mediation programs can improve relationships across castes and ethnic divisions, increase civic participation by traditionally excluded groups, and help create a social framework for trust beyond the strict boundaries of dispute resolution. Where the Community Mediation Program has been active, there is growing recognition that justice can be better achieved through discussion and negotiation than through confrontation.
A new Nepali-based training group will soon begin work to expand the practice of mediation across the country. Community mediation has been formally acknowledged in new national legislation recognizing the important role of local mediation in this country, just emerging from civil war, and still facing deeply rooted sources of conflict.
After months of pressing their local bank to make credit more available to women, the District Women’s Business Forum (DWBF) in Sylhet, Bangladesh, has something to celebrate: 12 members recently received bank loans to expand their businesses.
It’s a small number that represents a big breakthrough for Bangladesh. Research shows when women control the money they earn, they are far more likely than men to invest it in the health, education, and nutrition of their families, creating a positive cycle that promotes development. Yet women across Asia face persistent barriers to economic participation, and according to a U.N. report for the Asia-Pacific, women’s lagging participation in the economy costs the region $89 billion every year. Additionally, because women lack access to important information about the business environment, they don’t effectively advocate for change.
The DWBF helped the women of Sylhet overcome their information deficit. Participants quickly discovered they had a common problem – limited access to credit. In Bangladesh, property is traditionally registered to a male of the household – including all women’s businesses – depriving women of that central element of a business loan, collateral.
Through dialogues organized by The Asia Foundation’s Local Economic Governance Program, the bank and the DWBF found an alternative: “social collateral,” built on the trust and credibility that comes with belonging to a group. The DWBF would provide this social collateral by guaranteeing its members’ loans.
Women’s Business Forums in three other districts, Barisal, Bogra, and Rajshahi, have now repeated the success in Sylhet, and the idea of social collateral has received the endorsement of the Central Bank.
“Once you create these networks – a culture of exchange and dialogue – all types of information can circulate,” says Véronique Salze-Lozac’h, The Asia Foundation’s regional director for Economic Programs. That information – shared and acted upon – is toppling traditional barriers facing women in Asia.
Just a few months ago, Choeung would not have dreamed of speaking in public. But that was before he and his fellow fishermen from the community fishery of Stung Kambot in Kampong Thom province began meeting to discuss the problems that were threatening their livelihoods.
Less than nine months later, Choeung stood before an audience of more than 300 people in the Kampong Thom Provincial Hall, including high-ranking officials, deputy governors from seven provinces, and an under-secretary of state. The occasion was a Cross-Provincial Workshop, organized by The Asia Foundation in partnership with Oxfam Great Britain and local NGOs, as part of the Foundation’s Civil Society and Pro-Poor Market Program. The program brings together rural community groups to promote access to natural resources, better resource management, and economic diversification.
Choeung explained how his community-based organization (CBO) had worked to protect the local fishery from illegal nets. They convened several meetings, he said, first among themselves, then with commune, district, and provincial authorities, to urge enforcement of the law prohibiting environmentally destructive fishing.
Prior to the Cross-Provincial Workshop, says Choeung, “the members of my CBO…were helpless when some fishermen violated the fishery law and destroyed their fishing resources. [Now] we participate in commune- and province-level Public-Private Dialogues that give us great opportunities to talk directly with public officials and work with them to solve common issues.”
In a significant step, Choeung’s CBO and the Fishery Administration Cantonment have formalized their cooperation in a new agreement setting clear fishing boundaries and permissible equipment. The Fishery Inspectorate also gave mobile phones to Choeung and other representatives of fishery communities. Now, when boats using prohibited nets enter the protected area, the community can immediately alert the authorities, who are committed to taking action against illegal and environmentally destructive fishing.
Fostering Regional Integration for Shared Food Security
This past July in Manila, The Asia Foundation participated in an international forum to examine the critical issues surrounding global hunger and food security, hosted by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). “Food for All: Investment Forum for Food Security in Asia and the Pacific,” held at the ADB headquarters in Manila, brought together key decisionmakers in agriculture and food security to discuss ways and means toward shared food security and agriculture sector prosperity. Douglas Bereuter, president of The Asia Foundation, moderated a key plenary session that focused on regional integration and cooperation for food security.
Connecting Philanthropy and Aid for Pakistan’s Flood Survivors
Acknowledged as the worst humanitarian crisis in Pakistan’s history, flooding in northwestern Pakistan has effected more than 20 million people. Bringing together the private donor community of Give2Asia, The Asia Foundation’s philanthropic affiliate, and The Asia Foundation’s program expertise in Pakistan, the two organizations are working to attract much-needed philanthropy and aid for flood survivors. Initial assessment by the Foundation resulted in identifying three local partners to support the relief and recovery effort; Give2Asia launched its Pakistan Flood Relief Fund with initial investments of $35,000; and the Foundation’s Books for Asia program quickly assembled 1,000 new textbooks to donate to the flood-torn library of Northern University’s City Campus located in the former North-West Frontier Province.
Mr. Pandju Merali was born in Moba, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the fifth of six children. His father and mother emigrated from Gujarat, India, and opened many small shops and businesses in the DRC. For most of his education, Mr. Merali was home-schooled because neither white nor black schools in the DRC granted him admission due to his Indian ethnicity. When he was 19, he moved to Rwanda in search of new opportunities. Over the next 10 years, Mr. Merali became a prominent businessman and founded numerous import-export and manufacturing businesses. During this time, he met his wife Shirin, and they started a family in the DRC. They went on to live in England, Canada and the United States, while Mr. Merali took his business acumen global through corporate investments and property. He eventually settled into the hotel industry, and co-owns hotels with his two sons. Looking back on his life with no access to formal education, Mr. Merali’s life experiences made him greatly value education, giving back to the community, and investing in people.
After a long and successful career, Mr. Merali retired and soon after established a foundation in memory of his wife, Shirin Merali. The Shirin Pandju Merali Foundation is committed to educating girls in the sciences in developing countries. He is currently supporting an Asia Foundation scholarship program that will enable 60 Mongolian women to attain university degrees. Mr. Merali’s lack of formal education fueled his commitment to supporting education for young women throughout the developing world—making their dreams of attaining a university education come true.
Mr. Merali currently lives in Seal Beach, California. His three children, Karim, Azim, and Yasmin have pursued successful careers around the country and he has four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“The U.S.-China relationship is fundamentally stable and will remain so for the foreseeable future,” begins David Lampton, Asia Foundation trustee and director of China Studies at the The Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, in his new paper, “Power Constrained: Sources of Mutual Strategic Suspicion in U.S-China Relations.” In his paper he goes on to explain that a stable U.S.-China “relationship is anchored in the two societies’ respective preoccupations with their own domestic problems.” However, his essay highlights “four sources of mutual strategic mistrust that, if insufficiently attended to by Washington and Beijing, will metastasize.” Dr. Lampton was recently awarded the inaugural Robert A. Scalapino Prize in recognition of this landmark paper and his exceptional contributions to America’s understanding of the vast changes underway throughout the Asia-Pacific region.
The Scalapino Prize was awarded by the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The prize honors the legacy of Professor Robert A. Scalapino, founder and director of the East Asian Studies Institute at the University of California at Berkeley and The Asia Foundation’s Trustee Emeritus. For the past six decades, Professor Scalapino has been considered America’s foremost scholar of the Asia-Pacific region having written 38 books and more than 600 journal articles on U.S.-Asian relations.
This month, NBR, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and The Asia Foundation will sponsor the National Asia Research Program West Coast Symposium, featuring David M. Lampton as keynote speaker and hosted by University of California-Berkeley’s Institute of East Asian Studies.
David M. Lampton is the Dean of Faculty, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and Director of the Chinese Studies Program, Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book, The Three Faces of Chinese Power: Might, Money, and Minds was published in 2008.