In the recent years, a harsh new reality has emerged in which catastrophes are more common than not. Extreme weather, economic downturns, and pandemics were traditionally considered tail-end hazards, but since 2020, all three have struck South Asia quickly. Millions of lives and livelihoods were at stake due to COVID19 alone, and its effects have already eroded decades’ worth of development progress.
This is extremely upsetting because human capital—the knowledge, skills, and health that individuals amass—is a vital component of the resilience that nations rely on to recover. Governments throughout South Asia must implement urgent policy changes and make investments in human capital in order to increase resilience and safeguard the welfare of future generations.
The greatest resource in South Asia is its people, who are still wastefully underutilised. With over a million young people expected to join the labour force each month until 2030 and over half of its population under the age of 24, the area stands to benefit from a sizable demographic dividend. Yet, more than a third of the world’s stunted children reside in South Asia. And a youngster born in the area today may now anticipate reaching just 48% of their full productive potential by the age of 18. Regional GDP per worker might double if human capital in South Asia both increased in number and quality.These figures are startling, but without greater resources, it will be difficult to change them. Average government spending on health and education in South Asia is just 1% and 2.5% of GDP, respectively. The global averages for health and education are 5.9% and 3.7%, respectively.In light of this, the COVID19 pandemic caused an unparalleled damage to the region’s human capital by driving an extra 35 million people in South Asia into abject poverty. A surge in learning poverty, or the inability to read and comprehend a simple text by age 10, is one of its most horrifying effects. While schools were closed for in-person learning for 141 days on average across the globe between 2020 and 2022, they were shuttered for 225 days in South Asia. This raised South Asia’s learning poverty from 60% to 78% when combined with ineffective remote instruction.
The most vulnerable and impoverished individuals fell further behind. For instance, in Bangladesh, the learning loss of the poorest pupils was 50% more than that of the richest students. Students in South Asia might lose up to 14.4% of their future wages since some nations still exhibit little to no indications of recovery.
Despite the bleak picture, it’s critical to remember that if governments move quickly, well-planned and implemented measures may make a difference. Current research indicates that even basic and inexpensive educational programmes can result in significant skill increases. For instance, in Bangladesh, attending an additional year of pre-school through two-hour sessions dramatically raised students’ performance in reading, numeracy, and social development. While this was going on, in Tamilnadu, extra remedial sessions after school for six months allowed pupils to make up nearly two thirds of the learning that had been lost due to 18 months of school shutdown. Moreover, government instructors in Nepal launched a programme for phone tutoring that assisted in boosting kids’ basic numeracy by 30%.
Scaling up these measures should be obvious given the high returns to human capital, the significant losses caused by the epidemic, and the region’s susceptibility to many shocks, even with restricted government finances.
Countries throughout the world can better safeguard their population during a crisis if they have structures in place to help individuals and families before a crisis occurs.
A recent World Bank research that examines the effects of the epidemic on young people, “Collapse and Recovery: How COVID Erode Human Capital and What to Do About It,” emphasises the multifaceted and complementary character of human development. People’s health, education, and abilities are developed and dependent on one another throughout their lives. Human development systems must recognise and take use of these overlapping linkages if they are to be effective. In other words, they ought to be adaptable, flexible, and nimble.
These technologies will also enable nations to respond to shocks in the future more effectively. Crises frequently offer fast shifting situations and are unpredictable. A well-functioning system is one that can activate as soon as a shock occurs, guarantees the continuity of vital services like healthcare and education, and is flexible enough to adapt when requirements change, such as social protection programmes that can scale up to meet emergency demands. Human development systems must be able to effectively coordinate across sectors since services are offered by several distinct individual sectors.Last but not least, human development systems should make sure that data and technology are utilised well since they are essential to the delivery of services.
South Asia’s future is unknown. The subsequent crises can materialise suddenly. A robust framework for human development will help decrease the harm and preserve lives and livelihoods. It could give South Asia the toughness it needs to survive in an unpredictable world.