Budding Young South Asian Economists Tackle Barriers to Cooperation

January 9, 2014


Students from across South Asia work on ideas for improving regional cooperation, as part of the World Bank policy competition session at the 10th Annual SAESM, in Lahore

Muneeb Ansari/World Bank

  • The 10th South Asia Economics Students Meet was held in Lahore, Pakistan to share research and discuss the political economy of South Asia. Students also shared ideas to improve regional cooperation.
  • The meet brought together 82 top economics undergraduate students who met and interacted over a week-long packed schedule of events. Having grown from four countries to seven, it has convened nearly 1,000 economic students from across the region.
  • Most of the participants had never had the opportunity to interact with their peers from other South Asian countries, and consistently remarked how pre-conceived notions and apprehensions were being broken down.

Despite shared languages, history, culture, and borders, South Asia remains one of the least integrated regions in the world. The cost of weak regional cooperation tends to hurt the poor and vulnerable more than other segments of the population. Increased cooperation holds many opportunities for development gains for all countries of South Asia, yet many barriers exist to further regional cooperation.

How to tackle these issues and help South Asia maximize the gains from such cooperation were discussed last week in Lahore, Pakistan by a group of budding young South Asian students. Hosted jointly by the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and Lahore School of Economics (LSE), the 10th Annual South Asian Economics Students Meet brought together 82 economics undergraduate students from around South Asia. With teams of 10 members each, students from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India (two teams), Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and for the first time, Afghanistan met and interacted over a week-long packed schedule of events.

The theme this year was the Political Economy of South Asia, with each student submitting a paper on one of six sub-themes, discussing wide-ranging topics from the differences in the ready-made garment industries between India and Bangladesh, to development-induced displacement, to the relationship between trade and security in the region. The students each presented their papers, with a panel of judges, made up of professors of economics from around the region, picking a winner in each sub-theme.

Consistently throughout the events, participants were challenged to think and apply economics theories they have learned in the classroom to real-world issues. Dr. Atif Mian from Princeton University set the context at the opening session explaining to participants how to think about political economy, particularly in a South Asian context.

Alongside this was also held the Budding Economist competition, consisting of a paper submission and a written exam on micro-, macro- and development economics. A visual round was then held, where participants were shown a picture and had to creatively describe it using economic theories. The finalists then had a public, panel interview. The winner, and Budding Economist of 2013 was Chathuni Kaneesha Uduwela, from the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka. An inter-university quiz competition was also held, won by the team from Bangladesh.

The World Bank, which has supported the conference since 2007, participated in a discussion on the political economy of multilateral institutions and stabilization policy. Here, students heard from panelists who have been directly involved in economic policymaking and IMF and World Bank programs for various countries, including the 1990s East Asian financial crisis to the negotiation of the IMF-Pakistan program in 2008. A second panel discussion was held on urbanization in South Asia. The UN Industrial Organization (UNIDO) also presented some of their trade-related initiatives in Pakistan.


The participants presented their own papers as well as attending panel discussions.


After the academic events, the participants had a retreat, visiting Harappa, Islamabad, and the Old City of Lahore.

In the spirit and theme of regional cooperation and political economy, the World Bank also hosted a policy competition. In the session, participants were split into six groups with representation from each country, and asked to answer how they think national competitiveness can be improved through South Asian regional cooperation. Some ideas consistent across all groups was to break down barriers for people meeting, increasing trust between countries, and for more opportunities that allow people to meet. Others suggested building a South Asian University and leveraging and boosting the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

After a grueling three days of academia, the participants traveled to sites signifying the rich and common history of Pakistan and South Asia. They visited Harappa, an ancient site of the Indus Valley Civilization; Islamabad, the modern capital of Pakistan; and the old city of Lahore, a major urban center of South Asia for centuries.

This year marked the conference’s landmark 10th anniversary. Having grown from four countries to seven, it has convened nearly 1,000 economic students from across the region. SAESM grew out of a request in 2004 from a few Pakistani students to their visiting Indian economics professor of their desire to visit India. Ali Hasanain was one of those original students. Then an economics student at LUMS, he is now an Assistant Professor at the school and was one of the primary faculty organizers this year. The Indian professor he and his peers approached, Dr. Deb Kusum Das from Ramjas College, is also still involved as a primary coordinator in India, showing the strong, lasting bonds participants – both faculty and students – alike have built through SAESM.

SAESM provides a unique opportunity for undergraduate economics students in the region not only to interact with their peers, but also faculty from other countries. Most of the participants this year had never had the opportunity to interact with their peers from so many other South Asian countries, and consistently remarked how pre-conceived notions and apprehensions were being broken down.

The success of the conference allows it to continue to expand, with the next SAESM being planned to be hosted for the first time in Bhutan.

Winning Papers List

The Political Economy of Public Finance
The Real Estate Sector in India: Curbing Black Money Flows and Increasing Tax Revenues, Sambodhi Sarkar, St. Stephen's College, India

The Political Economy of International Trade
Trading with Thy Neighbour: Resolving Security Externalities, Amrita Garai,  University Of Delhi, India

The Political Economy of Access to Capital
The Rural Credit Market: Gaps, Distortion and Isolation, Momina Idrees, Lahore University of Management Sciences, Pakistan

The Political Economy of Energy and Natural Resource Use
Political Economy of Access to Energy in Sri Lanka in Rural Electrification, Thilani Navaratne, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Sri Lanka

The Political Economy of Modernization
Development-Induced Displacement, Nandita Palrecha, St. Xaviers College, India

The Political Economy of Social Security
A Bird's Eye View into Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Rumela Ghosh, Presidency University, India

The winning papers will be featured on the World Bank’s End Poverty in South Asia Blog over the next few weeks and papers published in an e-book.