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FEATURE STORY November 30, 2021

Protecting and Investing in People is at the heart of South Asia's Development Journey


South Asia has made strides in education, with higher enrollments and more years spent in school for students in many countries. Credit: Dominic Chavez/World Bank


  • South Asian children born today can expect to attain only 48 percent of their full productive potential.
  • One of the region’s biggest challenges is helping to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to lead rewarding, productive lives.
  • With IDA support, South Asia has made tremendous strides in reducing poverty and improving the lives, well-being and opportunities of millions of people

In Bhutan, 27 year-old Ugyen Tshomo is learning the basics of entrepreneurship so that she can start a business to support her family. In Sindh, Pakistan, Sumaira is studying hard in school so that she can become a teacher when she grows up. In Bangladesh, Yeasmin Kohinoor is managing a thriving handbag business that has created jobs for over 100 women.

Ugyen, Sumaira and Yeasmin represent some of South Asia’s most valuable assets: it’s people. Across the region, millions of people just like them are working hard to support their families, make a difference in their communities and achieve their dreams.  But not everyone has the chance to succeed. On average, South Asian children born today can expect to attain only 48 percent of their full productive potential. One of the region’s biggest challenges is helping to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to lead rewarding, productive lives.

South Asia has already made tremendous strides in reducing poverty and improving the lives, well-being and opportunities of millions of people. In Bangladesh, children now spend an average of 10 years in school, compared to just 8 years in 2010 and primary school enrollment has risen to 98%. In Sri Lanka, 91 percent of secondary age children are enrolled in secondary school while in Nepal, students are spending more years in school, with an average of 12.3 years in 2020 up from 11.7 in 2018. In Pakistan, more women are surviving difficult births and the maternal mortality rate continues to fall.

Still, challenges remain. One out of three children in South Asia is stunted and four out of every one hundred children do not live beyond the age of 5. The COVID-19 pandemic threatened many gains in health, education and poverty reduction that were made in the last decades. Almost two-thirds of the new global extreme poor now live in South Asia. School closures across South Asia have deprived students of months of learning. In fact, due to school closures and economic crisis related to lockdowns, the average years of schooling in South Asia is expected to fall by between .3 to .5 years, which translates into an economic loss of up to US$ 1.9 trillion in lost earnings.  Health services have been disrupted causing many children to miss out on vaccines and rising food prices have made millions of families vulnerable to food insecurity.  The pandemic’s impacts such as widespread unemployment, learning poverty, and hunger and malnutrition could devastate future productivity and livelihoods for generations to come.

IDA (International Development Association), the World Bank's fund for the poorest countries, is helping to accelerate human capital—or the knowledge, skills and health people accumulate over their lives—in South Asia. Through investments in health, education, food systems, and social protection, IDA is working to improve human capital development for all South Asians, especially young girls and women.


The Kitchen Gardens project in Sindh has helped more women like Khair Bano feed their families with nourishing foods.  Credit: World Bank Pakistan

Good nutrition to boost health and well-being

Good nutrition, which supports cognitive development and physical health, is vital for human capital. In Bangladesh, IDA is helping over a million smallholder farmers improve their productivity and boost food security and nutrition for their families and their communities. The National Agriculture Technology program provides farmers with financial support and expert advice on best farming practices for a variety of conditions. Sheikh Abdul Hamid, who farms in the wetlands area of Bagerhat district, learned floating bed agriculture which has helped him grow more cucumber, gourds, tomatoes and eggplants on his waterlogged plot of land.

Thanks to IDA, families in rural Sindh are eating more greens, which are vital to a well-balanced diet and better health outcomes. More than ten thousand households received kitchen gardening kits with tools, seeds, fertilizers and drip irrigation systems to help them grow vegetables in their gardens. Previously, families subsisted on dry bread and chilies or when they could afford it, purchased unhygienic, inorganic vegetables from markets. In areas where kitchen gardening kits were distributed, there was a 10 to 20 percent reduction in reported cases of diarrhea, cholera and other diseases in hospitals and overall improved health for women and children. According to Amna, a project beneficiary “We are happy we get to eat fresh vegetables. We feed ourselves and can feed our neighbors too.”

Educating people to reach their full potential

Education helps children become productive adults who contribute to a country’s growth and prosperity. With support from IDA, Pakistan is intensifying its efforts to improve teaching and make education accessible to more children, especially girls. The Balochistan Education Project has improved the infrastructure of 1,128 schools across the province, trained 2,632 teachers and enrolled 169,503 children with an 81% retention rate—82% of them being girls.  Meanwhile, in Sindh, the Second Sindh Education Sector project trained 18,000 teachers and improved 1,800 classrooms, benefiting around 8.5 million students over the project period.

Education reforms—including single subject certification, pro-poor scholarships and campaigns to drive up enrollment of out of school children and girls into both formal and non-formal schooling--have helped Nepal increase enrollment at the secondary level and improve to .50 on the Human Capital Index. This is an improvement on its 2018 score of .49.  The IDA-supported School Sector Development Program has helped keep more girls in school and piloted a foundational math skills program that improved numeracy skills for primary school students in 3,700 families across seven provinces

Stronger systems for better health during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and caused serious—even chronic—health issues for young and older people alike, compromising their ability to work, study, and care for their families. This is why helping countries’ health systems respond to COVID-19 continues to be a key part of the Bank’s support to countries’ efforts to protect human capital.

In Bhutan, IDA provided US$ 5 million to help the country battle the disease and strengthen health systems. The COVID support project provided goods, equipment and drugs to support testing and contact tracing, set up community engagement to educate the public and minimize risks of infection, and strengthened health systems to enable quarantining and treatment. All of Bhutan’s hospitals and 79 primary health centers received test kits, PPEs and other supplies and isolation facilities were established in four national COVID-19 centers. Bhutan’s robust COVID-19 response has helped provide sick people with better care, and protect more people from being stricken by the illness.  Ultimately, the country’s stronger health systems will help more people survive COVID-19, secure better health outcomes, and continue to lead productive lives.

Social safety nets to help people in crisis build back better

Social safety nets have helped Maldivians stay in cities, where the jobs are. Photo: Nishan Ali

Social safety nets are critical to helping vulnerable people cope with and rebound more quickly from shocks. This is the case in the Maldives, where the COVID-19 pandemic hit the economy hard, crippling the tourism sector and limiting the ability of businesses to maintain their revenues, resulting in layoffs and reduced incomes for many Maldivians. Aminath Liusha was just one of many who struggled to provide for her family. “I was working as a cashier in Male. When the country went into lockdown last year, my boss asked me to stay home on no-pay because he was unable to keep the business afloat. I didn’t get any income for over four months.” With IDA support, the Government of Maldives has provided a lifeline for some 22,000 vulnerable workers—including women and self-employed-- to buy food and necessities for their families. Workers who lost jobs or incomes received an allowance of up to MVR 5,000 (approximately $320) a month, while those whose income fell below MVR 5,000 received a top-up. Over the long-term, the income support will also encourage affected workers to stay in the labor force, by allowing them to remain where the jobs are. Zahida, who was laid off from her airport concession job agrees. “[The allowance] has helped me pay my rent. Without it, I cannot afford to live in Male and [would] have to return back to my island.” Steps are also being taken to strengthen the Government’s capacity to better manage future shocks by overhauling administrative systems, increasing the role of local councils, and revising existing pension schemes, as well as formulating a new unemployment insurance program along with a far-reaching national social protection framework.

IDA-a partner in Human Capital Development

IDA’s investments in South Asia have made a difference in countries that have a lot to gain from better health systems, more robust food systems, good schools and stronger social safety nets. People thrive and are able to reach their potential when they are healthy, nourished, well-educated, and protected from shocks. By unlocking the potential of millions, IDA’s support to human capital is more vital than ever to driving growth and helping the region build back better.