The Fourth South Asia Economic Network Conference started at BRAC Centre Inn in the capital on Saturday.
South Asian Network for Economic Modelling (SANEM), South Asia Economic Policy Network and The World Bank jointly organised the programme, themed on 'Subnational Finances and Local Service Delivery'.
Planning Minister Muhammad Abdul Mannan attended the function as the chief guest.
Among others, Dr Selim Raihan, executive director of SANEM and professor of Economics at Dhaka University, Dr Mercy Miyang Tembon, Country Director for Bangladesh, The World Bank, and Dr Hans Timmer, South Asia Chief Economist of The World Bank, were also present on the occasion.
The session started with the welcome speech of Dr Selim Raihan. In his speech, Dr Hans Timmer said, “This conference is very close to my heart, the network has been able to conduct many important research projects and it’s growing every day.”
Dr Mercy Miyang Tembon said, “The World Bank is happy and proud to host this regional conference in Dhaka. One factor that hinders efficient local delivery is the poor local governance.”
While speaking, planning minister said, “The colonial trend has always been to facilitate the urban areas, 90 per cent of the benefits from development policies would go to the urban areas. This was a social structure that needed to be changed after the colonial masters left.
We achieved milestones in terms of literacy and health care. This is a very important step for our country, he added.
The first session on “Local government finances and service delivery” was chaired by Dr Atiur Rahman, former governor of Bangladesh Bank. Three papers were presented in the session respectively by Dr Manish Gupta from the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, India, Dr Gopi K Khanal from the National Natural Resources and Fiscal Commission, Nepal, and Dr Monzur Hossain from Bangladesh Institute for Development Studies (BIDS), Bangladesh.
The discussants included Dr Bilesha Weeraratne, research fellow and head of Migration and Urbanization Research, Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka, Dr Bazlul Haque Khondker, Chairman of SANEM and professor of Economics at Dhaka University, and Dr Atonu Rabbani, professor of Economics at the university.
Dr Manish Gupta presented his paper on “Strengthening Local Government Finances and Service Delivery-Role of State Finance Commissions in India.” The paper reviews the reports of the latest SFCs of 25 states in India. This involves examining the status of constitution of SFCs, their functioning and the approach adopted by them in carrying out their task and the principles adopted by them in allocating resources to local governments.
Dr Weeraratne said, “It might seem clear what is divisible and what is sharable in terms of decentralisation, but in application, this is very much ambiguous, something Dr Gupta pointed out in his paper.”
After that, Dr Gopi K Khanal presented his paper on “Role of local government finance in improving public service delivery in Nepal." This study aims to explore structural and contextual aspects of public financial management at the local government level and their impact on quality and quantity of health and education service delivery in Nepal.
The first session ended with the paper presentation by Dr Monzur Hossain on “Does democratic local governance facilitate local economic development? Evidence from Bangladesh,” He focused the study on the very basic unit of local governance-the union parishads.
Then Dr Atonu Rabbani highlighted some aspects that the paper addressed, the major two of which were participation and accountability.
Dr Atiur Rahman, the Chair for the session, said, “Bangladesh is one of the most centralised countries in the world, where the share of local governance expenditures in the budget in only 7 per cent, although the growth is tremendous. But the goals, which are even bigger, such as the status of upper middle income, complete eradication of poverty and decentralisation are more important for Bangladesh in the recent context.”
Following the first session, a preview of South Asia Economic Focus (Fall 2019 edition) was presented by Dr Robert Beyer, Economist, South Asia Office of the Chief Economist, The World Bank. This segment was chaired by Dr Selim Raihan. Dr Beyer said, “In complex and diverse countries, one size doesn’t fit all. The economies get complex with the development.”
The chair then opened the floor for an interactive Question/Answer session.
The second session, followed by lunch, was on “Fiscal decentralisation and corruption” chaired by Dr Zahid Hussain, former lead economist, World Bank Bangladesh. Two papers were presented by Panchali Banerjee, Jadavpur University, India, and Dr Bushra Yasmin, Fatima Jinnah Women University, Pakistan. The discussants for this session were Rafiqua Ferdousi, research economist, SANEM, and Dr Monzur Hossain, senior research fellow of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS).
The second session was followed by a special lecture on “Pakistan’s new initiatives in devolution to local governments” by Dr Ishrat Husain, Advisor for Institutional Reforms and Austerity to Prime Minister of Pakistan. This segment was chaired by Dr Robert Beyer.
Dr Husain said, “The federal government has always resisted the devolution and decentralisation to the provisional government, the reason behind this being the unimproved capacity of the provisional government. But if we let the provisional government exercise power and hold them accountable, the capacity will start building itself.” He also said, “The challenges regarding governance can only be solved by empowering the communities, the villagers and the local governments.”
The following session was on “Urban planning and service delivery”, chaired by Dr Mustafizur Rahman, distinguished fellow of Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD). The two papers of the session were presented by Leena Bhattyacharya, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, and Dr Bilesha Weeraratne, Institute for Policy Studies, Sri Lanka.
Zubayer Hossen, Research Economist, SANEM, and Dr AKM Nazrul Islam, associate professor, Dhaka School of Economics, were the discussants.
The first day of the 4th South Asia Economic Network Conference ended with a special lecture on “Challenges of Urban Governance in India” by Dr Isher Judge Ahluwalia, Chairperson, Indian Council for Research on International Economics (ICRIER).
The second day of the conference will be held on September 8 at the same venue.