Poverty is not directly the result of a country’s share of trade. Rather poverty reflects low earning power, poor access to communal resources, poor health and education, powerlessness and vulnerability. It does not matter what causes these features so long as they do not exist, nor what relieves them if they can be relieved.
Trade matters only to the extent that it affects the direct determinants of poverty and that, relative to the whole range of other possible policies it offers as an efficient policy lever for poverty alleviation. Trade liberalization may have adverse consequences for some – including some poor – that should be avoided or managed to the greatest extent possible.
However, the general belief is that trade liberalization promotes growth, which in turn, supports poverty alleviation. In general, only a few people will end up as net losers. Trade policy should therefore generally not be closely manipulated with an eye on its direct poverty consequences, but set on a sound basis overall with recognition that some modification may be inevitable for political and other reasons with poverty being treated by general anti-poverty policies.
More compelling is the dramatic upturn in GDP growth rates in India and China after they turned strongly towards dismantling trade barriers in the early 1990’s. In both countries, the decision to reverse protectionist policies was not the only reform undertaken, but it was an important component. In the developed countries trade liberalization, which started earlier in the postwar period, was accompanied by other forms of economic opportunities for example, a return to currency convertibility, resulting in rapid GDP growth.
Moreover, the argument that historical experience supports the case for protectionism is now flawed. The economic historian Douglas Irwin has challenged the argument that nineteenth-century protectionist policy aided the growth of infant industries in the United States. Nor should the promoters of free trade worry that trade openness results in no additional growth for some developing countries. Trade is only a facilitating device.
If a country’s infrastructure is bad, or have domestic policies that prevent investors from responding to market opportunities such as licensing restrictions very little progress can be achieved. Critics of free trade also argue that trade-driven growth benefits only the rich and not the poor. In India, however, after the economic and education reforms nearly 200 million people have come out of poverty. In China, which grew faster, it is estimated that more than 300 million people have moved beyond the poverty line since the reforms were initiated.
Poverty is the biggest problem in South Asia, large sections of people lack the basic needs to even have a decent life. This is further compounded because unlike other groupings, South Asia is extremely diverse in terms of culture and politics. Such diversity entails difficulties in promoting regional cooperation. In fact, the speed of regional cooperation in South Asia has been slow compared to other regions.
There are three important points in the economic and financial area, in promoting regional cooperation
* Firstly, is the strengthening of mutual surveillance.
* Secondly, countries in the region should share a common view of the future direction of the regional economy and also concrete policy response based on such recognition.
* Thirdly, participate actively in global efforts toward the stability of the international financial system.
Over the next few decades, South Asia will need to grow their economies at a much faster pace to reduce poverty in the region. They will need to strengthen and deepen their democracies and ensure the region is stable and secure. But that can only be achieved, if South Asia works together, because economic stagnation in one part of our region will only dampen prosperity in another. South Asia therefore will have to work together to ensure their financial systems is stable and foster a political climate that creates confidence in the region. In the final analysis, increased regional co-operation will not only boost trade, but also prevent internal conflicts from spilling over national borders.
(Summary of a paper prepared for a regional conference in South Asia. The writer has held senior positions both in the private and public sectors )