WASHINGTON, DC – South Asia presents a depressing paradox. It is among the fastest growing regions in the world, but it is also home to the largest concentration of people living in debilitating poverty, conflict, and human misery. While South Asia is far more developed than Sub-Saharan Africa, and India (the largest country in the region) has achieved lower middle-income status, South Asia has many more poor people than Sub-Saharan Africa.
This raises the big question of whether the best escape from poverty comes from general economic growth or from a direct attack on poverty. The answer depends on where one looks. Stupendous growth hides deep pockets of poverty. For the countries of South Asia, poverty has morphed from a national to a sub-national problem.
Although economic growth has reduced South Asia’s poverty rate, it has not fallen fast enough to reduce the total number of poor people. The number of people living on less than $1.25 a day increased from 549 million in 1981 to 595 million in 2005. In India, which accounts for almost three-quarters of this population, the numbers increased from 420 million to 455 million during this period. Besides the slow pace of poverty reduction, human development has not kept up with the pace of income growth, either.
There are more than 250 million children in South Asia who are undernourished, and more than 30 million children who do not go to school. Over one-third of adult women are anemic. The share of female employment in total employment is among the lowest in the world.