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South Asia has a problem.
Workers are less productive than their peers in China and Southeast Asian countries and this is crimping growth in the region, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF)'s annual report on global competitiveness.
This year, none of the SAARC countries, comprising India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan, broke into the top 50 most productive nations. India jumped 16 places from last year to finish at 55. Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan were ranked 68, 105, 107, 100, and 126, respectively.
By comparison, five of ASEAN's largest economies, including Indonesia, finished in the top half of the rankings.
What's to blame? Rampant corruption, government instability, ineffective policies, and inflation are some of the common factors that make it difficult to do business. This hinders innovation and affects productivity in South Asia, the WEF reckons.
Worsening the situation is the rapid urbanization that these countries face, for which they are ill prepared. As a result, cities become strapped for resources; there is rampant poverty and living standards in these countries continue to fall. A recent World Bank report warned that unless these countries can have a handle on rapid urbanization, they will continue to fall behind their richer regional counterparts.
The WEF noted that despite the inter-country disparities in the region, emerging and developing Asia remained the world's fastest-growing region since 2005, accounting for 30 percent of global GDP, of which China contributed 16 percent.
China is ranked 28 despite seeing a vicious market sell-off earlier this year that forced government intervention in the stock market, an unexpected devaluation of the Yuan in August, and other policy flip-flops that failed to calm tetchy punters.
The report measures the Global Competitiveness Index (GCI) that combines 114 indicators, which capture variables that matter for a country's level of productivity. These indicators are grouped into 12 categories including infrastructure, financial market development, technological readiness, business sophistication, and innovation.
The list of countries in the top 10 remained relatively unchanged from last year. Switzerland, Singapore, and the United States finished in the top three, respectively. Japan moved up to 6 and Hong Kong remained at 7.
WEF said despite being the fastest growing region, emerging and developing Asia has a long way to go. "Most countries have a gaping infrastructure deficit because investment has not kept up with rapid growth," the report pointed out." The uptake of technology, in particular of ICTs (Information and Communication Technology), is also very low across the region.
Countries ranking near the top of the index scored highly on infrastructure and technology adoption.
WEF's founder and executive chairman, Klaus Schwab, warned, "The fourth industrial revolution is facilitating the rise of completely new industries and economic models and the rapid decline of others." He added that, to remain competitive in this changing landscape, countries will need to ramp up their efforts in improving their productivity – such as building a large talent pool and focus on innovation.