South Asia is the world’s least economically integrated region; the high cost of this limited integration and trade is clearly seen in the Eastern Corridor of South Asia comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and the Northeastern Region (NER) of India. Limited transport and communication connectivity have led to physical and social alienation of the rural poor from public services, infrastructure and markets.

Various studies conclude that the region is falling short of its potential in terms of trade and investment, and emphasize that the gains to all countries from a more integrated South Asia would be substantial. According to one estimate, under a well-functioning SAFTA, regional trade would increase by at least 250% (current level is $28 billion). Research also suggests that a 10 percent reduction in transaction costs at the border could increase a country’s exports by about 3 percent.

Moreover in countries where labor is abundant, economic integration can lead to greater and shared prosperity. Improving connectivity, removing trade barriers and enhancing logistics should lead to an increased demand for unskilled and low-skilled labor in these countries, thus providing employment and income opportunities for the poor and women.


The level of women’s participation in the labor market in South Asia is very low (only 36% of the workforce) – amongst the lowest in the world. Further, women largely remain in low-skill jobs, face gender wage gaps, and are confined to less-remunerative stages in value chains and are excluded from most trade activity. Moreover, legal, institutional, structural, and social barriers and norms further constrain women. Women’s involvement in cross border trade is informal and undocumented. Improving women’s ability to participate in trade and economic integration, by ensuring access to improved transport and connectivity, job opportunities, and value chains and markets; making gender-responsive trade policies; will lead to women’s empowerment.


The objective of the South Asia Region Trade Facilitation Program is to identify and build consensus around priority investments, policy actions, and institutional arrangements, and provide capacity support to local enterprises - within country and cross-border - to enhance trade and economic opportunities for men and women along the Eastern Corridor of South Asia.

DEVELOPMENT PARTNER: Australian Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade

Through SARTFP, DFAT is seeking to engage a groundbreaking integration of gender in a predominantly gender blind space. It has partnered with The World Bank for its capacity to successfully integrate a number of global practices and country teams who can operationalize and disseminate the findings from both analytic and operational work in order to achieve the following medium term (or end of investment) outcomes.


BBIN Countries: Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal


All SARTFP activities will seek to achieve at least one of the following MTOs.

  1. Projects in trade facilitation, cross border transport connectivity, and local economic opportunity finance by World Bank, DFAT and others, increasingly benefit women.
  2. Governments in Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal (BBIN) make complementary investments in trade facilitation, cross-border transport connectivity, and local economic opportunity that directly benefit women.
  3. Governments in BBIN countries take regulatory and operational measures in trade facilitation, cross-border transport connectivity, and local economic opportunity that directly benefit women.
  4. SARTFP contributes to producing and sharing knowledge on how trade facilitation, cross-border transport connectivity, and local economic opportunity can directly benefit women.
  5. There is improved economic opportunity and livelihood for the poor, especially women, in targeted value chains and corridors.


SARTFP has three thematic areas:


Activity Implementation Period Country(ies) Objectives
Buddhist Circuits Development in South Asia Three years Bangladesh, Bhutan India, Nepal, (priority) and To provide opportunities for improvements in poor communities of the region especially for women, while bringing a wide spectrum of jobs, services and infrastructure and better stewarding region’s sacred assets.
Advancing Women’s Enterprises for Economic Impact in Farm/Non-farm Value Chain and Regional Trade Two years Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and regional civil society organizations and agencies To enhance the system that builds the capacity of poor, small-scale producers, particularly women, to compete in selected value chains in local and regional markets.
Women in Trade in Bangladesh 7 months Bangladesh To support women’s participation and empowerment in economic activities in formal and informal trade.
Planning for regional trade and gender inclusive Inland Water Transport in Assam 2 years Bangladesh and India To better plan and prepare the Assam water transport system project so as to enhance the resultant benefits to women and other vulnerable groups through better design and monitoring.
Economic Corridors – Connecting South Asia to East Asia 2 years Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and India To create a platform for greater collaboration among development partners. To develop a conceptual framework for economic corridors and to enable holistic appraisal of corridor projects to prioritize those with the biggest economic benefits.
Strengthening cross-border value chains and leveraging local development linkages in the Eastern region of South Asia for more and better employment opportunities, especially for women and marginalized communities 12 - 14 months Bangladesh and India To generate more and better employment opportunities, especially for women and the poor, by strengthening cross-border value chains and leveraging border haats between Bangladesh and India.


Storefront and vendors, Kaski. Nepal. Photo: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank
Storefront and vendors in Kaski, Nepal.

Photo Credit: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank