NEW DELHI, INDIA - Public services in developing Asia's are frequently failing to reach the needy, says a new Asian Development Bank (ADB) study which recommends improvements to avoid a further widening of the region's already sharp divide between rich and poor.

"Access to services such as clean water, sanitation, health care, and schooling is an essential ingredient of personal well-being, economic development, and long-term growth," said ADB Chief Economist Changyong Rhee. "Empowering communities can certainly improve service delivery, but this needs to go hand-in-hand with a change in the way the state does business."

The report, Empowerment and Public Service Delivery in Developing Asia and the Pacific, launched today at ADB's 46th Annual Meeting of its Board of Governors, says the delivery and quality of public services have lagged the meteoric growth rates seen in many economies in the region. It examines the challenges state providers face in delivering quality basic services to low income groups, and the potential for giving disadvantaged communities more power over service delivery.

Service delivery across the region is mixed. In South Asia for example, access to primary schooling has grown substantially over the past decade, but the report found there is no evidence of improved access to public health services, and very little progress in the provision of improved sanitation and water sources. Services are often shrouded in heavy national bureaucracy that impedes efficiency.

Turning the present situation around will require state institutions to be far more responsive to demands for services and much more focused on targeting support for those genuinely in need. Creative solutions must be explored, such as contracting out the delivery of some public services to private parties and non-government organizations, broader adoption of new communications technologies, and a possible shift to a cash-based social assistance transfer system.

Giving communities more say and power over service provision will require legal and institutional arrangements which encourage citizen participation, as well as the necessary capacity-building support and resources. Ensuring citizens have information on services and understand their entitlement to them is also essential.

Few countries in the region have enshrined the right of citizens to information on basic services, although India became the exception with the passage of the Right of Information Act in 2005. India is also carrying out an information and communications technology project which will eventually provide unique identification numbers to all citizens in a bid to deliver welfare benefits more effectively. The project is the largest of its kind in the world.

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