In its forty eight years of history as an independent country Bangladesh has changed. Changed for good and changed for bad. The changes for good in the country’s landscape are many and to the generation of sixties and seventies the changes often appear mythical and unreal. But the changes are so real that even the country Pakistan, from which Bangladesh gained its independence in 1971 after a bloody war of independence in which three million lives were lost, acknowledges these changes, the economic changes and the changes in the quality of life of the people and the social life.
Immediately after the Pakistan’s current Prime Minister Imran Khan formed the government in his first cabinet meeting announced that his future plan for development of Pakistan was to follow the Swedish model (?) of development. That same evening some leading economists while participating in a TV Talk Show criticised Imran Khan for his idea of Swedish model and said that first make Pakistan equivalent to the development of Bangladesh, the same Bangladesh which ‘we let them breakaway as their poverty was a burden for Pakistan.’ The speakers and many others in Pakistan’s and international media often has praised Bangladesh’s economic development and most of them in clear terms have praised the extraordinary socio-economic changes in Bangladesh in the last one decade and said the changes in Bangladesh can be attributed to it’s visionary Prime Minister ‘Hasina Sheikh’ (this is how they term Sheikh Hasina.Najam Aziz Sethi (Najam Sethi) edits a very qualitative popular on-line weekly ‘The Friday Times.’ Sethi is not only a journalist of repute but also has an illustrious career as a good administrator and is known for his progressive political views. He served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Control Board, once as caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab in 2013 and Pakistan’s correspondent of the London based Economist. On 30 August the Friday Times published an analytical commentary by Meenu Sethi (no relationship with Najam Sethi could be traced) titled ‘Emerging Economies: Lessons from Bangladesh’. The commentary focused on the impact of women’s labour force participation on the economy of Bangladesh. Meenu Sethi compared the economy of Bangladesh with that of Pakistan and shared her views how the participation of women in Bangladesh’s labour force has contributed to the economic development of Bangladesh. She rightly pointed out that Pakistan is on the edge of the economic precipice and sees no immediate improvement in its socio-economic life for many different reasons. Amongst the many reasons that have driven Pakistan to such a precarious condition Meenu said ‘is the marginalised role women have been allowed to play in its economy. According to the World Bank, out of an estimated 200 million population of Pakistan, 97 million are women, but only 14 million are working. ‘The contrast with Bangladesh – a country with a shared long religious and cultural heritage as part of undivided India dating back to 9th century CE, known as East Pakistan till 1971 – is sharp and instructive.
In Bangladesh, 22 million out of 83 million women are economically active. …Today while Pakistan is in a dire economic predicament, Bangladesh is transitioning from a low-income to low middle-income economy. Bangladesh’s economy grew by 7.7 per cent in 2018 and is expected to grow by 8.3 per cent this year, one of the fastest in the world. The economy has doubled in size in the last six years alone. In the past decade, Bangladesh’s real economic growth has been consistently above 6 per cent every year. In 2017, Bangladesh exported merchandise and services worth $38 billion, up from $27 billion in 2012: an increase of 41 per cent. By contrast, Pakistan’s export in 2017 were $26 billion, down from $28 billion in 2012…Bangladesh’s consistent economic growth can be attributed to many factors like moderate public debt, stable rate of inflation, and sound economic policy, but one that stands out is the role its women have played in diversifying away from an agrarian to a more manufacturing-based economy. At 36 per cent, Bangladesh’s female labour force participation is 11 percentage points ahead of Pakistan’s 25 per cent. In terms of financial inclusion, 36 per cent of women in Bangladesh have a bank or mobile-money account; the corresponding figure for Pakistan is only 7 percent’ writes Meenu Sethi. She also mentions about Bangladesh’s foreign exchange reserve as compared with Pakistan and writes ‘unsurprisingly, Pakistan’s current account has been in deficit for the last 10 years …and its foreign exchange reserves barely enough to cover two months of imports (currently $17.4 billion). Bangladesh’s foreign exchange reserves, on the other hand, stand at $31 (currently $33) billion having increased by almost about 450 per cent in the last year’.
Meenu’s commentary is quite detailed and portrays a contrasting picture of economic performance between Bangladesh and Pakistan. Even without being labelled as a staunch supporter of the current government it can be safely concluded that whatever socio-economic transformational development has happened in the recent past it did happen during the tenure of the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
In last forty-eight years the people of Bangladesh has demonstrated the power and virtues of resilience and have made a turnaround on a number of national crises from natural to political. Today Bangladesh from a food deficit country has managed to become a food surplus country and currently is the fourth largest producer of rice in the world. The poverty level has dropped from nearly 82 per cent in 1972 to below 9 per cent (extreme level) and its per-capita income has grown from less than $80 to $1900 plus in last 48 years notwithstanding the fact that the population over the years have grown from seventy-five million to one hundred and seventy million.Today 73 percent of the country’s population is literate according to the UNESCO report up from 47 per cent forty-eight years back. 80 per cent of the country’s population has access to electricity. The country has not only attained self-sufficiency in power generation but recently has also announced it is ready to export limited amount of electricity to its neighbour India. According to all international think tanks including WEF, ADB, WB and ADB the country in which no one saw any hope of survival in 1972 currently is the 37th (some estimates say 41st) largest economy in the world and expects to be 26th by 2030. According to the ‘Spectator Index-2019’ Bangladesh has achieved top position in world’s GDP growth list with achieving 188 per cent growth rate in the last 10 years. The report was released on last 29 August. China has achieved 177 per cent, Malaysia 78 per cent, Australian 41 per cent and Brazil 17 per cent according the report. Bangladesh has surpassed its neighbouring countries, including India in most of its social indicators.
However, all the good news cited above is being continuously eroded by only few factors, the most important being the corruption amongst a section of government employees and bureaucrats – the most recent atrocious one being in the purchase of simple household items for Roopur nuclear plant residential accommodation and hospital equipments and linens for patients in a government hospital in Faridpur. In April this year the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) had identified 101 government sectors as corrupt, notable amongst them being Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Civil Aviation, Ministry of Power and Energy and Ministry of Finance.
The banking sector is riddled with mismanagement and needs a complete overhaul to free the sector from the culture of loan default. In a conservative estimate it is predicted that 2-3 per cent higher annual GDP growth would be possible if corruption could be moderately controlled. Though the Prime Minister frequently announces zero tolerance to corruption, the frequent incidents of mega corruption in different sectors indicate that her calls do not reach the people for whom it is meant.
The year 2020 and 2021 is significant for Bangladesh. 2020 will be celebrated as ‘Mujib Year’ in Bangladesh to mark the birth centenary of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 2021 will mark the fifty year of Bangladesh’s existence as an independent nation. To do justice to these two eventful years the wheels of development must turn faster and to do that the first pre-condition is to minimise the quantum of corruption as best as possible, if not it’s total eradication. Pakistan has its own systemic problem. Bangladesh in no way can be part of any of the problem of Pakistan but can create models of development not only for Pakistan but also for many other least developed nations.
The writer is an analyst and a commentator. Currently he teaches at ULAB