Sunday, 28 November, 2021
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Commentary

Lessons from PM’s leadership

Dr Atiur Rahman

Lessons from PM’s leadership

It was indeed a privilege for me to share my mind with the foreign diplomats including several Ambassadors on the leadership traits of our Premier Sheikh Hasina towards achieving SDGs much faster than many of our peers.

The presence of the US Ambassador and Indian High Commissioner among other Ambassadors to Bangladesh and many high-level diplomats was indeed reassuring for the organisers to know the deep interest they have for the distinct features of our Premier’s committed leadership for those who are living at the bottom of the social pyramid.

She strongly believes that this disadvantaged section of the population must not be left behind knowing fully Tagore’s words, “if you push them down, they will pull you down.” This important knowledge-sharing meeting was organised by the International Affairs Sub-Committee of Bangladesh Awami League.

Chaired by Ambassador Muhammad Zamir who is also the chairman of the committee, the programme was graced by Obaidul Quader MP, Party General Secretary and Minister of Road, Transport and Bridges as the Chief Guest. Besides, Special Guests Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr A K Abdul Momen MP and State Minister of Foreign Affairs  Md Shahriar Alam MP, several Presidium Members,  party high-ups and several dignitaries, including editors of the print and electronic media were present.  This was indeed a happy occasion to celebrate both her 75th birthday and winning of the UN sponsored ‘SDG Progress Award’ which was delivered to her recently at the UN Head Quarters.

I started with the Keynote presentation on the transformational leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina with a familiar quote from the 6th President of the US John Quincy Adams. According to him: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” And all these traits are in abundance in Sheikh Hasina.

Over and above, she is lucky to have inherited the legacy of her father’s aesthetic leadership. According to Rabindranath Tagore, it is not the lack of money, but that of confidence which constitutes the biggest problem for a society. Fortunately, Bangladesh was blessed with a leader of global stature like Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who demonstrated that the country could move on to the highway of inclusive development banking on the social capital called bharosha or the ambience of confidence and trust.

It may be recalled that Bangabandhu started his development journey with an economy of only 8 billion USD and per capita income of 93 USD back in 1972, with not even a dollar in the exchequer. Thanks to his prudent policies, Bangladesh witnessed a phenomenal pace of growth in those difficult times. The per capita income went up to 273 USD by 1975. Bangabandhu’s steadfast leadership manifesting how to convert challenges into opportunities suddenly got upside down following his tragic killing by the traitors on August 15, 1975. The per capita income dropped to 138 USD in 1976 and then to 128 USD in the following year. It took 13 years for Bangladesh under errand leadership to come back to the level of per capita income of 1975. This only confirms that leadership matters.

The country regained its hope and aspiration in May 1981 when Sheikh Hasina returned home ending her nearly half a decade of political asylum. After a prolonged struggle for regaining democratic rights, she restarted the inclusive development journey in 1996 following her victory in the general elections. Besides giving a stunning humanitarian leadership while facing the worst countrywide floods in 1998, she accelerated the inclusive development strategy focusing on poverty reduction, modernising agriculture, blending public-private policies for export-led industrialisation, investing more in people’s education, primary health, social protection, in addition to greater emphasis on physical connectivity throughout the country. Her efforts in building pro-poor instituition and policies particularly on social protection have been well appreciated by the development observers from both home and abroad. Unfortunately, the journey was halted in 2001. She, however, continued her struggle for inclusive democratic governance and went through all kinds of life threats and undesired jail for many months. Finally, she returned to power in 2009 again winning a massive electoral victory with a promise to achieve ‘Digital Bangladesh.’ Since then, she has kept the country on track of an amazing path of socio-economic transformation which has been touching the ground. Bangladesh has been benefiting significantly from her inclusive, compassionate, and humane leadership for transforming the developmental landscape more sustainable.

Despite huge inflow of resources for the recovery, the total debt to GDP ratio remains around 35% including about 15% of GDP as external debt at the back of robust foreign exchange reserve of 46 billion. This compares exceedingly better than her South Asian peers. All international credit rating agencies have, therefore, upheld the stable outlook of Bangladesh’s macro economy. The ADB has projected that Bangladesh would grow at a rate of 6.8% during the current fiscal year. Other international projections are equally optimistic. The World Bank has projected it to be 6.4%. The IMF’s one is 6.5%. According to Stan Chart research team this could go up to 7.2% during this fiscal year. What is more interesting is that Stan Chart thinks that this growth may be sustained over 7% from FY 22 to FY26, as structural drivers will remain intact. Their projection is that Bangladesh GDP will exceed 500 billion USD (IMF’s World Economic Outlook is even higher at 518 billion USD in the same year) as against today’s figure of 355 billion dollar, with per capita income reaching 3,000 USD by FY26. Bangladesh’s nominal GDP per capita growth during 2019-20 has been 7.8%. This made Bangladesh number one in the Emerging Markets in Asia followed by China with 6.9% and India with 3.1%. It held the same position during 2011-18 with 9.4% followed by China with 7.0% and India 3.9%. The domestic consumption riding on remittance, exports, and diversified agriculture, all strategically pushed by the PM, made this possible.

My own hunch is that the real GDP growth rate may cross well over seven percentage this fiscal year. What is more surprising is that 73% of the growth in economy since its inception happened during the last 12 years of her rule. In this background the British think tank Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) projects that Bangladesh economy will be 25th global economy in 2034 from its current 40th position just in 15 years. This will happen on the back of demographic dividend and rising per capita income, said the Research outfit. No doubt, the UN has recognised the Bangladesh Premier with the ‘SDGs Progress Award’ in collaboration with the Earth Institute led by Professor Jeffrey Sachs. He called her ‘Crown in Jewel’ which reflects the global appreciation of her inclusive and transformational leadership.

Most recently, Bangladesh has also been reported to have done very well in terms of the Global Hunger Index indicating real gains on the ground. She gained 9.5 notches between 2012 and 2021 leaving both India and Pakistan far behind. Bangladesh now belongs to a group of 14 countries who improved this index by more than 25% during this period.

Over the period 2009-2020, both average poverty and extreme poverty reduced by more than half to around 20% and 10%. The pandemic may have stalled the process of poverty reduction temporarily, but the quick recovery due to massive stimulus packages (nearly 5% of GDP) by PM has already started reversing the downhill. The inflation remains stable (5-6%) despite some upside risks arising from rising global oil and other commodity prices. Massive digitization of the government and finance has been helping fast transmission of money to the rural areas with high growth in domestic consumption and demand. The robust growth in remittance has been facilitated by digital payment system and incentives provided by both government and the central bank. The rural economy has greatly benefited from all this and now looks much more vibrant with its 60% income originating from non-farm activities. Despite many structural impediments, Bangladesh Premier must be credited for improved investment in healthcare and education, including nearly 20% enrolment in technical education. Bangladesh has also managed to respond to the pandemic along with the latest pick up in the vaccination primarily because of her strong and focused leadership. Hence, the infection rate has been falling faster than many other comparable countries.

The ‘champion of the Earth’ and ‘Mother of Humanity’, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pursues open regionalism despite huge financial and social pressure originating from supporting food and other basic needs of a million plus displaced Rohingyas from Myanmar. She has recently brought to the notice of the global leaders that this problem of displacement of such a huge number of people ought to be resolved by sending them back to their own country faster as it is putting immense financial pressure on Bangladesh economy. As President of Climate Vulnerable Forum, she has been wedging a war on climate change challenges not only for Bangladesh, but also for the entire climate-affected population of the world. Her ‘Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan’ is likely to show the world in the upcoming COP26 how to make a transition from risk to resilience and then to prosperity. No doubt, she could write in the Financial Times, “Climate change, pandemics and destruction of nature are common threats. They should unite us in working towards a common solution: a cleaner, greener and safer world.”

Like Bangabandhu, she too believes in communal harmony and societal peace for sustainable development. According to noted economist Professor Kaushik Basu, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has made one essential contribution to the country’s upward growth trajectory. To quote him, “Many countries have succumbed to religious fundamentalism, with disastrous consequences for their economies. Bangladesh is notable for having withstood this danger. Its buoyant, vibrant economy, now with a 50-year track record is testimony to this success.” Your Excellencies, I strongly feel that her determined leadership will also be able to contain the ill intensions of the fundamentalist groups revealed in recent days to spoil the social and religious peace and harmony. She remains a strong bridge between the administration and the cultural activists engaged in resistance against these evil forces. Surely, she will succeed in containing them, as she did in the post-Holy Artisan attack. Indeed, she has been making speedy progress in identifying and taking strong measures against those who were responsible for this undesired communal divisive attempt at destabilising the society. She needs support from all quarters, both local and global in this struggle for uprooting the communal forces. The global community may have to strategize unitedly how to respond to the hate speech and communal mistrusts created through abuse of the social media.

She is a leader who can see far enough. According to the Perspective Plan 2041 prepared under her leadership, “The country is now well-placed to push forward and secure Bangabandhu’s dream of poverty-free Bangladesh. … Bangladesh already has a strong track record that shows how strong leadership, a sound planning strategy and determined efforts can take the country forward. With continued and strong leadership by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the PP 2041 challenges can also be met and fully addressed”.

Going forward, Bangladesh under her strategic leadership is now poised to chart an ambitious development journey to a resilient and sustainable future. In alignment with the Bangladesh Delta Plan, she is going to unfold Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan in the upcoming COP26 with her focused mission – “The time to save the planet is not tomorrow, today”. To make the SDGs implementation process both inclusive and green, she plans to –

♦               boost growth through maximum resilience

♦               deliver energy independence and net green exports

♦               strengthen employment in a green economy

♦               promote well-being leveraging both 21st century technologies and traditional lifestyle practices

No doubt, challenges are many that may have been constraining her faster move towards prosperity. However, given her determination to strengthen the institutions, steer the implementation process, including the growth and employment multiplying mega projects, Bangladesh is destined to become a developed country. The cooperation and support from our development partners and friendly countries will be crucial for making the transition smooth. Let me finish this write-up with my very best wishes for PM Sheikh Hasina. May she live long to serve Bangladesh and the world at large.

 

The author is Bangabandhu Chair Professor, Dhaka University and former Governor, Bangladesh Bank

Email: [email protected]