FOR a long period of time, a beautiful country called Bangladesh has remained one of the world’s impoverished nations and, by a twist of fortunes, today, it has sailed smoothly into an exciting world of prosperity and self-reliance. Immediately, after Bangladesh emerged out of the carnage of the liberation war, US secretary of state Henry Kissinger branded the proud people as the world’s leading ‘international bread basket case’. The humiliation has backfired: every day onwards, he has lived to offer his regrets.
Without a doubt, the country’s economy has been growing rapidly over the past few years largely because of its massive apparel exports. However, risks have continued to loom across the horizon.
Bangladesh has made rapid strides and overall progress. The country has been extremely successful in its crucial areas of economic evaluation to the extent that it is regarded as a ‘role model for South Asia.’ These are not the words of Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina. These are the tributes paid to their leadership by the respected and globally acknowledged British magazine called the Economist.
In December 2018, Bangladesh went to polls to elect a new government. The prime minister Hasina’s Awami League party thoughtfully pulled out all the stops which could have been otherwise used, allegedly, to secure victory and retain power.
During the election campaign, the ruling party members repeatedly pointed towards Bangladesh’s robust economic development under the incumbent government and promised that should they win, this would be a new practice that may continue in the coming years.
The economy of the Muslim-majority nation, with a population of more than 166 million has grown by an average of over 6 per cent a year since 2008.
In 2018, Bangladesh’s gross domestic product expanded by 7.3 per cent, a rate faster than that of either India or neighbouring Pakistan. Based on the US dollar exchange rate, Bangladesh’s per capita economic output is now higher than it is in Pakistan, which is an impressive feat by any standard.
Today, industry accounts for around 30 per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product. The year 1971 marked the year of the bloody struggle for liberation from West Pakistan — the share of industry in what was then East Pakistan was less than 7 per cent.
In 1970, when history’s most devastating cyclone Bhola killed 500,000 people, the country did not even have enough material to make shrouds for the victims. This was a tragedy lamented by the contender Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who went on to become the first prime minister of the newly founded state. Today Bangladesh exports more finished apparel than India and Pakistan combined, which is a phenomenal turnaround for a small nation like Bangladesh.
Overtaking Pakistan and India, Bangladesh has fared far better in some aspects of human development than its larger neighbours like India and Pakistan.
Child mortality, for instance, is lower in Bangladesh. The eradication of polio is high on UN priority list for the United Nations. The country also has done better than India and Pakistan when it came to child literacy and life expectancy.
According to data from the Global Hunger Index, published by the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, 26.5 per cent of the Bangladeshi population suffered from hunger in 2018. This shows the acute problems the country is still faced with.
Nevertheless, the starvation rate in Bangladesh today is half as much as it was in 1992, when it stood at around 53.6 per cent. Moreover, fewer people are starving there than its incidence either in India (31.4 per cent) or Pakistan (32.6 per cent).
A key factor in economic success is demographic development. While the birth rate in Pakistan was as high as 3.5 children per woman in 2016, the figure in Bangladesh stood at 2.1, a lower rate than even in India (2.3).
‘The country is a prime example of successful development policy and is indeed far better off than it was a decade ago,’ Wolfgang-Peter Zingel, an economist at the South Asia Institute of the University of Heidelberg, once told Germany’s official radio channel Deutsche Welle.
‘The population growth has fallen sharply, and the fertility rate of 2.1 is barely enough to maintain the current level of population in the long term. I would safely assume that the fertility rate will continue to fall and that the population will continue to decline in the long term,’ he had added.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the nation’s founding president, became its first prime minister (1972–75) and later on acquired the presidential powers in 1975. This was deemed necessary for better governance.
The government has prepared ambitious plans to develop the country further. These include major infrastructure projects such as the construction of a new bridge over the River Ganges, which is called the Padma in Bangladesh. More than six-kilometre structure, on which cars, trucks and trains are expected to roll freely after its successful completion and it will shorten the journey time between the south-east, the north and the east of the country by several hours. So far, all private and freight traffic between the two parts of the country are separated by major rivers. Waterways have formed one of most efficient and popular means of transport in the country, with waterways extending beyond 4,500 miles during rainy season. Ferries has played a major role in the sector communication.
The minister Obaidul Quader, who is responsible for road traffic and bridges, has estimated that the four-lane and two-storey Padma Bridge will boost trade and the economy considerably, accelerating the GDP growth by 1.5 to 2 per cent. The Padma Bridge and several other highway projects are being built with Chinese support. However, when drafting the terms of agreement, China does not always end up as a clear winner in Bangladesh infrastructure projects.
‘Since the Chinese government unveiled its gigantic new Silk Road project five years ago, China, India and Japan have been competing for access to the northern Bay of Bengal,’ explained Samuel Berthet, who teaches at Shiv Nagar University in India.
‘In April 2015, the Bangladeshi government, which is friendly to China, had decided to let Japan build the deep-water port in Matarbari, almost 100 kilometres south of Chittagong. Meanwhile, a Chinese conglomerate, which should have been commissioned with a similar port project further south, in Sonadia, had to finally leave empty-handed,’ said Berthet.
The reason for this was not least the consideration given to India, which has already invested about $7 billion in Bangladesh over the past decade as part of New Delhi’s efforts to improve connectivity to India’s underdeveloped, north-eastern states. This would not only enhance trade with Bangladesh but the infrastructure would also be used to shorten distances while transporting economic goods to the underdeveloped north-eastern part of India.
Beijing’s plans to invest $30 billion in Bangladesh’s infrastructure over the next few years drew mixed reactions in New Delhi. Compounding Indian policymakers’ scepticism was also the Saudi Arabia’s plan to finance the construction of around 560 mosques in Bangladesh.
Now, Bangladesh is an important supplier of apparel to America and the European nations, like Germany or the Netherlands. After the United States, Germany is the second-largest buyer of finished textiles from Bangladesh,’ said Wolfgang-Peter Zingel. However, clothes are not their strategic products. Bangladesh would, therefore, be easy to replace as their relatable supply partners. All this surfaced in the light of a classic asymmetric relationship,’ he had added.
According to Zingel, Germany is an important partner for Bangladesh in the area of development cooperation which also gives Berlin a certain leverage in bilateral relations.
‘We are one of the most important donors. Bangladesh is a good example to prove that development aid works. It’s not only the economic growth, but also the comparatively good human development indicators that prove that’, the expert stressed. In addition, Bangladesh is ‘relatively democratic in comparison with other Muslim-majority countries’, Zingel also said.
‘In the sector of education, co-education has successfully existed at all levels. Both boys and girls are generally taught together in Bangladesh.’
The Bangladeshi government aims to take the country out of the group of the poorest and underdeveloped countries by 2021, the 50th anniversary of the nation’s independence from Pakistan.
To that end, the government has even launched a programme called ‘Vision 2021’, setting, among other things, the ‘digital Bangladesh’ action plan as one of the priorities.
In addition to progress in education, health and gender equality, Bangladesh is experiencing a growth spurt that has reduced poverty and doubled per capita income. The government deserves praise for creating the essential conditions for the private sector’s dynamism that has boosted economic growth’, said Syed Al-Muti, associate director for the Economic Development Programme of the Asia Foundation, a San Francisco-based non-governmental organisation.
‘The solid economic development of recent years is based on three pillars: the growth of agriculture, the export success of the textile industry and the remittances from Bangladeshis abroad’, Zingel noted.
Despite the successes, the expert warned, risks loom large as the country is heavily reliant on the global economic trends, the employment of Bangladeshis, particularly in Gulf states, and the willingness of other countries to buy ‘Made-in-Bangladesh’ garments. There is a lack of diversity when it comes to Bangladesh’s exports.
Adding to the uncertainties are problems related to climate change and their ramifications for Bangladesh, a country that experts say will be among the most affected of places in South Asia.
Dhaka is already one of the largest cities in the world; it is the largest and fastest growing ‘poor’ city on our planet.
International experts have also pointed out that the greater Dhaka area, where the garment industry is concentrated, has completely new dynamics: there exist more than five million workers, employed in this sector, who are mostly female and come from rural families. This is expected to lead to social and cultural change that should not be underestimated.
Our prayers are with the people and leadership of Bangladesh.
Nazarul Islam is a former educator based in Chicago.
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