Bangladesh: A role model for developing countries

Poverty, hunger, natural disasters, famine, crumbling infrastructure, political turmoil, and coups in the first decade after the creation of Bangladesh did not paint a picture that would radiate hope. As the country celebrates Golden Jubilee of Independence, Bangladesh has not only stood on its own feet, but has also become a role model for development.

In the beginning, Bangladesh was branded as a basket case. The naysayers believed that country would have to be fed by the international community as it was staring at failure with no mineral resources, high population growth, food shortage, and negligible exports.

The situation was so bad that in 1976, Just Faaland, resident representative of the World Bank in Bangladesh (1972-1974), and Prof Jack R Parkinson, senior economist to the World Bank Mission summed up Bangladesh’s trauma in the phrase “test case for development”. They argued, “If development could be made successful in Bangladesh, there can be little doubt that it could be made to succeed anywhere else.”

Bangladesh turnaround story is worth reading. The country brought down the population growth rate from over 3 percent to a little over one percent. The poverty rate had fallen to less than 20 percent before the pandemic from as high as 82 percent in the 1970s.

The country struggling to feed its 75 million people five decades ago is self-sufficient in food production even though the population has more than doubled.

Aid-dependence significantly declined from 14 percent of the GDP in the 70s to less than 1.5 percent now.

Life expectancy is 72 years, much higher than neighbouring Pakistan and India.

People can now send their children to schools and access primary health care.

With policy support of the government, Bangladesh has become a key supplier of readymade garments worldwide. Major brands of the world have their products made here. This industry alone brings in about US$34 billion a year and employs millions, women being the largest workforce in the industry.

Another key driver of the economy is manpower export. Around 10 million Bangladeshis are working abroad and earning foreign exchange for the country and bringing comfort to near and dear.

They send in around US$15 billion every year and that amount is ever increasing. This allowed Bangladesh to have a huge foreign currency reserve.

More than ten million people took shelter in India in 1971. Now Bangladesh, with its economic might, is able to open its doors to nearly a million Rohingyas escaping persecution in Myanmar.

Bangladesh has met all three conditions for graduating from the grouping of the least-developed countries twice. The United Nations Committee for Development Policy has already recommended the country’s graduation in 2026.

Bangladesh’s economy was one of the few economies that posted positive growth in 2020 when growth went south for most because of the pandemic.

The secret of Bangladesh’s success was its education and girls, as American journalist and political commentator Nicholas Kristof put it. “Bangladesh invested in its most underutilized assets — its poor, with a focus on the most marginalized and least productive, because that’s where the highest returns would be.”

Ahsan Mansur, Executive Director of the Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh, said the central bank did not have a machine to print money after independence. The geopolitical situation was not in favour of Bangladesh as the new country was aligned with the left-leaning bloc.

Since the severe famine of 1974, Bangladesh has not faced any major food crisis, greatly aided by the green revolution that was sweeping across the world at the time. “This has been a major achievement,” he said.

A major paradigm shift was moving away from a nationalized economic policy stance perceived in the 1970s to a private-sector-led economy with liberalization, deregulation and denationalization in the 80s and 90s, according to Manzur Hossain, Research Director of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS).

“Bangladesh has disproved all predictions and progressed at a good pace,” said AB Mirza Azizul Islam, a former bureaucrat and Finance Adviser of the government.

Muhammad Abdul Mazid, a former Chairman of the National Board of Revenue, said all governments took note of the importance of the agriculture sector to feed the growing population amid shrinking land. The sector gave the much-needed resilience to the economy.

“Our people are resilient and proactive in driving the economy forward. And they have been supported by appropriate policies,” said Prof Shamsul Alam, member of the General Economics Division under the Planning Commission.

Zaid Bakht, a former Research Director of the BIDS, credited public expenditure and investment for the surprising turnaround. “All countries do this, but ours was more focused and intense. Governments have given emphasis on rural infrastructural development. This has a tremendous impact on the economy.” There has been economic diversification. Cropping intensity has been increased. Non-farm activities have gone up, he added.

He said microcredit organizations and NGOs have worked in empowering women. Governments set up roads and bridges, kept the labour market flexible, gave mobility and education to women and girls, and made some improvements in the health sector. “All these created a virtuous cycle,” Bakht said.

Zahid Hussain, a former lead economist of the World Bank’s Dhaka Office, gave credit to the steady economic growth, social policies aimed at population control, rural roads, education and electrification, primary education, female education, local low-cost health solutions for immunization and communicable diseases, access to finance through microcredit, last-mile service delivery by NGOs, and demographic dividend for the turnaround of the country.

The latest testimony to Bangladesh’s astounding achievement came when Nicholas Kristof advised US President Joe Biden to look to Bangladesh to find the answer to how to bring down the rate of poor children.

Courtesy: The Daily Star

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