Bangladesh has come a long way since the dark days of early part of liberation (1970s) when the country did not have sufficient funds to pay for diplomatic missions abroad, when the prime minister had to rely on the charity of foreign countries to have urgent medical treatment abroad, when the country did not have money to offer proper burial to the freedom fighters. Henry Kissinger, the arch opponent of Bangladesh’s liberation, branded the country as a basket-case of the world! Those were the darkest days of the Bangladesh’s history.
Now over 46 years later, Bangladesh is in much better shape economically. Although it is still the poorest of the world’s 10 most populous nations, its economy is outperforming many of those well-heeled populous nations. The Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, the UN all indicate that Bangladesh is presently steaming ahead economically. Nonetheless, they hasten to add the caveat that unless the country urgently reforms the education system and eliminate endemic corruption, the progress may be stunted.
For the time being, the economy is flourishing. As per the Global Finance Magazine report, Bangladesh has an international reserve of USD 31.8 billion (2016) and its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is USD 246.2 billion (2016). The GDP growth is 6.9% (2017) and the GDP per capita value is USD 1508 (2017), which is somewhat higher than that of Pakistan.
At the time of liberation, Bangladesh was primarily an agricultural country. But 46 years later in 2016, the agricultural output accounts for only 15.1%, industry accounts for 28.6% and the service sector is 56.3% of the GDP. The garment industry alone accounts for 25% of the service sector and earns 80% of all exports. This rebalancing of the economy from agriculture to multi-sectors is a tremendous success for the country.
The economic benefit was not confined to rich urban population. The national wealth has been distributed to the rural population also and poverty rates have dropped. In 1991, more than 40% of the population lived in extreme poverty and now, according to the World Bank, it is less than 14%. That means that over 42 million people have been pulled out of extreme poverty.
Bangladesh has also achieved success in population control. Although Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, the population growth rate has been somewhat tamed. This can be gauged when it is compared with Pakistan, as shown in the following Table.
Country 1955 1960 1965 1970 1975 1985 1995 2005 2015
Bangladesh 2.14% 2.73% 2.98% 3.1% 1.85% 2.73% 2.25% 1.74% 1.16%
Pakistan 1.49% 2.13% 2.51% 2.7% 2.83% 3.39% 2.67% 2.13% 2.12%
The striking feature is that before the liberation, the population growth rates in the then East Pakistan was consistently higher than the national average (comprising East and West Pakistan), but after the liberation it is consistently lower than Pakistan (previously West Pakistan). The economy of the then East Pakistan was far inferior to West Pakistan’s before liberation; but after liberation it showed dramatic improvement. The conclusion that can be drawn from the Table is that as prosperity is achieved, the population growth rate declines and vice versa. In other words, the population growth rate and the economic growth rate show negative correlation.
There are, however, ominous signs for Bangladesh in the horizon of the prospect of continued growth. The Global Finance Report had clearly spelled out that unless the education system of the country is improved and corruption is reduced, the potential economic prospect may be jeopardised. Along with these two vital issues, one may add a few more issues and these are: adversarial political system, Islamic fundamentalism and, of course, perpetual traffic congestion in the capital city, Dhaka.
The education system of the country is a major cause for concern. The standards of education, particularly in the public sector, had degenerated so much that the vast majority of graduate and even post-graduate degree holders cannot even write decent sentences either in Bengali or in English. One has only to look at the comments these imbeciles make in various newspapers. The education system has been polluted by politicising it right from the primary level. The public university teachers are less interested in teaching and more so in political sycophancy, wage increases and promotions. University teachers are promoted on the basis of length of service (just like departmental clerks), not on academic excellence or quality of teaching or research. In any department of any university, more than 50% of the teaching staff are ‘professors’ (achieved due to length of service), which is a shameful situation. The proliferation of so-called ‘professors’, with little or no calibre, makes the whole system stink.
In addition, there is a very large sector of Islamic education, which was not present even in Pakistan days. There are 19,000 madrassahs with an enrolment of about 10 million children. These children will grow up as the unproductive population! The government has also established an Islamic Foundation to supervise Imams and Mullahs of 275,000 mosques (and increasing) in the country. These people are all devoted to spreading religious messages, not economic growth!
The binary political system between the Bangladesh Awami League and the BNP makes a mockery of the democratic system. When one party gets to power, its sole aim is to keep the other party out and inflict on it as much damage as possible. Alongside this objective is concentrated efforts in syphoning of state assets as quickly as possible, as in the next election this party may not be in power.
This looting of state assets is perennial. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) chairman, Iqbal Mahmood, has recently said that if large scale government corruption such as in procurement, project evaluation and implementation etc. can be avoided, then the GDP growth could go up by about 2 per cent. This means that 6.9% (2017) could well be 8.9% without corruption.
Dhaka’s traffic condition is just a nightmare. Travelling just five or six miles across the city at any time of the day can take well over two hours. How the office workers manage to attend offices day after day is a mystery. Besides spending endless unproductive hours on the road, the people are subjected to high or very high levels of toxic pollution arising from exhaust fumes of transport vehicles. No wonder the UN report persistently categorises Dhaka as one of the most unliveable cities in the world.
Corruption is endemic right across the board. Even the definition of corruption has been rejigged. A senior politician asserted that if money is not transferred from one person to another, it cannot be called corruption. So, if students are allowed to pass exams illegally or get higher grades simply due to political affiliations, it is not corruption. If people are appointed or promoted in the public services from political considerations or sycophancy, these are not corruption! No wonder, the world bodies are pointing towards corruption as the nemesis of Bangladesh’s continued progress.
Let me finish it off with a joke. Three old men – one American, one Russian and one Bangladeshi – went to God to seek answers to their burning questions.
First, the American asked, “God, when will the politicians in America work together for the good of the people?”. God replied, “25 years.” The old man started to cry that he would not live to see that day.
Next, the Russians asked God, “God, when will democracy be restored in Russia?”. God replied, “50 years”. The old Russian started to cry that his days will be well over before that day.
Finally, the Bangladeshi asked God, “God, when will Bangladesh be free from corruption?”. God then started to cry and finally said, “Not in my lifetime.”
– A. Rahman is an author and a columnist.