Syed Saad Andaleeb explains why you should read the latest issue of Journal of Bangladesh Studies (JBS)
The latest issue of Journal of Bangladesh Studies is now out. JBS presents quality research articles on issues pertinent to Bangladesh. This is a challenge that is likely to persist, given that a research culture has not flourished in Bangladesh; not many international scholars seem to have found research on Bangladesh as engaging and worthwhile; and because of the growth of a plethora of competing research outlets, some of which seem to demand less from their contributors on substance, relevance, quality, etc.
Some contributors, in their quest to publish or perish, may also opt for less rigorous outlets for their research. JBS, however, publishes the very best research available on Bangladesh.
This quarter's issue begins with an article addressing a crucial sector that has been Bangladesh's export mainstay: the garments industry. Gunseli Berik and Yana van der Meulen Rodgers follow Bangladesh's growth in garment exports in recent years, despite the global economic slowdown.
This has been achieved by focusing on the volume-driven low-price niche in the global market, especially US and EU. Even with China's entry into the market after expiration of the Multi Fibre Arrangement and Agreement on Textiles and Clothing, Bangladesh has carved out a bigger market both in terms of share and value in US and EU.
This is a laudatory achievement. But it has also come at a price; the wage pressure that such a depressed economic environment has generated has affected employment and working conditions in the industry in various ways. These include violation of workers' rights including long working hours (often 60 to 86 working hours per week), forced or excessive overtime, illegal pay deductions, lack of safe and sanitary working conditions, prevention of the formulation of workers' organisations, harassment and abuse, and similar violations that loom large in the industry.
On wage rates, the authors show that Bangladesh's garment industry workers are the lowest paid in the world at around $0.22 per hour -- much less than the next rung which is $0.33 per hour in Cambodia. In China, that has recently increased its market share from 15 to 33 percent in the US and from 15 to 37 percent in the EU, the prevailing wage rates range between $.55 and $1.08 per hour.
That Bangladesh has maintained its competitiveness and gained in share and value of garment exports, despite China's freer access to global markets, misses the point. The deeper question is at what human cost? The violations listed earlier are serious, where the workers seem to have a "disposable" status. While this may be the norm for countries that have a burgeoning population and low employment opportunities, the stark contrast in wages and working conditions compared to other countries needs to be addressed.
This calls for a major overhaul of the garment industry on such parameters as efficiency and dignity of labor. This becomes even more important at a time when, according to the authors, nations such as India, Pakistan, Cambodia, etc have devalued their currency to become more competitive.
As a consequence, further pressures on the workers can lead to labour instability and disruptions on a massive scale if the workers -- the main asset of the garment manufacturers -- are unable to feed themselves or maintain their basic health and sanity.
Mohammad Abdul Malek and Koichi Usami address another vital policy prerogative: improving non-farm employment (NFE) in rural Bangladesh. With rising population, limited land resources, and massive migration to the urban centres, NFE in the rural areas deserves a strategic thrust to bring social, political, and economic stability to the nation.
Using econometric analyses, the authors show that gender and education are important determinants of NFE. Here they highlight women's considerably lower participation in NFE as they continue to be relegated to domestic chores that depress household incomes.
Among the other variables of interest are access to credit, access to organisations, out-of-country remittance, and education. Interestingly, the study finds that of the household income sources, non-farm self-employment has the highest share (28 per cent), followed by non-farm wage employment (20.3 per cent), out-of-country remittance (20.1 per cent) and in-country remittance (6 per cent).
Unfortunately, low-return NFE (68 per cent) opportunities dominate the rural economy, requiring no particular education and little or no start-up capital. This reflects the neglect and inattention given to improving human potential in the country over the years. And this undeveloped human resource base continues to be the bane of the country, depressing economic growth and wealth distribution across income segments.
The need to build relevant institutions (micro-finance, commercial banks, and co-operatives), sound infrastructure, and a quality education system requires little additional emphasis to raise the income earning potential of the rural population and to stem the massive rural-urban migration today that has strained the services in the cities beyond what was ever envisaged. NFE must begin to play a much bigger role in policy planning for the sake of social and political stability and economic progress.
M. Aminul Karim revisits a contentious and often smouldering issue: the relationship between Bangladesh and India that has resulted in growing and serious misunderstanding and mistrust between the two nations.
Being the heaviest "weight" in the South Asian neighbourhood, India's signals to its neighbours -- often of indifference, ambivalence, uncertainty, or even a seeming lack of self-confidence in dealing with them -- seems to be at the root of the problem that requires deeper understanding.
Its vacillating positions from being the benevolent "big brother" now and a mean-spirited neighbour the next or a partner who wants to resolve conflict to being a party that is unreciprocating or even scheming for advantage are unreliable signals that do not build trust and confidence.
Syed S. Andaleeb seeks to compare the quality of services provided by public and private hospitals in Bangladesh (Dhaka) with the services of foreign hospitals. The author's contention is that by improving quality of services, it would be possible to better serve the health needs of the people of Bangladesh, stem the huge outflow of foreign exchange to neighbouring countries, and even reverse the flows to some extent.
Lack of service quality in the nation's hospitals is something that is reinforced almost daily in media reports. Even the most egregious of service misfortunes (misdiagnosis, malpractice, supply of tainted blood, amputating the wrong limb, etc) seem to find no redress.
The consequence is devastating: the patient's sense of justice is shattered on a daily basis and their expectations of decent service are constantly negated. In addition, when their costs of obtaining health service continue to skyrocket, what faith can they place on the healthcare system?
And, aptly, as the ratings in the study suggest, foreign health service providers are preferred, not to mention that most of them happen to be Asian if not South Asians. If other Asians can serve us so well, why can't our very own? Can a champion emerge who can fix health care, working with modern concepts such as competition, incentives, continuous quality improvement (CQI) or six sigma?
It really depends on who is at the helm: some inconsequential political appointee who receives a favour for services rendered to the party in power or a true champion whose head and heart are well-honed and aligned with the need to serve the suffering multitude!
Rahman et al. review the evolution of the education system, especially secondary education, since the British period and chronicle the twists and turns that the system has experienced over the years, responding to different policy prerogatives aimed at creating a certain type of society at different junctures.
For those who want to understand how the education system evolved to where it is today, the article is invaluable. It provides a long-term perspective that lends itself to the analysis of what is needed today to meet the needs of a 21st century environment in which Bangladesh and its people must fit.
Syed Saad Andaleeb, Ph.D., Black School of Business, Penn State University, is Editor, Journal of Bangladesh Studies. JBS can be found on-line at: http://www.bdiusa.org/publications/jbs.shtml.
Photo: Amirul Rajiv