|Volume 7 | Issue 01 | January 2013 ||
Bangladesh in 2013: Dangling Between Hopes and Reality
ZIAUDDIN CHOUDHURY traces how far we have come and how far there is to go.
A Western diplomat who spent about a decade in Bangladesh in two stints, once in the 1980s and then in the early part of this century, recently remarked to me that the real miracle of Bangladesh is its people. Despite abysmal leadership, bickering politics that often turned truly vicious, and battering by nature, the resilient people of Bangladesh have found a way to forge ahead. Their political leaders may have misled them or taken them on a garden path of unfulfilled promises, but the people always found an alternative way to manage themselves. They found leaders from among themselves who are not tainted by politics but who understood their needs, stood by them in times of their misery, and helped them get out of it. Entrepreneurs came out of the woodwork to provide for goods and services that the people needed, and then they found a way to find a market for these beyond the confines of their own country. If Bangladesh is a country to be counted among the nations that have shown resilience in every down turn, it is because of its people. If Bangladesh has achieved any recognition for its 40 plus years of growth, it is because of its people. If Bangladesh has any reason to look forward to a future even brighter, it is for its people.
Progress of Bangladesh in the last four decades defies prediction of all naysayers and doomsday prophets. A country that started 40 years ago on a low income comparable with the bottom 10 of the world's nations is now comfortably poised to come out of the cusp of least developed nationhood and become a middle income nation in the next decade. Our literacy has trebled in the last 40 years, and we have led the developing world in growth in female literacy, in particular for those under age 15. Our exports have boomed; we are now the second largest exporter of manufactured garments after China. 'Made in Bangladesh' is a brand name that we can proudly wear as a badge of honour. Brave new community leaders ushered in groundbreaking ways to fight poverty, raise literacy, increase rural income and provide safe water and sanitation nationwide. Grameen Bank and its innovative way to eradicate poverty has become a world model. Pedagogic methods of elementary schools set up by BRAC, and the rural income-generation activities sponsored by our NGOs are now bywords of human development. Between 1980 and 2011, Bangladesh's Human Development Index increased from 0.303 to 0.500, an increase of 65.0% or average annual increase of about 1.6%. If the trends in both economic and human development of the last 20 years continue at least at the same level, Bangladesh is forecast to come out of the least developed country bracket to the middle income category in the next five to 10 years. The imponderable question, is can or will this forecast hold?
The adversities that the country faced in the last four decades were tremendous, enough to make the world wonder if this country would last another disaster. From the famine of 1974 to the hurricanes and floods of the 1980s and 1990s, Bangladesh had withstood constant battles with nature. There is no guarantee that we will not see any repeats of natural disasters of such magnitude in the future. Politically, the country fared no better. The young democracy was nipped in the bud when a delinquent group of army officers killed the founder of the country, toppled the government and ushered in a long era of military dictatorship. It took two more decades of struggle and political agitation to restore democracy. Since then the country has hobbled on its way with governments that have changed hands from time to time with popular elections, albeit with acrimonious political fights, dysfunctional political and state institutions, and unabated corruption.
The great miracle is that despite these adversities the country forged on. The country that once bought millions of tonnes of food grains to feed its people has not only filled the food gap, it has the potential to become a food surplus country now. From a meager production of less than 12 million metric tonnes in 1974, our total production last year was nearly 35 million metric tonnes. That is a whopping 300% increase in less than four decades. The other extraordinary growth has been on the textile front. From a paltry export of less than a billion dollars in 1976-77, the country now makes nearly 24 billion dollars a year by exporting manufactured textile goods. All these hefty increases came from the people, the working people of Bangladesh. And all of this has helped to make the country's gross income from a meager 30 billion dollars in the 1970s to nearly 130 billion dollars now.
But all of this is on the good side. The impressive achievement on the food front, literacy and manufacturing is closely shadowed by our failures to make the changes that are still necessary to make the leap from least developed to middle income nation. We have yet to make serious investment to improve our basic infrastructure in energy, transportation, health and education. Less than 10% of our roads are paved compared with nearly 50% in India and more than 60% in Pakistan. Our energy consumption and access to electricity is still the lowest in all of South Asia despite availability of gas.
Our law and order still works as a strong disincentive for investment. While political violence has been on the rise and is a separate issue, overall law and order and safety situation has been on the downhill all along these years. Intentional homicides, armed robbery, and kidnapping do not seem to have abated in the last few years. The US State department still designates Bangladesh as “High” in crime rate.
Venality continues to remain an endemic problem and it now appears to have entered all levels of society. For the last 10 years our country has occupied a place among the top 20 of the most corrupt countries of the world. Our political leaders often vow to eliminate corruption but they are not inclined to develop institutional mechanisms to address the problem, or even to strengthen the institutions that exist.
Add to all of these the culture of intolerance that has grown over the years. The political leaders talk about democracy and freedom of speech, but only if these serve their interests. There has not been a single change of a government where the losing party has accepted the people's verdict without violent protests. Each election in the past two decades has been followed by rejection of the results by the losing party and continued protests starting with road marches, hartals and parliament boycott. During 2001-2006 period a total of 173 days of nationwide hartals were enforced. However, after a relatively hartal-free two years in 2008-2009, the phenomenon seems to be well on the path of return from this year. This instrument of protest is so common in our political culture that without it a political party seems to be powerless. The public obeys this protest out of sheer fear for safety as the enforcers of this form of protest usually spare no violence in imposing their hartal on others. I do not know if our politicians realise that the national loss for each day of hartal, according to some estimates, is close to a billion dollars.
Despite these adversities, natural and human made, our people have prospered, and they will continue to do so but only if the environment to prosper is allowed to grow. Primary elements of this growth friendly environment are to ensure political stability, rule of law, bringing transparency in governance and removal of corruption. Unfortunately, the environment that we are currently in does not forebode well at least for the immediate future. Our political leaders, those who are running the government and those opposed to it, seem to be locked into an uncompromising fight, while rule of law is still a distant dream. Threat of a political crisis over the next national elections is looming large on the horizon.
Our people have moved mountains of obstacles in the last four decades. All they hope is that in the coming decades they will surmount these obstacles to take the country to greater glory and achievement. The reality, however, is the intransigence of our political leaders to hold tenaciously to their side of the bargain. The first step in fulfilling our hopes for the coming years is a framework of understanding among the political opponents, government and the opposition, that the country's interest should get priority in all of their actions. This framework will be founded on mutual tolerance, respect and upholding rule of law above everything.
The biggest challenge of 2013 would be the willingness of our political leaders to get rid of this intransigence and let national interest override their personal pride and priorities. Wish of the people cannot be arrogated by one party at its will. Wish of the people is expressed only through unfettered democracy. And democracy is served when all parties agree to submit themselves to the will of the people. We hope we will avoid any political catastrophe that may sweep away 40 years of hard earned progress. We hope our future will not dangle between our people's hopes for development and the sad political reality that exists today.
Ziauddin Choudhury is a retired staff member of the World Bank.
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