Bangladesh celebrated its 50 years of independence last year, the Golden Jubilee of the emergence of the country as an independent and sovereign nation. From the so-called basket case to a fastest growing economy, the 50 years journey of Bangladesh is not only remarkable but also astonishing to some extent. The nine month long bloody war in 1971 witnessed massacre of 30 million people and destruction of almost all physical infrastructures. When the final victory was declared on December 16, 1971, following the surrender of Pakistani forces, the leaders of the country had received a war-ravaged country with tiny resources and over 75 million poor people mostly malnourished. For many international experts, the newly emerged country brought no hope.
Fast forward to 2021 and Bangladesh becomes the second largest exporter of clothing globally. The country is also set to be graduated from the United Nations designated Least Developed Country (LDC) category. The country's per capita income reached at US$2,227, higher than India's $1,947. The list of bright spots is long and alluring. What drove the resource-constrained country to arrive at this point of accelerated development? Several factors have advanced the continuous journey of five decades. Three senior economists of the country have tried to identify the factors along with the achievements in the last 50 years. The outcome of their exercise is a 300-plus page book in Bengali. Titled as Bangladesher Orthanaitik Unnayaner Goatidhara: Subarnajayantite Firay Dekha, the book sheds lights on the movements and trends of the country's economic development in the last 50 years. The authors of the book are: Rushidan Islam Rahman, Rizwanul Islam and Quazi Shahabuddin. The first and the third served Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) for long in various capacities. The second worked for International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Geneva for long. They are, however, well known for their works on labour, employment, agriculture and some other areas of development.
The authors choose the time of the Golden Jubilee of the Independence to briefly revisit the economic policies and performance because they feel that it is necessary not only to become proud of the success stories but also to find the future guidelines. They find that the economy as well as overall development of the country have gained a pace at the beginning of the '90s after overcoming the sluggish trend in the first two decades after the independence. They observe that public investment and policies played critical roles during the last three decades along with pro-development activities of the Non-Government Organisations (NGOs). "But the willingness of the country's ordinary people to participate in the development process played a central role. They have expressed eagerness to improve their socio-economic conditions. For example, apparently who were considered marginalised and relied on fate has come ahead by fighting against natural adversity and disaster. Besides youths, elderly people are also ready to work hard for betterment of their families... Those who were narrowminded and accompanied by various taboos due to lack of education, have also changed their mental makeup. The changes are now visible in many places and many forms" (P-2). The three authors argue that a large number of inspired people of the country are the real force of the development. "This force helped the country to move ahead and in the future it will be necessary to reawaken the force," (P-2), they add.
The three economists agree that persistent growth of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) with occasional fluctuations is a big achievement thanks to three core drivers of growth-- agriculture, industry and remittance. They assert that Bangladesh has successfully proved the labelling 'basket case' and 'test case of development' false. They, at the same time, outline future challenges to sustain the current growth trend. These include: adequate revenue mobilisation, increase in private investment and attracting more foreign direct investment. The Covid-19 came as a big blow to Bangladesh economy which is also a lesson, argue the authors adding that the reaching the milestones set for 2031 and 2041 will largely depend on the recovery from the pandemic. (P-52)
A small chapter of the book discusses the progress of Bangladesh in the global context which is written by Dr Rizwanul Islam who analyses the use of surplus labour in dual economy. His finding is that Bangladesh along with other countries in South Asia fall behind East and Southeast Asia (P-75). Though discussed briefly, it is an interesting thing to follow. Again, he applies his expertises on job market and labour dynamics to analyse the unemployment problem.
While focusing on poverty reduction, Dr Rushidan Islam Rahman argues that income disparity needs to be discussed simultaneously. In her discussion she succinctly presents the rise in inequality or disparity which is also reflected in the reduction of real wage. She, inferring from relevant statistics, finds that there is a sluggish trend in the growth of employment generation in the recent years as well decline in real wages along with real incomes from nominal wages. To understand the depth of poverty, the author tries to discuss benchmarks and indicators beyond the traditional poverty line approach which will draw attention of curious readers.
A significant achievement of the country's 50 years of development journey is ensuring the food security which is high lighted by Dr Quazi Shahabuddin who also served as Director General of BIDS. He shows that Bangladesh has achieved a larger success in ensuring food security by expanding the food safety net thanks to big increase in production of food grains, especially rice coupled with strengthening the public food distribution system (P-169). At the same time, downside is the malnutrition which is still a big challenge for the country. The author also makes a note of caution that food security in near future may come under threat due to negative impact of climate vulnerability.
The book is divided into 10 chapters, including context and summary conclusions, where the authors also discuss industrialisation and services sectors, advancement in agriculture, and economic empowerment of women. Discussions in all the core eight chapters are adequately substantiated by relevant statistical charts, tables and graphs. The authors also try to outline future challenges the country is facing and their efforts are commendable although some may expect more in-depth discussion in some areas. The book will serve not only researchers and policymakers but also students and teachers and those who want to understand the commendable transformation of Bangladesh economy in the last five decades.