Bangladesh achieved an impressive economic growth rate of 5.57 to 8.15 per cent during the fiscal years 2009-10 to 2018-19. In the last fiscal year 2019-20, despite being struck by the coronavirus pandemic, the economy witnessed a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate of 5.24 per cent (provisional estimate). Since the population growth rate remained low (around 1.0 per cent per annum in the past decade), per capita GDP also increased significantly during this time. Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) provisionally estimates it to be US$ 1970 in the fiscal year 2019-20, which is very close to India's per capita GDP and higher than that of Pakistan. However, in purchasing power parity terms, Bangladesh's GDP is still far behind India and almost equal to Pakistan (according to the World Bank).With the pace of GDP growth, the rate of poverty declined dramatically from 40 per cent to 24.3 per cent from 2005 to 2016. This is an example of the country's remarkable progress in fighting hunger and poverty. Besides government efforts, the progress in poverty eradication can be attributed to the work of local and international NGOs, who have heavily focused on rural development.
Bangladesh has experienced significant achievements in multiple social indicators as well. For example, according to World Bank data, Bangladesh was at the top among South Asian countries in reducing the under-five mortality rate, bringing it down by 79 per cent in the last 30 years, only second to the Maldives (91 per cent). Further, World Bank data suggest that life expectancy at birth in Bangladesh was 72.3 years in 2018, three and five years longer than those of India and Pakistan, respectively. The transformation of Bangladesh in other dimensions of human development-for example, immunisation, fertility, access to sanitation, and gender parity-also deserves acclaim. Bangladesh has made considerable gains in adult literacy rate, net enrolment rate, and gender parity in primary and secondary education. Improvements in these social outcomes have helped Bangladesh climb up the Human Development Index ranking, 133rd among 189 countries in2019-only two spots behind India and 9 and 21 spots ahead of Nepal and Pakistan, respectively.
However, poor quality of education remains a significant challenge for our country. According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics, around 58 per cent of 10-year-old Bangladeshi children were found incapable of reading or understanding a simple text by the end of their primary school. For India and Sri Lanka, the corresponding proportions are 55 per cent and 15 per cent respectively. Bangladesh has ranked 112th out of 138 countries in the Global Knowledge Index 2020, the lowest among South Asian countries. This indicates that Bangladesh needs overall improvement in the seven broad areas which the index measures-pre-university education, technical and vocational education and training, higher education, research, development and innovation, information and communications technology, economy, and the general enabling environment. It is worth noting that fifteen Indian and four Pakistani universities made their place among the top 800 in the QS World University Rankings 2020, but not a single Bangladeshi university can be found on that list.
The dismal quality of education in Bangladesh is probably not surprising as our government expenditure on education, as a share of GDP, is the lowest among all South Asian countries (Figure 1). As per UNESCO recommendations, Bangladesh should allocate at least 4-6 per cent of its GDP for the education sector, but its share remains at about 2 per cent. Bangladesh has thus a long way to go to achieve the target. While there are many other reasons for the poor quality of education in Bangladesh, national investment in education is undoubtedly a critical enabler in improving the quality.
The healthcare sector is also not in keeping with the rapid economic growth. Shortage of medical equipment and staff, high out-of-pocket payments, and poor service have plagued the healthcare system in Bangladesh. The inadequacy of government expenditure on healthcare is astronomical. According to World Bank data, per capita government expenditure in the health sector in 2018 was USD 256 in Bhutan, USD 63 in Pakistan, USD 74 in India, USD 212 in Sri Lanka, and USD 1019 in the Maldives based on purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rate whereas the Bangladesh government spent only about USD 19 per capita. There were only 5.8 doctors for every 10,000 patients in Bangladesh whereas, in India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, there were 8.57, 9.80, and 10.04 doctors per 10,000 patients respectively (World Development Indicators, 2018). It thus appears that Bangladesh should also increase budgetary allocation for the health sector.
Despite great strides on the economic front, Bangladesh is still lagging in making the economy inclusive and increasing public investment in priority sectors such as health and education. Investment in these sectors plays a significant role in improving the quality and productivity of the human capital of a country, resulting in more sustainable economic growth.
Low investment in the critical areas of education and health is possibly a result of poor fiscal management and inefficient resource allocation. Comparable data from the World Bank show tax-GDP ratio in Bangladesh was 8.8 per cent in 2016 whereas in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal the proportions were 11.1 per cent, 12.2 per cent and 18.7 per cent, respectively. It is thus imperative for the government to find ways to increase tax revenue and at the same time devise innovative plans to allocate more resources in these two critical sectors as they are prerequisites for long-term inclusive development.
Dr Narayan Das, Associate Professor, BIGD, Brac University. [email protected]
Farzin Mumtahena, Undergraduate Student, Dept. of Economics, University of Dhaka.