By all accounts Bangladesh has done exceptionally well over the past two decades. This is true for both economic and social progress, where the internationally accepted indicators have placed Bangladesh in the forefront of nations in the developing world in terms of reducing deep poverty and improving the lives of tens of millions of its citizens. This is also true for its positive impact on women, particularly in terms of education for girls, women's employment, and improving the quality of their lives.
Bangladesh is a relatively young nation - not quite 50 years old. The country has emerged from the shadows of abject poverty and famines to a nation where rapid and sustained economic growth has benefitted a broad swath of the society, moving tens of millions out of extreme poverty to the lower middle class over the past 20 years. No, the economy of Bangladesh has not yet replicated the double-digit growth attained by China in its early years of growth spurt. But it has done sufficiently well so that the economic and social development in Bangladesh can be described as somewhat of a "miracle." This sterling performance has definitely proved Mr. Henry Kissinger and other pessimists wrong, and has brought a smile to those who had believed in the potential and promise of this young nation.
The case for the future development of Bangladesh is strong. Bangladesh still faces challenges and threats both internally and externally, but overall the outlook remains very optimistic. The people of Bangladesh have demonstrated many times their ability to work hard, and be resilient in the face of numerous threats and challenges, including severe natural disasters.
The secret behind the success of Bangladesh is its people. This includes the entrepreneurs and the millions of women who left their village homes to work in the ready-made garments (RMG) factories and the non-governmental organisation (NGO) leaders such as BRAC and Grameen Bank, and millions of citizens they serve each day. There are the farmers and the millions of hardworking Bangladeshis overseas who send their incomes each month to their families, and of course those in public sector, the government (and in the opposition) who love their country.
Over the past 48 years, Bangladeshis, across the income and wealth spectrum, have demonstrated incredible resilience, grit, courage, ambition, and love for their country. They have overcome a brutal war of independence and mass exodus, as well as natural disasters, and a great many challenges. Yet they remain a hopeful and optimistic people. There is much to celebrate about this nation of 165 million people, where nearly 50 per cent of the population is under the age of 24 years. In recent years, gross domestic product (GDP) growth was as high as 7.9 per cent, powered by RMG exports (which have reached nearly $35 billion annually) has pushed the economy upwards from the least developed country (LDC) status to the lower middle-income status (2015)…Extreme poverty (below $1.90 a day) has been reduced from 44 per cent in 1991 to under 10 per cent in 2018.
As this success is celebrated, scholars and citizens should be obligated to ask the policymakers and politicians in the government the toughest questions. The top five questions may include the following:
Of course, this is not a comprehensive list of challenges. Extremely high and ever increasing inequalities in income and wealth distribution, and the negative impact of catastrophic climate change remain major concerns. These issues need to be addressed before it is too late.
But these questions can provide some food for thought as future decisions are taken to strengthen social and economic progress on the path to becoming a more prosperous and democratic nation. The people of Bangladesh along with those in leadership in the government, the opposition, the private sector, and the dynamic expatriate community, should work together to build a Bangladesh that the founding father and the freedom fighters had fought for.
This article draws from the author's welcome remarks at the recently concluded International Conference on Bangladesh organised by Bangladesh Development Initiative (BDI) at the Yale campus, in association with the Yale MacMillan Centre.
Dr. Munir Quddus is a Professor of Economics and Dean of the College of Business at Prairie View A&M University near Houston, Texas.
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