50 years of Bangladesh: ‘Basket case’ to ‘development miracle’

In recent years, Bangladesh’s success in maintaining high economic growth has drawn the attention of international agencies and the Western media. 

“The country is now being called by some as a ‘development miracle’ and by some others as a ‘paradox’ which refers to Bangladesh’s record of sustaining high economic growth despite deficits in good governance,” says Professor Rounaq Jahan, distinguished fellow of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD).

These brandings by western media, whether positive or negative, are usually based on a superficial understanding of the enormous changes that have taken place in Bangladesh over the course of the last 50 years, she further said on Monday while speaking at the inaugural session of a four-day virtual international conference. 

Organized by the CPD and co-sponsored by the South Asia Program of Cornell University, the “Fifty Years of Bangladesh: Retrospect and Prospect” conference aims to explore the country’s developments in different sectors — politics, economy, society, and culture.

Professor Jahan noted that the story of Bangladesh’s progress is generally being told from a quantitative perspective, for example, the upward or downward trends in life expectancy, mortality, fertility, school enrolment, labour force participation, poverty reduction, export earnings, forex reserves, GDP, and so on. 

“The numbers do indicate significant gains in social and economic development, but they do not adequately capture the depth of the changes that have taken place in peoples’ lives in the economy, politics, society, and culture of Bangladesh,” she explained

Bangladesh today is vastly different from what it was 50 years ago when it emerged as an independent state. 

“At her birth in 1971, many outside observers doubted the viability of the new state. Some called it ‘an international basket case.’ But through the hard struggle of the people to pull themselves up from poverty and by innovative actions unique to Bangladesh, we made steady progress in key indicators of human development during the first quarter century of our independence,” the CPD distinguished fellow added.

‘Promises kept and promises to keep’

In his keynote presentation, titled “Bangabandhu’s Vision for a Just Society: Promises Kept and Promises to Keep,” CPD Chairman Professor Rehman Sobhan, said: “At liberation, Bangladesh was well behind Pakistan in most areas of the macroeconomy, and had experienced levels of poverty and lower levels of human development in such areas as education and healthcare. 

“Over the course of the next 50 years, Bangladesh has moved well ahead of Pakistan in most such areas, particularly in the last 25 years and more so in the last 10 years,” he added. 

Higher rates of growth have moved Bangladesh’s per capita income, which was 61% below that of Pakistan in 1972, to exceed Pakistan’s per capita income in 2020 by 62%, he said. 

“Such rapid rates of growth have been realized through Bangladesh’s higher rates of savings and investment as well as its higher level of exports, which were all well behind those of Pakistan’s in 1972. As a result, today, Bangladesh’s foreign exchange reserves are more than double those of Pakistan while our external debt-GDP ratio is half that of Pakistan,” Professor Sobhan added. 

He also said that Bangladesh is no longer an aid-dependent country as the aid-GDP ratio is now around 2%, whereas Pakistan has required periodic bailouts from the international community. 

Bangladesh’s infrastructure development, which lagged far behind that of Pakistan in 1972 has also moved ahead in such areas as power generation, where our capacity, which rapidly expanded in the last 10 years, is nearly double that of Pakistan.

“All these indicators of Bangladesh’s progress, compared to Pakistan, have served to validate Bangabandhu’s vision that an independent Bangladesh, in full command of its own destiny, would be able to move ahead more rapidly than under the dominance of Pakistan. In the course of these 50 years, Bangladesh’s progress may have exceeded Bangabandhu’s expectations,” he said. 

Professor Sobhan also said that Bangladesh’s progress is not merely measurable in statistical terms, but has manifested in the major structural changes in the economy and social transformation which have taken place as a result of liberation. 

“Bangladesh has transformed itself from a largely agrarian society, exclusively dependent on growing paddy for subsistence and jute as a cash crop, where agriculture was the principal source of both GDP and household income,” he noted. 

But today, the GDP contribution of industry exceeds that of agriculture, and even in the rural areas, more than 50% of household income derives from non-farm sources. 

Exports, now largely dependent on manufacture of RMG, rather than jute products, have grown exponentially while remittance from overseas migrants have emerged as our largest foreign exchange earner which has strengthened our balance of payments, he further said.

Segueing from the dreams fulfilled to the promises to keep, he argued that while Bangladesh’s economy has registered impressive growth and poverty has been reduced, income inequalities and social disparities have widened. 

“This represents an unjust distribution of the gains from our development and an inadequate recognition, in terms of policies and public support, of the larger constituency of social forces which have also driven our progress,” Sobhan explained.

This widening of social disparities owes not just to policy and allocative deficiencies but to unjust governance in various spheres, where laws already enacted are not decisively acted upon, policies are not fully implemented and regulations are weakly enforced, he added. 

“Such deficiencies in governance originate both in the incapacity of the government to discharge its commitments and in the emerging political economy where an increasingly powerful business elite, patronized by the state, is empowered to influence policies and public action,” he also said.

The CPD chairman concluded by suggesting that much can be done towards bringing greater justice to the governance process if the ruling regime remains committed to realizing Bangabandhu’s vision of a just society. 

In response to a question about the problems in the transport sector, Professor Rehman Sobhan said: “Part of the problem is that it is one of the sectors that is categorised as ‘regulatory failure.’ There is existing difficulty in addressing both the owners as well as the unions in the sector who have gained enormous power and influence, enough to bring the country to a standstill. Unless that problem is solved, it will be difficult to turn back from the existing issues.”

Objectives of the conference

Professor Rounaq Jahan said CPD has planned the conference with several objectives in mind, including telling the story of Bangladesh’s developments not in fragments, in terms of only gains made in indicators of social and economic development. 

“We think limiting ourselves to the discourse of only ‘development,’ which has dominated the attention of our academia and the media in recent years, constrains our vision,” she said.

The conference also wants to tell the story of Bangladesh not simply through presentations of quantitative data, but to supplement it with critical analysis of processes, actors and actions which have resulted in the changes in quantitative numbers. 

Third, they want to discuss not simply the achievements, but also note shortfalls and mistakes so that the country can learn lessons from them for course correction in the future. 

“Most importantly, we want to identify the challenges that lie ahead, particularly in the post-Covid-19 changing world order when competition for survival and domination will be more intense,” Jahan said.

She added that through the conference, the organizers want to challenge established wisdom, analytical framework and easy branding that have been used for a long time to craft the narrative of Bangladesh. 

“The paper writers and discussants have been encouraged to feel free to propose new theories and analytical frameworks based on Bangladesh’s own experience and not try to ‘fit’ the Bangladesh story to established theories based on the experiences of other countries,” she said. 

For example, discussants have been asked to ponder whether Bangladesh is really a “paradox” or have there really been sharp divides in policies with regime changes or have there been a gradual shift in policies over different regimes or have there been some continuing trends over the last 50 years.

Moreover, by bringing together scholars — based in Bangladesh or outside Bangladesh, Bangladeshis as well as non-Bangladeshis — the conference looks to take stock of the state of scholarship on Bangladesh in different fields, and identify gaps in research. 

“Finally, we envision an edited conference volume which can serve as a standard text or reference book in colleges and universities around the world,” Professor Jahan added. 

At present only a few universities outside Bangladesh offer courses on Bangladesh and Bangladesh generally does not feature in courses on South Asia. 

Absence of standard reference books is often cited as an excuse for non-representation of Bangladesh in South Asia courses and programs in universities outside Bangladesh, she said, adding: “I feel strongly that this gap needs to be filled urgently and I hope the proposed conference volume will serve to fill this gap. 

CPD Executive Director Fahmida Khatun, while speaking at the session, said the conference is the continuation of CPD’s broad work agenda. 

“Over the last 28 years, CPD has closely examined the socio-economic development of Bangladesh, made rigorous analysis through evidence and data, and engaged in policy influencing through dissemination of the findings across broader stakeholders including the policymakers,” she explained.

The desire to organize this international conference originates from the goal of servicing the growing aspiration of the Bangladeshi civil society for a demand-driven and accountable development process by stimulating informed debate, generating knowledge and influencing policymakers through research, dialogue, outreach and advocacy, the CPD executive director further said.

Professor Iftikhar Dadi, director of the South Asia Program at Cornell University, also spoke at the session.

The conference is bringing together 47 participants from different countries, and 20 papers will be presented in eight different sessions.

The event will draw upon specially commissioned papers, covering a broad spectrum of issues addressing the qualitative dimensions of development and change as well as explore the processes which have produced these changes.

Themes of the conference will be presented through the other seven sessions: State, Society, Politics; Bangladesh’s Economic Transformation; Towards a Just Society; Social Transitions; Culture; Costs and Challenges of Development, and Bangladesh in a Changing World Order, in the upcoming days.

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