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Dhaka Tribune

Bangladesh at 50: Looking forward, calmly

Building institutions is the key to sustaining economic progress and simultaneously creating a social fabric where there is fairness

Update : 31 Jan 2021, 10:21 PM

On the 26th of March this year, Bangladesh will complete its 50th year of independence. 

And if some of us are lucky, we might even have the fortune to see Bangladesh at 100. But, how will that future exactly look like? 

More importantly, how should that future look like? What kind of society and nation-state do we want our country to harness as it matures over time? Do we have a consensus concerning what our collective future should be?

As our history has unfolded over the last five decades, Bangladesh has defied the expectations of sceptical development and political pundits, who expected nothing much from a newly found war-ravaged nation-state that was cramped with seventy-five million people in a disaster-prone delta with almost no natural resources. 

And while we might think that what has been attained over the last five decades was our destiny, it is certainly not true. 

History has walked down a very specific path for us to stand on the existing pedestal and there is nothing preordained about it. 

The present state that we currently experience is one of the many possibilities that this nation-state could have attained. 

Bangladesh could have easily been a contested land between India and Pakistan -- turning this region into a second Kashmir -- if our War of Independence had taken a few wrong turns. 

Furthermore, even if we had achieved our independence, there was no guarantee that Bangladesh would emerge into a nation-state that would be viewed by the global actors as a hub for economic growth and social transformation. 

That is why -- while we could speculate about all the missed possibilities that would have taken our nation to better pedestal -- things could have easily gone South. 

This region, after all, had all the potential to become a deprivation-prone horizon infested with radicalization and extreme political turbulence.   

As a result, the fact that Bangladesh today carries a positive story -- one where our economic rise and social improvements have made the pundits of development coin the phrase the “Bangladesh miracle” -- should inspire us to think and seriously reflect on how do we want the second half of the century to look like. 

So, what is the best path forward for a nation that was conceived to deliver social, economic and political justice to its citizens? 

As we presently stand, Bangladesh’s per capita income crossed the $2,000 threshold in 2020, and the economy is expected to become the 25th largest in the world by 2035. 

On social indicators like life expectancy, infant mortality, child immunisation, female literacy, access to improved sanitation, and total fertility rate -- Bangladesh has outshined its larger South Asian neighbours like India and Pakistan. 

Perhaps the most notable indicator of human development in Bangladesh has been life expectancy. 

In 1971, when Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation -- an average Bangladeshi expected to live for only 46.5 years, which was two years lower than the life expectancy of an Indian. 

But by 2018, an average Bangladeshi expected to live 72 years, which is two years higher than that of an Indian.

Bangladesh has also quietly carved out, especially over the last 12 years, a win-win geopolitical relationship with the competing global actors like China, India, Japan and Russia -- and has also strengthened its position as a political entity that is praised in the global platforms for its commitments to peace and stability in the region.     

Hence, given our present socio-economic status, what can be a pragmatic way forward from here on? 

How can we sustain the economic progress that helps us to deliver not only an economically affluent nation-state but also a polity that is committed to its founding ideals of economic justice and liberty? 

As the history of most nations has demonstrated – sustaining economic progress and simultaneously creating a social fabric where there is fairness is not an easy affair. 

The countries that have achieved success along these lines are the ones that have prioritised “building their institutions” seriously, but what kind of objectives should be kept in mind before the policymakers carve out an exact pathway for institutional reforms? 

Are some institutional reforms more important for long-run peace and prosperity than others? 

A 40,000-feet view of the long arc of history of nation-states provides some clues: the institutional reforms that have generally coexisted with long-run economic and political transformation of countries are the ones that inject meritocracy in the state machinery, enhance its capacity to mobilise resources and offer decent public goods, establish property rights,   promote both economic and political competition; protect the rights associated with its citizenship -- and treat its people by the dictum of the law and not based on their religion or ethnicity nor the basis of their economic or political class. 

Long-run development, in the end, has required meticulous experimentation with the institutions to attain these broad objectives -- especially within a political process that values both economic progress and political modernisation.  

Consequently, if we are serious enough to dream that the next five decades will be equally consequential, transformative and beneficial for Bangladesh, then we need a thoughtful forward-looking conversation on how best we can identify, create and sustain institutions that are often viewed as “sine qua non” for long-run economic progress and political modernity.    


Ashikur Rahman is a senior economist at the Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh

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