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Dhaka Tribune

Why Bangladesh struggles to reap the benefits of demographic dividend

It's important to remember that the demographic dividend is a time-sensitive opportunity

Update : 29 Apr 2024, 09:34 AM

The demographic dividend, characterized by the economic advantage derived from a youthful population, persists as an elusive aspiration for Bangladesh. Despite boasting a demographic profile teeming with potential, the nation finds itself entangled in a complex web of challenges that hinder the full realization of this advantageous circumstance. Let’s dissect the diverse reasons underlying Bangladesh's struggle to utilize its demographic dividend to its fullest extent while exploring numerous avenues for advancement and progress simultaneously.

Demographic dividend refers to the economic growth potential that arises when a country's working-age population (typically 15-64 years) outnumbers its dependent population (under 15 and over 65). Bangladesh, with approximately 63% of its population below the age of 25, possesses a demographic structure conducive to reaping substantial benefits from this phenomenon.

According to the World Bank, Bangladesh recorded a labour force participation rate of 57.8% in 2020, suggesting a considerable portion of the working-age populace remains underutilized. The Global Gender Gap Report 2020 by the World Economic Forum positioned Bangladesh at the 50th spot out of 153 countries concerning gender equality, highlighting enduring disparities. Additionally, data from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) indicates that 24.3% of Bangladeshis still reside below the national poverty line, underscoring significant economic hurdles.

Currently, Bangladesh is confronted with significant obstacles that impede the full realization of its demographic dividend. One major hurdle is the quality of education. While enrollment rates have improved significantly, the education system grapples with issues of quality, resulting in a workforce ill-equipped to meet the demands of a rapidly evolving job market. Our current educational paradigm remains entrenched in theoretical knowledge rather than emphasizing its practical application, failing to stimulate creative thinking and effective decision-making abilities among students.

By addressing the underlying challenges and implementing targeted interventions, Bangladesh can pave the way for a more prosperous and inclusive future for its citizens

Adding to this problem is the significant disparity between academia and industry, which leaves university students unsure about their future opportunities after graduation. Many graduates lack proficiency in language, communication, and other soft skills crucial for today's workforce demands. Moreover, in the absence of a meaningful connection between academia and industry, we face the dual challenges of brain drain and brain waste. Consequently, Bangladesh's job market finds itself in a paradoxical state: A surplus of educated individuals coexists with a shortage of competent recruits, highlighting the urgent need for educational reform and closer industry-academia collaboration. 

Furthermore, the informal sector looms large, absorbing a substantial segment of the labour force. However, this sector is plagued by low productivity and insufficient wages, impeding the realization of strong economic growth required to capitalize on the demographic dividend to its fullest extent. Compounding this issue is the dearth of access to vital infrastructure, such as dependable energy and electricity and well-developed transportation networks. These inadequacies serve as formidable barriers to economic advancement and the proliferation of employment opportunities.

Healthcare deficiencies pose another significant challenge. Despite commendable progress in certain areas, such as reducing maternal and child mortality rates, Bangladesh continues to struggle with inadequate healthcare infrastructure and access to essential services. Poor health outcomes among the population diminish productivity and exacerbate economic vulnerabilities.

Moreover, gender disparities compound these challenges, as women encounter obstacles in accessing education, securing employment opportunities, and participating in decision-making roles. Despite notable advancements in certain domains, pervasive gender gaps endure, constraining the full extent of women's potential contributions to economic progress and overall development. Rectifying these disparities is imperative for unlocking the untapped talent and capabilities of women, thereby promoting more inclusive and sustainable economic growth.

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Tackling these difficult challenges demands a multidimensional strategy that incorporates wide-ranging initiatives. This includes substantial reforms in education, investments in infrastructure, significant enhancements in healthcare provisions, comprehensive measures to address gender inequality, and the implementation of policies geared towards encouraging both formal employment opportunities and entrepreneurship ventures. In particular, there is a pressing need to prioritize the enhancement of education quality and relevance, with a special focus on fields such as Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), as well as technical training programs. These efforts are essential for equipping the workforce with the necessary skills and competencies demanded by the contemporary economy.

Strategic investment in infrastructure stands as a linchpin for catalyzing economic growth and enticing investment opportunities. This encompasses a broad spectrum of crucial elements, ranging from bolstering energy infrastructure to enhancing transportation networks and ensuring strong digital connectivity. Such infrastructural advancements not only facilitate smoother business operations but also create an environment conducive to innovation and economic dynamism. By fortifying these vital pillars, Bangladesh can position itself as an attractive destination for both domestic and foreign investment, driving sustained economic expansion and prosperity.

The reinforcement of healthcare systems and the expansion of access to essential services represent pivotal endeavours with far-reaching implications. A durable healthcare infrastructure not only safeguards public health but also serves as a cornerstone for enhancing productivity and bolstering economic resilience. By ensuring widespread access to quality healthcare services, Bangladesh can mitigate the adverse impact of health-related challenges on workforce participation and overall economic performance. Prioritizing investments in healthcare is indispensable for nurturing a healthy and thriving population, laying the foundation for sustained prosperity and well-being.

Currently, Bangladesh is confronted with significant obstacles that impede the full realization of its demographic dividend

Promoting gender equality and women's empowerment is not just a matter of fairness; it is a crucial strategic imperative for unlocking the full potential of the country's workforce and ensuring sustainable economic growth. Through the implementation of targeted policies aimed at eliminating gender disparities in education, employment, and decision-making roles, the country can unleash the untapped talent and creativity of half its population. By providing equal access to education for all genders and dismantling barriers to women's participation in the workforce and leadership positions, we can cultivate a diverse and skilled workforce ready to meet the demands of a rapidly evolving economy. Empowering women economically not only improves their well-being but also promotes broader social and economic benefits, including poverty reduction, social stability, and sustainable development.

Bangladesh stands at a critical juncture, with the potential to utilize its demographic dividend for sustained economic growth and development. It's important to remember that the demographic dividend is a time-sensitive opportunity. In 2023, the proportion of working-age individuals in Bangladesh declined to 65.08% from 66.58% in 2021, as revealed by a survey conducted by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS). 

The preceding year saw this figure at 65.67%. Conversely, the dependency ratio for those over 65 rose to 9.4% in the same period, up from 8.6% in 2022 According to the initial findings, the proportion of individuals aged 20-24 decreased from 9.23% in 2011 to 9.08% in 2022, while those aged 25-29 saw a decline from 9.36% to 8.71%. The percentage of individuals aged 30-34 remained relatively stable, whereas the demographic trend indicated an aging population, evidenced by an increase in the proportion of individuals aged 35-39 from 6.63% to 7.7%. Similarly, the percentage of individuals aged 40-44 rose to 6.08% from 5.74%.

Some researchers have predicted that the demographic dividend could potentially conclude by 2040. Once this unique opportunity passes, there may be no chance to reclaim it, and what was once a demographic dividend could transform into a demographic burden. By addressing the underlying challenges and implementing targeted interventions, Bangladesh can pave the way for a more prosperous and inclusive future for its citizens. The time to act is now, to unlock the full potential of Bangladesh's demographic dividend and ensure a brighter tomorrow for generations to come.

HM Nazmul Alam is Lecturer at the Department of English and Modern Languages, International University of Business, Agriculture and Technology.

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