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Can we be winners?

  • Published at 05:04 pm April 7th, 2017
Can we be winners?

It was merely out of curiosity that I was seeking updated news on the demographic transition in Bangladesh using one of the most popular search engines.

I found a dubious feature titled, “Bangladesh’s Olympics Shame,” which was published in The Wire (claiming itself to be a non-profit).

The Bangladeshi author ruthlessly criticised the performance of the athletes from Bangladesh participating in the Rio Olympics held in 2016.

She successfully identified Bangladeshi athletes globally and threw the fireball to the cultural and technical limitations.

Most importantly, she mentioned the demographic transition in Bangladesh and put forward the judgemental proposition that, despite having a large youth population, it is a shame that we have failed to win any Olympic medal.

My intention is not to criticise her well-written piece.

Rather, I am tempted to elaborate a bit on the very point of demographic transition and human capital formation in Bangladesh.

First, let us take a look at our population. According to the World Population Prospects 2016, the total population of Bangladesh is about 162,910,864.

The report suggests that Bangladesh has an annual population increase rate of about 1.2%, the fertility ratio is 2.2 children per woman, the under-five mortality ratio is 41 children per 1,000 live births, about 29% of the population is below the age of 15, and life expectancy is 71 years.

Before realising Bangladesh’s status in demographic transition, let us be clear about the concept of demographic transition.

Demographic transition is the process by which a country begins with roughly equally high mortality and fertility rates, and in time, through the transition, reaches a status where both mortality and fertility rates are low and equal.

Looking at the data from Bangladesh, it is clear that we are still struggling at the beginning of the demographic transition.

Looking at the data from Bangladesh, it is clear that we are still struggling at the beginning of the demographic transition

There are odds associated with the status of our country’s demography but there are comparative advantages as well.

The negative sides include the scarcity of food and resources, high population density, increased demand for public services, occasional domestic conflicts etc.

On the other hand, the incredibly large number of young cohorts in the population structure is the trump card for Bangladesh. As more people join the workforce, it is evident that the demographic dividend will consequently translate into increasing economic growth for the country.

Given the fact that Bangladesh has a balanced sex ratio compared to its closest neighbour India, which is currently struggling with a skewed sex ratio, we should utilise the untapped potential of the female labour force.

According to UN data, till 2014, women’s participation in the labour force has been about 43% which can be interpreted in two ways.

First, women are in the labour force sector but unrecognised, and the second is there is a lack of employment opportunities for women.

Ensuring women’s effective participation in the labour force demands for an attention to reduce fertility ratio, focus on women’s education, and supportive infrastructure like affordable childcare.

Reducing fertility means the average number of births per woman will decrease which means women will spend less time in reproductive labour and more time in productive labour.

In the aggregate level, this will result in increased output and per capita income.

Also, the country will have skilled human capital.

Now, at the beginning of this article, I drew reference to a news feature.

I now wish to respond to the author’s ruthless criticism of the failure of Bangladesh in developing world-class athletes and connect it to my discussion of the human capital formulation.

To seek the root cause, I look at our history. Until the mid-19th century, the mortality ratio in South Asia was significantly high as we did not have a improved health care system.

Since then, the South Asian countries quickly picked up the vaccination and modern medical technologies mostly invented in Western countries.

This has reduced the mortality rate in many developing countries but the under-five mortality ratio in Bangladesh depicts that we are yet to improve the scenario.

We are at a crucial juncture, where we need to focus on building human capital.

The reduced number of births will allow the parents to invest more in their children leading to better education, better health care, and more attention .

These children will form the educated skilled labour force of the country. The average working age will increase, the country will have more GNI and growth. The bulk population will turn into potential human capital.

Further steps may include more investment in different sectors like sports or other technical skills. Not to disappoint the author of the feature, but we will have many world-class athletes.

We need to take the comparative advantage of our current population structure as well as concentrate on reducing fertility in order to gain sustainable growth and build human capital.

There are roadblocks on our way to success, such as the incapability of our government to introduce a strict policy to control fertility due to the democratic nature and the desire of controlling the vote banks, strong religious bias, the continuous brain drain from our country, lack of measures to expand contraceptive usage etc.

It is comparatively easy to blame the culture and social institutions of a country for not winning any medal in the Olympics, but underlying this simplistic accusation, are deep problems.

We need to focus on the tremendous achievements that Bangladesh made in the past couple of decades, and apply our learning in effective ways to ensure a sustainable future.

I believe we are waiting for a future where search engines will generate positive results instead of something like “Bangladesh’s Olympics Shame.” 

Ishret Binte Wahid is a freelance contributor.