It is high time our thinking went beyond economic growth, towards a more equitable society
The upcoming parliamentary election in Bangladesh is crucial for various reasons. The development agenda of the Awami League stands in direct contrast with its rival BNP, a party currently operating under the umbrella of the Jatiya Oikya Front.
While AL seeks votes to ensure continuity in development, the people of this country claim the right to vote in free, fair, inclusive, participatory, and credible elections -- something which circumstances denied the electorate in 2014.
Prior to being jailed, BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia announced her party’s “Vision 2030” -- kickstarting a campaign to unify oppositional groups with the promise of bringing a greater power balance between constitutional positions, prioritizing the rule of law and instilling democratic principles in our developmental journey.
A combination of false promises along with unfinished undertakings make it difficult for citizens in this country to debunk which side of the aisle seems more credible -- thereby resulting in emotion-based political leanings in this country.
Contentious issues remain -- the eligibility of Khaleda Zia to run in the elections or whether the cabinet will be re-structured in consultation with political parties, are just some of the major concerns for stakeholders.
Nevertheless, Bangladesh is undoubtedly entrapped in an electoral atmosphere -- the idea of development versus democracy has taken precedence in discussions surrounding the elections.
Does development entail democracy? Is continuity of a certain political party a mandatory pre-requisite to achieving economic development? These are questions to which the answers are complex.
The ruling party often points to increasing real GDP figures as a key indicator of economic development. However, it is important to ascertain that an increase in real GDP is defined as economic growth and not economic development.
While economic growth encompasses an important facet of development, it is surely not the singular consideration for the state when it comes to achieving socio-economic progress. Having said THAT, Bangladesh has broadly witnessed real GDP increases at an increasing rate ever since its inception.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman inherited a war-torn society, and acquiring results during this short period in office was difficult. The quasi-military regimes of both Zia and Ershad transitioned Bangladesh towards a more liberalized economic order -- both Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina-led governments subsequent to the restoration of democracy in 1991 have continued a mechanism to invest in the country’s socio-economic capacity and become an export-oriented society.
Irrespective of which government came to power in the last four decades, Bangladesh has undeniably witnessed relative increases in real GDP figures across all regimes.
Some may suggest that continuity is important. This is true to a large extent. When it comes to the completion of existing mega projects or restructuring public discourse, a new political regime with differing ideologies, may tend to break away from older policies.
This can, in theory, create room for complacency and delays in project completion. Nevertheless, if we look at the statistics, we see that the change in average real GDP from the previous regime has largely remained in the vicinity of (-) 1 to (+) 1 percentage points since Ershad seized power from the previous BNP administration (barring a two-year spell of the care-taker government) -- as is seen in developing countries, the capacity to grow as an economy allows political administrations to oversee economic growth with specific policy plans and the impact of the private sector.
The AL government has moved the country towards achieving real GDP figures of over 7% -- the growth in nominal statistics is to be expected to continue, whichever administration comes to power, following the next elections.
The current government must also be given its due credit for initiating a process of sectoral diversification -- from initiating the digitalization of the socio-economy to investing in electricity generation, Sheikh Hasina must be applauded for allowing progress in untapped markets to flourish.
The numbers show that a platform for long-term economic growth has been institutionalized in a manner that whichever political party comes to power, our holistic economic growth should continue -- now whether this development will be sustainable or equitable will depend on how public figures devise policies.
A liberalized democratic order acquiesced in the idea of development, must also consider broader social factors such as the rule of law, the freedom of the media and the protection of democratic norms.
Figures 1 do not tell us a complete picture of development -- Zia and Ershad governments were inherently undemocratic, sometimes due to circumstances, other times, due to force. As President Zia liberalized Bangladesh’s economy, he did so at the cost of “compromise politics” -- effects of which have had a lasting effect on our society.
And yes, the argument that General Ershad boosted the country’s infrastructure network remains true, yet the other side of his story is of several blatant violations of constitutional norms. The tale of both Begum Zia and Sheikh Hasina is similar as well -- successes on the economic front, but questionable records when it comes to ensuring the rule of law and protecting democratic norms.
The idea that economic growth entails political success is inaccurate -- economic growth in addition to other issues of health care, education, and protecting fundamental rights, are critical when defining development. And this is something voters should be aware of.
It is worthwhile also mentioning that the real GDP of an economy entails four specific variables adjusted for inflation -- consumption, investment, government spending, and net exports. Increasing exports and investment booms have kept our economy going forward -- as we move towards middle-income status, Bangladesh must ensure higher levels of government spending in education and health care.
Otherwise, the benefits of economic growth will garner net positive effects only for those in the higher stratum of society. One hopes that whichever party forms the government in 2019, they do so with a clear-cut focus on stimulating education and health sectors of our country.
Continuity may ensure the stability of the economic system for the short run -- however, long-run implications such as the business cycle indicate that the economy will continue to operate on its own merit.
Thereby, as voters, we need to ask ourselves who will ensure economic growth, in addition to guaranteeing those freedoms given to us by the constitution.
Therefore, it is high time that politicians promote the idea of an equitable society, considering factors above and beyond increasing the growth of real incomes, and focus on what Amartya Sen has called “development as freedom.”
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a recent graduate of arts, economics, and international relations from the University of Toronto.