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OP-ED: More elephants in the room

  • Published at 02:23 am January 27th, 2021
Global Knowledge Index 2020
Photo: UNDP

Bangladesh fares poorly in the Global Knowledge Index, but there is more than meets the eye

A recent finding by UNDP and the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Knowledge Foundation has raised a rather disconcerting concern for Bangladesh, as the Global Knowledge Index (GKI) for the year 2020 has revealed the country to be at the 112th position among 138 countries. 

The GKI initiative’s core objective is to outline a picture of where nations stand in the global race for creating a sharper and more “properly educated” population that would be subject to more intellectual sensitivity, innovation, and drives for consistent prosperity. It depends on some fluid parameters, which all in all, establish the “knowledge economy.” But what does the term knowledge economy actually mean?

The concept of the knowledge economy (or information economy, as termed by many experts) is more rhetorical than analytical. It can be perceived as a 20th-century phenomenon, where abundance and enrichment of knowledge are equivalent to the abundance of hard and solid wealth. This may sound impetuous at first, but it is, in fact, a by-product of an advanced economic measurement system, where possession and utilization of information act as the supreme catalyst for a social chain reaction. Globalization has already seen much sunlight coming out of presumptuous textbooks, and nations that are yet to align themselves with the altering currencies are already late.  

Knowledge economy stands on the pillars of the intangible asset -- intellect. This means, when a country has a more intellectual awakening and a better educated, trained, and efficient population, it has a better stance compared to another. The term human capital is often incorporated into discussions on the knowledge economy because humans’ inner abilities are the only tools here to change the equations. 

To compare to more generalized concepts, the knowledge economy can be seen as a hybrid model, where the capitalization and commercialization of academic scholarship, fuelled by a service-based market, has the potential to elevate a nation higher than the rest.

The capitalization of intellect can happen in many ways; for example, we are currently seeing the several countries prospering in the field of technology at an incredible pace. Such nations have taken science as their instrument for predomination, and hence, they are investing millions in their IT sectors, given the assurance that it will come back in billions in the near future. Such advanced integration of information is also seen in other industries like health care, education, engineering, and even in the fields of social and political sciences, like -- communication, international diplomacy, and gender and development sciences.

In a lesser-developed country, the national development majorly depends on the production and manufacturing skills of the population. Developing and developed countries rather depend on their manpower for processing and delivering. Seen in a cyclic order, the sequence continues to prevail, where the countries can barely break out and shift from being the producers to being the consumers. Yet, many countries have shown that it is possible to make this drastic leap, if only it has a consistent background process active, where the population is enlightening themselves with knowledge and information while steadily maintaining their contemporary roles. 

Bangladesh scored 39.5 on the GKI scale of 100, the lowest in South Asia, failing to impress all the parameters, holding the same position as the previous year. However, it needs to be comprehended that when all the other nations are going full-throttle, holding the same rank and not falling behind, it also deserves some applause. It is like a thin ray of hope for those who have the eyes to see.

On the precise scale of intellectual capital, Bangladesh has had many successes over the past year. Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was among the top 30 of this year’s Forbes list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women. Bangladeshi scientist Dr Golam Rasul has recently been chosen among the top 1,000 researchers in the field of environmental science and biology. Author Shaheen Akhtar won the Asian Literary Award 2020 for her novel Talaash, which revolves around the survivors of sexual violence during the Liberation War of Bangladesh. Eminent photojournalist Shahidul Alam came as one of the winners of the CPJ’s 2020 International Press Freedom Awards. The International Women of Courage (IWOC) awarded Bangladeshi lawyer Razia Sultana for her dedication to solving the Rohingya community’s legal issues. 

In the fields of information and technology -- Bangladeshi start-up Pathao was recognized for its potential by the Forbes 30 under 30 for Asia last year. The a2i project of the Bangladesh government won the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) Award 2019 for the brilliant invention of mobile-based age verification to prevent child-marriage. The recent commencement of Huawei’s targeted ICT development programs, alongside previous projects like Digital Bus and “Seeds for the Future,” also indicates the increasing interest of foreign companies to invest in the infrastructural growth of Bangladesh.

The unnerving criticisms regarding the slow momentum of growth, knowingly or unknowingly based on the concept of the knowledge economy, has perhaps been going on for years. Yet when the projections show that Bangladesh is set to attain soon a per capita GDP higher than its neighbouring country India, those with a neutral perspective surely agree that the race is far from being over. 

It needs to be remembered that it has only been 50 years since Bangladesh could enjoy solemn sovereignty. Hence, one needs to re-think whether GKI rank comparisons with countries that have a much more condensed and structured intellectual foundation would be appropriate or not. When one notices the mounting collaborations between the Bangladesh government and the foreign countries and companies, it helps a more realistic projection of the actual condition of the country’s possession of intellectual wealth, and thus, count the elephants in the room beyond scepticism.

Aumio Srizan Samya is Assistant Professor, Department of Women and Gender Studies, University of Dhaka.

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