How much difference can a year make? Not much really. Perhaps it is incremental only when some economic indices fluctuate either up or down in a country. Yet, prospects of growth look different from the beginning of 2015 to the start of 2016. There is much expectation by the government that an upward trend in growth indices is likely to continue. But people hope that growth this year will be robust if enabling policies are put in place.
Just the other day, Win/Gallup international, the world’s leading association in market research and polling, published the end of 2015 survey. A whopping 84 percent of Bangladeshis polled there said that 2016 would be a better year than 2015. Of this, 72 percent of the respondents said that they were optimistic about the country’s economy. In fact, this hope was 72 percent higher than the hopes of other nations in the world.
A striking coincidence in Bangladesh is that our Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has expressed her optimism about the future prospects of the country’s economy as well. This is in spite of the political difficulties with opposition parties and their various programmes. She is sure that those opposing her (read the BNP and the Jamaat) will not be able to prevail. In fact, some of the economic figures presented to the nation bear this out. In her recent address to the nation, marking the return of Bangabandhu in 1972 after his incarceration in Pakistan, she outlined among other facts that the country now ranks 45th, among countries of the world, in GDP size. Our per capita income is $1314, which was only $543 in 2006. The poverty rate has fallen from 41.5 percent to 23.4 percent. Out of a population of 16 crores, about 5 crore people are now in the middle class. Extreme poverty is now only 7.5 percent, falling from 24.2 percent in 2006. Power generation today in Bangladesh is 14000+MW from 3000+MW in 2009. Life expectancy is now 71 years from 66.5 years in 2006. All these speak volumes.
Last year, the World Bank categorically said that Bangladesh was no longer one of the few Least Developed Countries (LDC) of the world. It has moved to the next higher level and is now a low middle income country. This is on the basis of its per capita income per year. The Prime Minister herself quickly predicted that Bangladesh by 2021 would graduate to a middle income country with $4000+ per capita income. By 2041, the country will hopefully be a developed one. This is a ringing prediction that would belie all doomsayers about Bangladesh. Thus, in 2041, 70 years after the birth of the country in 1971, the country is likely to climb to the pinnacle of growth and development. In fact, none of Bangladesh’s neighbours like India, Pakistan and even Sri Lanka is destined to be a developed country in such a short span of time.
So what remarkable things are happening in Bangladesh now or are likely to happen in future that enables the Prime Minister to make such a bold prediction? In fact, certain obvious advantages have routinely been accepted here as the norm. Take the matter of the three great resources that this country posses. First is the huge population. Crammed in a country the size of England and Wales, it has a unique history of a united struggle for independence. The common dream was not only for political freedom but also freedom from want and poverty, which has spurred this growing population to greater heights. The country has pulled its 160 million people now by its boot strap.
Over the past thirty years, it has sent over 10 million people overseas to help feed its huge population. Inside the country, the remaining population has been working diligently on its extremely productive soil to grow three crops every year on each piece of land. The land itself is irrigated by three river systems with innumerable sweet water streams, and the monsoon floods. The fecundity of the land is proverbial. People have worked laboriously, using the power of their innovation and quick adaptation. Bangladeshis have spun out so much from so little. Now that Bangladesh has a huge pool of expatriate population, the developed skills, crafts and improved knowledge of better practices are pouring into the country.
The Prime Minister herself, in her recent term of office, seems to have changed some of her personal and collective priorities. She is determined to stick by politically, so that she can build an invaluable legacy. She knows that she can in no way match the gargantuan achievements her father, the founder-architect of Bangladesh. What she can do is leave behind a mark, as a builder of modern Bangladesh. Take the case of eight or more specific projects she has initiated to push Bangladesh forward. These include the Padma bridge, the deep sea port, the metro rail, the tunnel under the Karnaphuli river, etc. She seeks an inherent legitimacy that will be the hallmark of her time and place in history. Just look at some of her other handiwork. She initiated a process of establishing peace in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. She pursued with relentless vigour the trial of war criminals and has addressed some of the crippling geo-political problems with neighbouring giant India. She has crafted a foreign policy that keeps her other giant neighbour China as a close friend and a useful fulcrum whenever needed.
But as Bangladesh develops, its people seek more. Two things seem to bother them; one is the growing corruption and delinquency within the country, the other is due diligence in politics. These twin malice seem to pull back the country. The Prime Minister now has to switch gears. She has to have zero tolerance on both these issues. She has to detoxify the society, especially within her political party.
There are silver linings in the dark sky, however. Digitalising the country, if pursued relentlessly, can help reduce corruption in the delivery of public services and private entrepreneurship. But there is more to it. Clean governance and an impartial judiciary is a sine qua non here. The other priority is to reorient politics to allow democratic dispensation in policymaking and policy delivery. The Prime Minister must lead in both these matters. Let us see how much the government can deliver on both in 2016.
The writer is a former Ambassador.
Source: The Daily Star