Bangladesh has over the years defied many of the established economic theories and social equations -at times contrary to pundits' projection -on its way to development. Only, of late, the country's positives are receiving recognition elbowing out the litany of pessimism expressed over its poverty, battering by storms or cyclones or the long trail of sorrow left by floods. The Economist, a London-based prestigious weekly, and the Legatum Institute, a think-tank also based in London have duly noted the success story of the country. Its transition from a 'basket case' to a highly promising nation in terms of producing foods for its people, limiting growth of population, reducing risks to mothers and children, controlling some common diseases through health care and sanitation and raising the life span of its people has been brought into sharp focus.
Only two months ago, the Happy Planet Index (HPI) placed Bangladesh in the 11th slot among all the nations of the world. The World Bank (WB), with no love lost between the multilateral financial institute and the Bangladesh government, also had words of appreciation for the country's steady progress against all odds. The Economist has picked up Henry Kissinger's 'basket case' as a country with lessons for other co-travellers on the road to development and prosperity. Whereas the near miracle accomplished by Bangladesh inspired a sense of wonder in the weekly magazine -it chose to call it intriguing, the WB had no such problem in analysing the factors that provided resilience to the country's economy. The WB, moreover, did point out quite a few fault lines posing risks to its ambition of becoming a middle-income country (MIC) by 2021.
Bangladesh's ratings on the HPI, the Legatum Prosperity Index and the one by The Economist are indeed flattering enough. Yet it would be a mistake if the country turned a blind eye to its CPI (corruption perception index) rating. For years the country deplorably held the number one position and its latest annual ranking at 13, same as the previous year's, gives no cause for celebration. How its human rights records, a most sensitive area, fare is anyone's guess. When people disappear with no clues left to trace them, it surely is an alarming development. The Legatum Prosperity Index takes into account, among economic and well-being issues, governance, security and personal freedom. No wonder, Bangladesh had to be contended with the 103rd slot among 142 countries.
Then again Bangladesh ranks, rather surprisingly, in the highly competitive but least highlighted area of foreign direct investment (FDI) at 16th position globally and 5th among the eight South Asian nations on the latest World Investment Report (WIR). So the economic and other performances of the country are at times contradictory and at other times baffling. However if a land is full of contradictions in the literary sense, it may as well be somehow true for the areas that are measurable in concrete terms and by bare facts.
The country's revolution in agriculture is well recognised, so is the contribution of the uneducated -if not unlettered - sons and daughters of farmers who ventured out of their rural setting to travel abroad with menial jobs or to the city with employment in the country's readymade garments (RMG) factories. They are the architects of an economy drawing its sustenance from remittance and earning from RMG export. In both cases, it is the cheap labour that has done the trick. In the process, though, the so-called educated and elite have mostly played either the role of opportunists or blood-sucker.
Political economists argue that in the initial period of wealth creation, such things happen and gradually the process of redistribution of wealth begins. Sadly, there is no sign of that happening anytime soon. Society is more restive than it ever was. With the privileged and the powerful ruling the roost, establishing the rule of law has become a far cry. Those who cannot compromise on ideals or principles or bear with the discriminations try to leave the country if the opportunity comes their way. Love for the country thus dries out for some because they are corrupt and are out to make money means notwithstanding and for others who finding no other alternative seek a better life in foreign lands and climes.
The country's quest for economic prosperity therefore cannot and should not be the only objective. It should be tempered with values based on sharing dividends and a strong cultural bond. To be true to the roots can indeed save the generations now finding themselves divorced from social undertakings and patriotism. But now the elders need to ponder if the financial anarchy, market manipulation and malpractices ought to be allowed to continue any more. These may be means of making loads of money but at the cost of principles that are more precious than the power of lucre. Derailed politics notwithstanding, the underclass has catapulted the country on the road to development. Had politics been equally supportive of their cause, what a break-neck speed of economic progress would have been achieved for the country by now! Do the politicians appreciate this?
The majority of the people here are honest and enterprising with immense potential. What is expected of the politicians is the creation of an unhindered condition for harnessing that potential for productive purposes. The farmers of the land have proved what they are capable of. But now their achievement is not being rewarded. Today, farmers find rice production no more cost-effective. It will surely have a negative impact on agriculture. This certainly calls for policy review. For Bangladesh to be on the right track, at no points its plus points be allowed to get undermined. Frustration at this level may be contagious, which in the long run stifles the nation's creative and productive spirit. Let the country realise its inner strength in the interest of building a happy and stable society.
The writer is associate editor of FE