Towards a just society in the next 50 years

Throughout 2021, we celebrated Bangladesh’s 50 years of independence with great glory and pride. We are fortunate to have a country of our own, because many people around the world are still fighting for their own country even today. We are extremely grateful for the sacrifice made by the freedom fighters who fought to liberate the country during the nine months of war in 1971. We have deep gratitude to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who led the War of Independence from Bangladesh.

This war was to liberate Bangladesh from the economic, social, political and cultural domination of Pakistan. The liberation war was influenced by the ethics of establishing a country where the underlying philosophy of development policies was equity and justice. Independence is about realizing democratic, economic, social and cultural rights. After our independence, the aspirations of the people of Bangladesh were articulated eloquently in our constitution.

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After the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, we inherited a poor and undiversified economy. It was mainly a low productivity agricultural economy. It had underdeveloped industrial and service sectors, a rapidly growing population, low levels of education and skills, and poor infrastructure. Due to decades of British and Pakistani colonial exploitation, the economy was stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty. Low levels of income, savings and investment resulted in low growth. On top of that, the war had caused serious damage to the economy.

Despite these adverse circumstances and resource constraints, Bangladesh has made spectacular economic and social progress over the past five decades. The growth rate of our gross domestic product (GDP) has been impressive. On average, Bangladesh’s GDP grew from around three percent in the 1970s to seven percent in the 2010s, and crossed eight percent just before Covid-19 hit the country. Although the pandemic has slowed GDP growth, it is expected to catch up faster than other countries. The strong growth resulted in a 23-fold increase in per capita income in 2020 from the 1973 level.

The characteristics of a modern economy, that is to say the transition from agricultural dependence to industrial and tertiary growth, can also be observed gradually. Currently, the share of agriculture in Bangladesh’s GDP is around 13 percent, while that of industry and service sectors is around 35 and 52 percent, respectively. The economy has also been integrated into the global economy. The shares of exports, imports and remittances in GDP have increased over time. High imports are possible thanks to impressive remittances. On the other hand, dependence on foreign aid to undertake development work has halved in terms of GDP share in 2020 compared to 1973, indicating a more autonomous growth effort.

Economic progress has had a positive impact on the social life of citizens in many ways. The population below the poverty line fell from over 80 percent in the early 1970s to 24.2 percent in 2016. Life expectancy has increased more than one and a half times since 1973. Mortality maternal deaths have declined nearly four times and infant mortality about five times. times now since the 1980s. And there are many more visible progress, of which we are proud.

Recognition of this progress has come from several organizations. In February 2021, Bangladesh for the second time fulfilled the three criteria to move from the group of least developed countries to that of developing countries. The United Nations has recommended that Bangladesh be upgraded by 2026. In 2018, Bangladesh met these criteria for the first time. Additionally, in 2015, Bangladesh became a lower middle income country to a low income country, according to the World Bank.

The enabling national and international policies, hard work and resilience of the Bangladeshi people have transformed the economy into one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It could withstand national and global challenges such as political turmoil, natural disasters and global financial collapse. More recently, the economic fallout from Covid-19 has been much less in Bangladesh than in many countries. But such complacency should not enter our heads, because any economy that is built on weak foundations and is characterized by high inequality, low job creation, bad governance, corruption and low efficiency cannot sustain its long progress.

While we rejoice in the achievements since our independence, we have also observed many missed opportunities. The fruits of progress must still be distributed equitably to every citizen. Despite steady progress in several areas, the promise of a just and just society has not been kept. Income inequality persists as resources and wealth are concentrated among a few people in society, many of whom are politically linked. The link between politics and business is stronger than ever. It is now a two-way street in Bangladesh. Politicians now transform into businessmen by using power to profit from wealth and luxury, while businessmen transform into politicians to profit from the power that comes with it. In the process, the overall goal of serving the people as their representatives has become blurred as it is often a secondary goal of many politicians. Bangladesh is now a country where the number of ultra-rich is growing rapidly. The experience so far is that, as the country’s economic prosperity has increased, so has inequality. This is reflected in both the Gini coefficient and the Palma ratio, which economists use to measure inequality.

Therefore, the macroeconomic numbers are only part of the full story. GDP may continue to grow, and per capita income may increase as well, but that ultimately means nothing, especially for those living on the brink of vulnerability. This is not only because the process of estimating GDP and per capita income is flawed and gives an incomplete picture, but also because, in the absence of major catalysts for economic progress, such as the development process participatory, growth will continue to suffer from disappointments. Studies indicate that if political and economic institutions are inclusive and pluralistic, everyone will be motivated to invest and success will follow. However, nations struggle to be successful if institutions protect the political and economic interests of a small group of powerful people.

On the occasion of Bangladesh’s Golden Jubilee, as we celebrate our country’s achievements, we must also keep in mind that the sacrifice of our freedom fighters can only be meaningful if a tangible change in the life of the poorest and most common citizens takes place. It requires a democratic and inclusive development process. The participation of the majority of the population in the economic and political process can give meaning to 50 years of economic progress. In elections, many promises are made by aspiring public officials. However, after the election, we do not see many of these promises come true. The accountability of political representatives is weak with little control over the honoring of their commitments.

Therefore, over the next 50 years, we must work to consolidate what has been accomplished so far and improve where we are lagging behind. Our Golden Jubilee celebration could officially end by the end of 2021, but we want to celebrate Bangladesh’s achievements every day. This is possible if we are committed to making the unfulfilled dreams of making Bangladesh a just and equal society a reality.

Dr Fahmida Khatun is the Executive Director of the Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD).

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