While Bangladesh has left behind the belittling epithet of a 'basket case' over the 42 years of independence, it is hard to feel satisfied by the pace and pattern of progress that she has made in socio-economic development. Observers and analysts are mulling over what new epithet would fit the country: the Next China, Emerging Asian Tiger, or Digital Bangladesh. However, more important than the nomenclature is the need to identify the opportunities that Bangladesh can avail to expedite development, devise concrete steps to achieve the same, and wade through the challenges and difficulties that comes along the way.
The gap between the potential and the actual is most blatant in the arena of politics. After 42 years of independence and 22 years of parliamentary democracy, Bangladesh is yet to consolidate both the procedural and qualitative aspects of electoral democracy. It is precisely because Bangladesh has enjoyed the credentials as a moderate Muslim democracy – a rarity in the Muslim world – that the failings are most unpardonable. In the recent turmoil and agony of democratization in the Arab world, countries of the Gulf which themselves hardly have any democracy – as partners of the West – have played a prominent role. Yet, as a country that was born as a democracy and has remained so for decades against all odds, Bangladesh could have played an important and positive role.
The acrimonious, violent, and bipartisan rivalry has divided the administration, the youths, and virtually the whole society. The politicians have failed to reach consensus over the very fundamentals of how the democratic and electoral procedure should work. By developing a sustainable consensus through an inclusive consultation over electoral procedure and the basics of democratic politics, Bangladesh could begin to live up to its own strength.
In the recent political confrontation over the elections, there has been a lot of discussion over the role of diplomats and international groups. Instead of taking pleasure in asserting sovereignty through taking a defiant course that flouts all international norms, Bangladesh could have truly asserted its standing as a sovereign, responsible member of the international community by maintaining universally acceptable standards in politics and administration in a truly democratic country.
Compared to the dismal outlook of politics, the economic front has been much brighter. The GDP has grown 19 times since 1972. Between 2002 and 2012, export has grown 6-times. Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of Readymade Garments. Yet, when compared with other countries, there is hardly any room for complacency. In 1972, Bangladeshi GDP (USD 6 billion) was a little less than Thailand (USD 8 b) and a little higher than that of Malaysia (USD 5 b).
Today Malaysia's GDP is more than twice while that of Thailand is more than thrice the amount of our GDP. Even as late as 1985, the current GDP in US Dollars for Bangladesh (21 b) was higher than Vietnam (14 b) or Singapore (19 b). In 2012, while Vietnam has reached a GDP of USD 156 b and Singapore has reached USD 275 b, Bangladesh has lagged at USD 116 b. The fact is, while Bangladesh has made progress, others have moved ahead by leaps and bounds.
The export basket lacks diversification, and recent industrial incidents and political instability have heightened the risk of rapid fall in exports. While the country's foreign exchange reserve has reached historic heights and the RMG export continues to grow, there are also risks of buyer exit due to continued political turmoil. Diversification and facilitation of upcoming sectors are extremely important in this regard. While around 54% people are engaged in agriculture and related rural economic activities, Bangladesh could have utilized the agro-produce in processed products that can be exported abroad.
The scope of growth in agro-processing industry is tremendous. One-third of GDP of countries like Indonesia and Thailand and 20% GDP of Sub-Saharan Africa comes from agro-processing. Yet, while agriculture constitutes 21% of Bangladeshi GDP, only around 5% of exports involved primary and agro-goods (2011-12). Export diversification warrants stronger attention in areas like agro-processing. It is a pity that in a land as fertile as we have and given the large agriculture community, we continue to harp on exporting software whereas one of the most potential export sector remains largely unexploited. For too many up and coming entrepreneurs, being an “IT Expert” or “IT Entrepreneur” seems more fancy than being identified as an “Agriculturist” or “Agropreneur”. So naïve and myopic!
The FDI performance is lagging. Even Myanmar showed brighter performance in 2012. There have been celebrations over the potential of our RMG sector as reported by McKinsey in 2012 and how China's transition to high-value production would raise the FDI potential for Bangladesh due to low labor cost. Yet, the competitors of Bangladesh are paying attention and taking concrete steps. McKinsey reported that Myanmar could attract as much as USD 100 billion in FDI over the next two decades, with its GDP quadrupling over the same period. Our policy makers should realize that, Bangladesh could easily outcompete Myanmar over the next one decade if she devised a stronger FDI policy and investment facilitation services.
In matters relating to regional cooperation and integration, Bangladesh has shown consistent and self defeating reluctance to join hands with others. Bangladesh took the initiative to lay the groundwork for South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and she had all the potential to spearhead regional integration in SAARC. Yet, almost 3 decades later, SAARC is the least integrated and most inefficient regional bloc in the world. The standoff between pro and anti-India camps has prevented Bangladesh from devising an enlightened foreign policy that creates win-win deals for herself and her partners.
The same disappointment awaits Bangladesh as far as the East is concerned. While India is linking up with East Asia by its FTA and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, building the Indo-Myanmar-Thai Trilateral Highway, and linking up with Sittwe of Myanmar and Kunming of China, Bangladesh has not been able to utilize the potential of Chittagong port or connect with the Northeastern states of India and with East Asia through Myanmar. Kolkata and Sittwe Ports are coming up as competitors for Chittagong port in the regional integration scene.
Myanmar, for its part, is rapidly linking up with its eastern neighbors while harvesting all the opportunities created by the race between China, India, and the West for getting a foothold in the liberalizing country. Here again, Bangladesh drags her feet. China, Myanmar, and India inked the deals to join the Asian Highway in 2004, while Bangladesh took another 5 years to make up her mind. A decision about the proposed deep seaport is yet to be finalized. An intelligent and long-term foreign policy with matching drives for implementation could forge the necessary connectivity Bangladesh needs with its neighbors and with countries of East Asia.
A stronger regional integration could also reduce Bangladesh's dependence on tradition trade partners like the United States and the European Union. Cooperation with the SAARC members and East Asia could significantly expand the export potential of Bangladesh. We have two important and relevant Ministries – Foreign and Commerce – that hardly communicate or coordinate, and act in a concerted manner that could have yielded enormous gains for the country in critical areas like – trade, transit, and communication.
With the world's largest mangrove forest and world's longest beach, a rich and varied history and culture successively overlaid by Islamic, Indian, and Western civilizations, and a location connecting South Asia and Southeast Asia, Bangladesh could become a hotspot for tourists. However, the necessary infrastructure and facilities are yet to be developed. Exclusive zones and recreational facilities for foreign tourists are not available in Bangladesh – which also acts as a deterrent for foreign investors. Cox's Bazar – having lost its quiet splendor – has turned into a crowded and chaotic site. Although the law has been passed and the site has been selected, the plan for exclusive tourist zones in Cox's Bazar has not yet come to fruition – let alone zones in other tourist destinations in the country. There are a lot of plans in the papers as far as tourism policy is concerned but actual development has not been up to the mark. Meanwhile, tiny countries like Maldives went ahead with the necessary zoning and development, getting as much as 22% of its GDP out of travel and tourism in 2012.
Bangladesh has more than 50% of its population below the age of 24. The youth has enormous potential and creative energy. In innovation and entrepreneurship, the youth have been making their mark, just as they have voiced their wish and expectations for a new vision and direction in the country's leadership. A lot of opportunities have gone by while we have wallowed in our untapped potential. The country cannot afford to delay its emergence any further. It's time we talk less and work more. The time is for more real shows and less talk shows. Its time we walk the walk.
The Author is a Professor at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), University of Dhaka.