Hopeconomics | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 01, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, December 01, 2010

Hopeconomics

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Photo: Amirul Rajiv

During my recent US visit, I met a childhood friend who was in a very hyped-up mood. As many of our expatriate well-wishers, he could not help following the home country's news flashes through online news sites. He talked about how travel to villages/home towns had turned into a nightmare before Eids due to pressure on the transport system and road accidents, about Bangladesh being one of the most climate-vulnerable countries, and the recent news.
He asked how, despite all the negative news, I could be so hopeful about our country. I told him to check out the latest list of "Top 10 best value destinations for 2011" recommended by famous travel journal Lonely Planet, in which Bangladesh was at the top with its most hospitable people and some virgin travel spots.
I am hopeful about the future of Bangladesh, if not extremely exuberant. Late Finance Minister M. Saifur Rahman used to say: "Managing 16 crore people in an area of 143,998 square kilometers is a challenge in itself." With 1,127 people per sq. km, we are among the top 10 most densely populated countries.
Leaders had made wrong decisions in the past, the intellectuals did their share by criticising the leaders without even embarking on their part of the job, but life went on and we have progressed despite all the challenges. We must give the due credit to the people (be it farmers, garments workers and people working abroad) of the country, who proved their resilience time and again.
The entrepreneurship and enterprising spirit shown by the youngsters is a heartening factor for an emerging economy like ours. It is the very thing that will drive the country forward. In very few countries are people so enterprising, so enthusiastic. We have a large young population with a median age of 23 years. It is up to us to use this demographic factor as an opportunity rather than a threat. We just need to focus on individual capacity building, train them in the areas that really matter, and put the right people in the right jobs.
It is a pleasure to see a few rare people who forego the steep ladder of a high-paying multi-national company job to venture into other projects. More and more women are also joining the work force, and the number of joint income families is on the rise. Because of that, it is becoming possible to forego financial security to pursue a dream project and embrace the risks associated with it. Without the financial support of the earning life partner, this trend may not have been possible. A young generation of men and women in the work force, who work hard to achieve what they want, change their fates, and try to live life to the fullest, have brought in a refreshing change in the corporate world.
Regional and global seniors from multinational corporations visit Bangladesh with a mindset shaped by the international media but, 90% of the time, they go back with a changed and positive perspective. The positive vibes they get from speaking to the young executives, entrepreneurs, economists, intellectuals, regulators and other stakeholders convince them.
Macro-economic indicators tell the story with no-nonsense solid facts. Natural calamities like floods and cyclones create havoc in the agricultural sector, but the economy has still been able to manage a steady 6.4% growth rate over the past 3 years. GDP per capita, which was only $447 four years back, reached $684 in FY2010. Remittances from wage earners reached $10.9 billion in fiscal year 2009-2010, contributing more than 10% of GDP.
10 years back, inward remittance in a single fiscal was less than one-fifth of the current annual average. The inflows are expected to remain stable, albeit with slight ups and downs, especially in the Middle East. Bangladesh is one of the 12 countries that achieved export growth in FY2009-2010 amidst global economic slowdown, reaching export proceeds of $16.2 billion. Exports in Q1 FY '11 showed an impressive 30% growth.
The RMG sector has emerged, contributing over $10 billion to export proceeds, which was less than $3 million in the early '80s when industrialisation began. Thanks to remittance, and with exports and domestic business rising, dependency on foreign aid has now been significantly reduced to 2% of GDP from the 6% range in the '80s.
Inflation remains a concern but the regulators have been successful in keeping it within single digit rate even in the face of policy constraints. The central bank has taken measures to revive the agricultural sector, divert fund flows to the productive sectors like alternative energy, bring in rural population into the live economy, thereby ensuring shifting of the terms of trade in favour of rural Bangladesh. Rice and wheat production reached 33 million metric tons, compared with mid '80s production of 11 million tons in total. We are nearly there in achieving self-sufficiency in food.
Many a time we have criticised the regulators for their conservative attitude and less open-mindedness to the dynamic changes in the world. But in some cases, that has proved to be a blessing in disguise for us. Too much externalisation took its toll on Vietnam recently and on the south east Asian economies in the end nineties, whereas we remained almost immune to outside storms due to lower level of externalisation.
We have made good progress in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) front. The population below poverty line has come down from 56% to 40%. Under-5 child mortality rate fell substantially from 146 to 67 per 1000 live births. Infant mortality rate came down from 92 to 45 per 1000 live births. Number of maternal deaths per 100,000 live births declined from 574 to 384. Considering the large population base, a 91% primary education rate is commendable, compared to the 60.5% range of the past.
The media has more or less achieved a reasonable level of freedom. However, as the media has gained more freedom, we expect more accountability for facts and figures from the conscience of the nation.
The reform agenda has been identified, although implementation is a bit slow as intellectual power is lacking at the right place at the right time. We temporarily got diverted from democracy as a result of political intolerance, and the interim government's tenurer was extended. Ultimately, democracy was reestablished, and proved that for Bangladesh, democracy is the acceptable answer, though major players should show tolerance, and respect for differing opinion.
True, we need to be more integrated with the global market, establish rule of law without differentiating between pauper and prince, and bring discipline and ethics among the key position holders in the society, whom the people look up to. Tolerance, accountability, mutual respect, governance, diversity and transparency should bear the same meaning here in Bangladesh too. Thus, we will establish ourselves in the league of respected nations.

Mamun Rashid is a banker and economic analyst.

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