Investing in the future
In the first part of this two-part article (printed on July 13) I argued that Bangladesh has an opportunity to turn around our image from being a country that is most vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change to becoming the most adaptive country to climate change.
I suggested a two-track strategy with the first track focusing on the climate change issue and developing both a domestic strategy of low carbon and climate resilient development as well as a foreign strategy of attracting significant funding to support our climate change strategy from global climate change funds that are likely to become available over the next decade.
In this article I will describe the second track of the strategy which can be described as "investing in the future" and not just in the present. This will require both a longer-term plan for the next twenty years (to 2030) as well as a nearer term plan for the next decade. It will also require building on the many positive developments that have been achieved by the people and governments over the last few decades and combating the negative forces (which still predominate).
Building on the past:
I will start by describing just a few of the positive achievements which can be built upon.
These include the strong positive economic growth rates over the last decade through a combination of progressive government policies and the successful development of the private sector. Another significant achievement has been the reduction in overall poverty levels with a combination of government, donor and civil society efforts. A third achievement has been the gains in agricultural productivity achieved by a combination of government policy, farmers' efforts, agriculture research and private sector. A fourth achievement has been in population growth rate reduction through government policies, provision of family planning and health facilities and girls' education.
However, despite these significant achievements, there remain strong negative trends as well. These include the continued and pervasive presence of corruption and poor governance and also the continued destruction of our natural resources such as forests and wetlands and finally the non-inclusive and inequitable nature of our economic growth. These negative forces will need to be overcome by building on the positive achievements.
In order to achieve this goal, an essential step is to get people across the country into a positive frame of mind regarding their long-term future, which can overcome the often negative day-to-day experiences that they undergo. This, in turn will require both top-down direction from our leaders as well as bottom-up approach from citizens in all walks of life.
I will give below just a few examples of the kinds of strategies that can be adopted in some key sectors by the key stakeholders.
This is perhaps the most important sector for investing in the future as we need to produce a population that are not just mouths to feed or even hands to do manual labour but educated minds to carry out innovative activities both at home and aboard.
One important development in the university sector has been the rapid expansion of private universities in the last decade. While the quality of their education may be varied, they represent an important part of educating citizens of tomorrow and if their quality can be enhanced will add significant value to our economy over the next few years. The aspect of investing in the future should therefore include a greater emphasis not only on teaching but also on research.
At the primary level the two most important skills that will be needed in the twenty-first century will be English and IT, so these two should become the bedrock of our school teaching effort,
The banking and investment sector has already been playing a major part in the development of commerce and industry, not least by the enhancement in private banks. The strategy for this sector is for the government to provide policy incentives for the finance sector to invest profitably in the more environment friendly and socially equitable sectors of the economy.
In this regard the "Green Banking" initiative of the Bangladesh Bank under the leadership of its current governor is a ground-breaking initiative which should be expanded.
The private sector has been (and will continue to be) the engine of economic growth and employment generation in the last two decades with major investments in the garments, textile, pharmaceutical, food and agriculture and other sectors. However, there is still a prevailing emphasis on low-skill, polluting industries and we will need to invest in higher value-addition industries such at IT as well as more environment friendly agriculture sectors.
The more progressive elements in the private sector also need to move beyond corporate social responsibility towards making environment and people friendly business a core part of their business.
Promotion of social business is also a key part of this strategy as has been emphasised by Professor Yunus.
Bangladesh has one of the most thriving civil society movements in the world with hundreds if not thousands of non-government organisations around the country and major investments in social protection schemes by government and donors.
Some of these efforts have also gained international reputations and become export models. These include micro-finance pioneered by Grameen Bank and also Brac, which has already become a major NGO operating in over a dozen countries in Asia and Africa. These efforts present an opportunity for the country to export both a development model as well as skilled manpower.
Agriculture will remain the mainstay of the Bangladesh economy for the next two decades but it will not be able to generate much more employment, so diversification and innovation leading to improved productivity need to be the key investment strategies for this sector.
An important element of this strategy needs to be an emphasis on environment friendly agricultural practices. Another important element to build upon is by investing in improving the agriculture research capabilities of the country.
The energy sector is a classic example of short-term investments prevailing over long-term plans. This needs to be rectified by making investments in clean energy like solar, biogas and wind. These need to be done both for large scale electricity provision through the grid as well as for small scale or even household level energy provision.
Bangladesh already leads the world in the expansion of household solar energy provision through the combined efforts of government policies, private sector and NGOs. One organisation has already supported the installation of over a millions solar home systems in just a few years.
The environment sector of Bangladesh has also made significant progress in terms of policies, legislation and some pilot level activities, but still represents largely a failure to implement these progressive policies and laws, as the country's forests and wetlands continue to be decimated.
The success to overcoming these barriers will have to combine better governance from the government authorities with better people-centred bottom-up efforts at community management of natural resources.
Again, there are many excellent examples of pilot efforts by both government, development partners and NGOs, but they still need to be scaled up beyond pilots.
Linking to the global:
In all these efforts Bangladesh needs to remain plugged in to global debates and discourse, of which I will mention two.
The first is based on the outcome of the recent Rio+20 declaration, where an emphasis was made on promoting "Green Development." This notion was not defined but left for each country to define for itself. Hence, Bangladesh can combine elements of its long-term strategy as outlined above into its own Green Development Pathway and share that with the rest of the world.
The second is to use the Bangladeshi diaspora as an asset to bring back investments, technology and innovations. The growth of the IT sector in India can largely be attributed to the Indian diaspora and Bangladesh can also make use of its Non-Resident Bangladeshis (NRB) for positive investments in the longer-term future strategy.
In conclusion let me reiterate the components of the short-term, near term and longer-term elements of the strategy that could be adopted to take the country on to a positive and sustainable development pathway. These are to use the climate change issue to leverage Bangladesh's domestic actions on low carbon climate resilient development and international reputation as a leader on adaptation to climate change, then to transform these efforts to the wider economy to set it on a green development pathway and finally to invest in the future generations to enable them to take the country to the next level through investments in quality education.
This could be a pathway to turn adversity into opportunity if we first believe that it is possible and then everyone does their part to make it happen.