A journey through light and shadow
BANGLADESH'S War of Independence in 1971 was the culmination of a prolonged movement for emancipation from economic, political and cultural subjugation by West Pakistan. The nine month long Liberation War was influenced by the ethos to establish a country where progress, equity and justice would be the underlying philosophy of development policies. Forty four years later, the journey looks thorny and turbulent. Though the aspirations of the people of the country were articulated so eloquently in the constitution, much of the ambitions have faded out over the years.
During its journey in the post-independence period the country has experienced turmoil in the form of assassinations, coups, counter-coups and military rule. These were coupled with massive corruption and mal-governance. After a long period of instability and misrule the country moved towards a democratic transition through parliamentary elections in 1991. This transition, however, could not continue its uninterrupted journey as politics could not take a matured institutional shape as yet and is characterised as highly confrontational. One does not need more narratives on Bangladeshi politics—neither of the past, nor the present. Bangladeshis are indeed politically very conscious, as much as they are about their rights.
But do they have rights? What rights? Independence was about achieving their democratic rights, their economic rights, their social rights, their cultural rights. Forty four years is not a long time for a nation to be built fully and entirely if one looks at the nation building process of today's advanced countries. But it is also not so short that we still have to struggle only to determine as to what would be the form and nature of the government, how the national elections would be held and what would be the guiding principles of parliamentary democracy.
True, in some areas the achievement of the country is spectacular. Consider the macroeconomic indicators. The growth rate of Gross Domestic Production (GDP) increased to 6.1% in 2014 from 3% in 1973. On average, the GDP of Bangladesh has risen from 2.8% in the 1970s to 6% in the 2010s. High growth has pushed per capita income upward by twelve times in 2014 from the level of 1973. The share of exports in GDP is now almost 20% compared to only 4.1% in 1980. Similarly, import has doubled in 2014 compared to 1980 in terms of its share in GDP. And high imports are possible through impressive remittance flow. Remittances have increased by more than seven times as a share of GDP during 1980-2014. Dependency on foreign aid to undertake development work has declined by almost half in terms of its share in GDP in 2014 from that of 1973, indicating a more self reliant growth effort. Also, the feature of a modern economy, that is a graduation from an agriculturally dependent to industry and service sector-based growth, is being observed gradually.
Social indicators are not lagging behind either. Economic progress has impacted the social life of the population positively on many counts. The share of population below the poverty line has declined from more than 80% in the early 1970s to 24.3% in 2014. Life expectancy has increased by one and half times since 1973. Literacy rate of population of 15 years and above doubled during 1981-2012. Maternal mortality has declined by almost four times and child mortality by more than five times now since the eighties. The list can be stretched further. But it is better to stop here since the devil is in the details. Not only do these numbers portray only a partial scenario but they also do not reflect the mental state caused by failed expectations of the millions who have not received a share of the pie. Thus the lack of fairness in income distribution has been present ever since independence. Therefore, any tangible change in the lives of the poorest sections through impressive macro indicators still remains unfulfilled.
So while we rejoice at the achievements during the past decades, we also suffer from frustrations due to the missed opportunities. The promise of an equitable, just and democratic society has been tarnished by bitter political hostility and acrimony between the political parties. As a result, while steady progress has been made, it could not be sustained. Economic growth, though high compared to other least developed countries, has slowed down during the last couple of years. Income inequality persists as resources and wealth are concentrated amongst fewer hands due to a nexus between politics and business. Therefore, we also observe these numbers. Almost 40% of the population do not have access to electricity, about 15% of the population are still without access to safe water sources and 43% do not have access to improved sanitation facilities. In case of the first two indicators, Bangladesh lags behind the South Asian average.
Yet again, numbers are only part of the story. GDP may continue to grow, per capita income may also rise, but they mean nothing in the end. Particularly for those who live on the edge of vulnerability. This is not only because the process of estimating GDP and per capita income is faulty and provides an incomplete picture, but also because, in the absence of major enablers of economic progress such as stable political environment, such growth will continue to suffer from disillusionment.
In their widely acclaimed book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Harvard University respectively, argue that institutions determine the fate of nations. Based on their fifteen years of original research the authors show that when political and economic institutions are inclusive and pluralistic success comes as everyone has incentives to invest. In the same vein they also argue that if institutions protect the political and economic interest of a small group of powerful people, nations fail. The findings of this book have relevance for most countries in the world, including Bangladesh. This year, as Bangladesh is set to celebrate its Independence Day, the need for inclusive democratic and development process is once again pronounced, which can pave the way for a meaningful participation of broader section of the people.
The writer is Research Director at CPD, currently a Visiting Scholar at the Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York.