Bangladesh’s LDC graduation and the challenges ahead
Graduation from the Least Developed Country (LDC) group to developing country status is a milestone in our development journey, and it will certainly improve Bangladesh's image globally. In the UN system, countries are ranked as poor, LDC, developing and developed. According to the World Bank, however, the classifications are LDC (Bangladesh entered this group in the 1972-75 period), Lower Middle Income Country (LMIC), Upper Middle Income Country (UMIC), and Developed Country. The criteria on which these rankings are made are Per Capita Income, Human Development Assets Index and Economic Vulnerability Index (population size, national disaster incidence and handling).
After satisfactorily achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Bangladesh was included in the LMIC group and its place there was confirmed in 2018. The second confirmation requirement has been met, and the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) will make their recommendation in June 2021. This will then be endorsed by the UN General Assembly in September 2021. Due to the pandemic, however, the normal three-year period of transition will be extended by two years and our formal graduation to the status of a Developing Country will be in 2026. We currently hope to enter the UMIC group in 2031, and the Government's ambition is to reach Developed Country status in 2041.
Given the background of a poverty-stricken country in 1971-72, Bangladesh was able to join the group of LDCs by 1975 and move forward due to its effective use of available foreign assistance in its early years, increase in agricultural productivity, permitting the use of surplus labour for industries and services, gradual move towards a market economy (but the public sector retaining "commanding heights") in the areas of infrastructure development and promotion of services, promoting the emergence of entrepreneurial spirit (such as the growth of the RMG sector), and human development measures (food security, health, education, and moving towards reducing gender disparity).
Bangladesh's achievement of MDG targets in 2015 was an indication of its progress. There are two things in particular that helped in making this possible: having the Constitution of independent Bangladesh—which Bangabandhu finalised on November 4, 1972 and which was approved by the Jatiya Sangshad in December 1972—as the basis for its economic policies; and demographic transition at lower levels of income—an achievement of Bangladesh that is considered to be unique by many economists.
At the outset of the First Five-Year Plan, when asked about his top priority in its implementation, Bangabandhu told journalists, "I have no 'number one' priority but I have a joint first priority—food self-sufficiency and population control."
We have to remember that worldwide, trade is a key tool of development that has led to globalisation. However, after graduating to a Developing Country, we will have to face some challenges in this area. For instance, we can no longer enjoy duty-free and quota-free export, and will face duties and reduced benefits of export to countries in the European Union. Rules regarding trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPS) may also be tightened by importers of goods from Bangladesh. Terms of foreign aid (from bilateral-multilateral sources) may become harder, and subsidy and cash assistance to exports may not be acceptable by some importing countries. Sometime in the past, Bangladesh was an "International Development Association (IDA) only" country, and we were also borrowing from the World Bank on harder terms. After graduation, the benefits we enjoy of being IDA only country will also decline. Similar changes will be taking place with other multilateral aid agencies. Bangladesh has to look for free trade agreements, such as the one between Vietnam and the European Union. We will also have to make better and more efficient use of our economic zones and export processing zones (EPZs), preferably with the diversification of exports.
In the areas of economic management, our mixed economy system will have to continue with the public sector taking the "Commanding Heights" for infrastructure development, implementation of fast-track projects, and strengthening and expanding the public-private-partnership system. Additionally, the revenue–tax/GDP ratio needs to go up, and policy reforms and investments will also be needed for greater ease of doing business. There must also be a focus on improving competitiveness, keeping in view competitive advantages such as wage levels and the faster processing of investment proposals. Moreover, the productivity of all sectors—agriculture, industry and services—must be increased.
By taking proper actions regarding these issues, we can attract quality foreign direct investment (FDI), along with growing private investment, which has been at a stagnating level for the past few years. Our investment policy is supportive of FDI, and according to media reports, some South-East Asian and Middle Eastern countries have shown interest in investing in Bangladesh, especially in the Special Economic Zones and EPZs.
But to continue on the development highway as a developing country, we need to turn our attention to several areas. Firstly, we need to improve the quality of education through the modernisation of tertiary education, link education and industries, and put emphasis on skills development, in a bid for increasing our productivity. It is also important to ensure good governance with accountability and acceptance of responsibility. This extends to the need for strengthening institutional arrangement for administration by government ministries. We must also focus on strengthening the Implementation, Monitoring and Evaluation Division (IMED) for public investments, ensure zero cost and time overruns, and practice suitable quality control of such investments.
The Prime Minister, as always with humility, has said that the credit for the graduation goes to the people. Going forward, I would suggest that the government pursue some specific objectives such as arresting the growing disparity between the rich and the poor (in terms of wealth and income), reducing the inequality in provision of health services, arresting corruption at all levels of public service, and avoiding the growth of, and ultimately eliminating, the "politically protected" groups in business (which hurt many vulnerable groups in different areas of the economy).
Finally, the most essential pre-conditions for continuing on the highway of growth and development, to reach the Upper Middle-Income Group by 2031, and the Developed Country Group by 2041, will be political stability, macroeconomic stability, annual reviews of the performance of the Eighth Five-Year Plan, and putting great emphasis on the objectives of the Constitution of 1972 finalised by Bangabandhu, for ensuring justice and equity.
M Syeduzzaman is a Member of the Board of Trustees, Centre for Policy Dialogue and Former Minister for Finance, Government of the People's Republic of Bangladesh.Views expressed in this article are the author's own.