We must focus on rooting out inequalities
Over the past 50 years, Bangladesh has undoubtedly made impressive progress in overall human development as well as on specific human development fronts. Yet, the achievements have not been even or uniform across several planes, such as socio-economic groups, regions, gender, rural-urban divide, and so on. Furthermore, in spite of the phenomenal human development progress in Bangladesh, significant human deprivations still remain on various fronts. And with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, such deprivations may widen and deepen. Therefore, over the past half a century, the human development tide in Bangladesh has lifted boats, but not all boats and not each to the same extent.
Inequality subdues the gains in human development. Bangladesh's overall human development score, evaluated by the Human Development Index (HDI)—a composite measure of basic human development—was 0.632 in 2019, but declined to 0.478 when discounted for inequality, implying a loss of 24.4 percent in human development due to inequality. Such disparities exist in various dimensions, as measured by different human development indicators. For example, while the under-five mortality rate was a little more than 20 per 1,000 live births for the richest quintile, it was nearly 50 per 1,000 live births among the poorest quintile. In 2019, while 85 percent of babies born to the richest 20 percent of the population were delivered by skilled professionals, the corresponding figure for the poorest quintile was only 32 percent. The same year, the literacy rate for populations aged seven years and more was about 75 percent in Barishal, but only 60 percent in Sylhet. In 2019, the mean years of schooling among girls in Bangladesh was slightly above four years, but that of boys was six years. In terms of income and expenditure, the top 10 percent of the population of Bangladesh accounted for 38 percent of total national income in 2016, while the share of the bottom 40 percent of the population in national income was only 13 percent. In the same year, the per capita monthly household expenditure of the bottom decile was Tk 2,122, while that of the top decile was four times more at Tk 9,137.
Like any other country, Bangladesh also experiences gender disparities in human development. In 2019, the female HDI value for Bangladesh was 0.596 in comparison with the male counterpart value of 0.660. Even though gender parity has been achieved in primary and secondary level enrolment, dropout rates remain higher for girls than for boys. Within Bangladesh, the literacy rate for women remains lower than that of their male counterparts—76.7 percent. The mean years of schooling for females is 5.7, which is also lower than that for males at 6.9 years. At the tertiary level of education, the female rate of enrolment in 2017 was 17 percent, as opposed to 24 percent for their male counterparts.
Gender inequality in employment has been a salient feature of Bangladesh's labour market. According to the Labour Force Survey 2016-17, only 36 percent of women participate in the labour market in comparison to the 81 percent for men. The proportion of females engaged in unpaid family labour remains at a high level of 29.1 percent against just 4.2 percent for males. The average monthly wage for males was 10 percent higher than for females (Tk 13,583 against Tk 12,254). The female share of employment in senior and middle management was just 11.5 percent in 2017. The share of seats in parliament held by women stood at 20.6 percent in 2019—up from less than 10 percent in the 1990s.
With regard to climate change impacts, the climate vulnerable districts are also the districts with a higher incidence of poverty, which we can observe in flood-prone districts like Kurigram and Gaibandha. In terms of nutritional outcomes, almost all the coastal districts and the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) show a higher ratio of wasted children than the national average. In the climate-vulnerable districts (e.g. coastal, flood-prone and haor areas), about 45 percent of households suffer from some kind of disease. In climate-induced disaster-prone areas, because of damaged schools, travel disruptions due to road or bridge collapse, spoilt books, and reduced earnings of parents during disasters, school attendance is negatively affected. This has been observed in districts like Kurigram, Feni and Patuakhali during disasters.
The significant lingering human deprivations on various fronts can also be seen through the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) —a composite measure of the non-income aspects of deprivation—which indicates that almost one in every four persons in Bangladesh suffers from multidimensional poverty. Multidimensional poverty also varies along the rural-urban divide. For example, in 2019, the MPI value in rural Bangladesh was almost twice than that in urban Bangladesh. Even though there have been significant improvements in health outcomes, there are still major deprivations there. More than one in every four children are stunted in their growth and more than one in every five children are underweight. In Bangladesh, in 2018, there was one doctor for every 2,000 people, one nurse for every 2,500 people, and one hospital bed for every 1,250 people. In terms of social services, 45 percent of people were without safely-managed drinking water services in 2019 and 22 percent were without electricity. More than half of those who have jobs are in vulnerable employment.
Just like any other country, the Covid-19 pandemic may erode the human development gains and create new human deprivation in the country. As of 2019, around 34 million people were still in income poverty. Covid-19, through its economic repercussions, may push another 30 million into poverty. The country may also lose between 1.1 million to 1.6 million jobs for the youth, depending on the containment of the virus. As of June 2020, a total of 70,000 workers lost their jobs in the garment industry of Bangladesh, and around another one million jobs in this sector were at risk of becoming redundant till the end of 2020. Covid-19 has already exposed the fragility of the health system, which may become more vulnerable in the coming days. Information technology-based education may generate more inequalities since children from rural areas or from poor households will not have access to this technology. Covid-19 has also had asymmetrical impacts on women in terms of their formal work in the economy as well as the burden of their household and care work. It may also lead to more friction and domestic violence because of lockdowns. The implications on mental health due to Covid-induced lockdowns have also been widely discussed.
These disparities and deprivations in human development in Bangladesh will create some lingering challenges, some deepening challenges and some emerging challenges for the country. They will require a matrix of policies and institutional reforms—an issue which is of prime importance for Bangladesh.
Selim Jahan is Former Director, Human Development Report Office and Poverty Division, UNDP.