It was the winter of 1995, or maybe 1996. Let me only say that it was a memorable moment for me, a quarter of a century ago in the city of Dhaka. I was staying with my mother in her apartment in Indira Road and can vividly remember that Bangladesh had been caught up in the midst of great expectations as it got all hyped-up for the second post-Ershad parliamentary elections. With Y2K, the much-anticipated revolution, only a few years away, the country had been full of discussions as well as visions for the Third Millennium.
At that time, I had come across a report commissioned by the World Bank published later as “Bangladesh 2020. A Long-Run Perspective Study” (LPS) by University Press Limited. As the title implies, the document had predictions for 2020, and the Foreword was written jointly by A Z M Obaidullah Khan, Chairman, Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies, and Pierre Lendall-Mills, Chief of the World Bank Resident Mission in Dhaka.
As I was reading the perspective plan and dreaming of the Bangladesh in 2020, I fell asleep one lazy afternoon in my mother’s apartment. It was a long sleep, quite like the character Rip Van Winkle, who fell into a 20-year slumber, except that I woke up after 25 years, on January 1, 2020.
I couldn’t recognise the country, even the Farmgate area where I used to go for my groceries. I picked up the LPS again and started looking for clues for where we are today, and how we stack up against the goals set out in 1995. I read the Foreword again, and the second paragraph still appears so prophetic to me. “The year 2020 is an important milestone for Bangladesh. It will mark the completion of one-half century of the young country’s existence. By then it would have become all too clear whether this nation of 170 million (in 2020) people will have grasped the abundant opportunities it has to progress and achieve a place among the middle-income countries-or whether it will have shunned reforms and remained among the poorest countries in the world.”
I read along, and zoomed in on the three key economic goals set out by LPS: substantial improvement in the quality of life (including reduction of poverty, availability of universal healthcare, and jobs for everybody), diversification of our exports, and annual flows of foreign direct investment amounting at least to USD eight billion. Today, as we round the corners and step into the third decade of this millennium, one does wonder where are we? Also, how much further do we have to go before we reach these targets?
To my pleasant surprise, the Rip Van Winkle in me was amazed by the progress we have made in the last quarter of a century, since the LPS was published. But, it is also clear that for the next quarter-century, in addition to economic progress, we should concurrently focus on three pillars of inclusive growth, namely, maximising economic opportunities, ensuring equal access for including women, and guarantees of economic well-being for all citizens. As we look ahead and gear up for the fiftieth-anniversary celebrations of independence, there are other goals that we also cherish and still remain unfulfilled.
There were several other studies, both official and by NGOs, since then which came up with alternative variations of “Vision 2020”. Notable among them, one that came out of a conference of visionaries gathered at a conference in Dhaka in 2001, was published by Dhaka University Press under the title, “Bangladesh’s Development Agenda and Vision 2020”. By then, the New Millennium was well underway, and the conferees asked five questions: i) Can Bangladesh achieve its development goals by 2020? ii) Can poverty be eliminated in Bangladesh by 2020? iii) Will Bangladesh join the group of middle-ranking industrialised nations in 2020? iv) Can democracy survive? v) What institutions will be needed to satisfy the vision 2020 goals?
In a keynote paper presented at this conference, Dr Mohammed Farashuddin, MP and former Governor of Bangladesh Bank, outlined the challenges we were facing at the beginning of this century. The 10 challenges were: “poverty alleviation; human resource constraints; infrastructure bottlenecks; financial intermediation; export diversification; higher value-added exports; polices to control financial corruption; political stability and institution-building; keeping pace with IT and global telecommunications developments; and environmental preservation in a vulnerable region of the globe”. The overall theme at this conference was very similar to LPS except for the fact that the former emphasised democratic values whereas the latter stressed the importance of environmental sustainability.
Let us take up the areas where Bangladesh has met up to the expectations of LPS. First of all, our population growth has been in a secular decline since 1996, from 2.17 to 1.08 percent per annum. Our total population in 2020 is expected to be less than the 171 million projected in LPS. Secondly, our per capita income, USD 1698.3 in nominal terms in 2019, exceeds the target for 2020. LPS used three different growth scenarios, moderate (4 percent), business as usual (6 percent) and high (8 percent), and in recent years we have, according to government statistics, reached high growth. But, we have not been able to generate employment for the additional 50 million people who entered the labour force since then, nor foster equality in income distribution. We have even more work to do in the areas of export diversification, FDI growth, and infrastructure development. The five challenges listed in LPS are still there, particularly, incomplete policy reforms and a weak financial sector. And last but not the least, there are signs that we are backsliding on the path to building an inclusive society, and might have morphed into a “hybrid democracy”. The Rip Van Winkle in me hopes that these are but small bumps along the road.
Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist and works in information technology. He is Senior Research Fellow, International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think-tank in Boston, USA.