Bangladesh has made phenomenal progress in the last two decades in terms of improving the standard of living of the masses. Be that as it may, we are not going to rest on our laurels but continue to march forward since we have many more milestones to cross in the coming decades. Soon, we are hoping to step into the threshold for middle-income status, and then go all-out to reach the goals set out in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) initiative. The prime minister of Bangladesh, during her visit to India in late October, declared that she is confident that Bangladesh will advance to reach the developed country status by 2041.
Sounds ambitious? What are some of the roadblocks that we need to overcome and how do we make sure we don’t get tripped by unforeseen traps laid out on our road to prosperity? According to an ADB report, our growth is precariously hanging in the balance in spite of rising buoyant exports and remittances, and accelerated growth is hindered by poor monetary policy, lacklustre private investment, and out-of-control infrastructure projects.
One possible way to conceptualise the challenges ahead is to visualise some “what if” scenarios and then look for alternatives that would allow us to continue on our journey, even at the expense of mid-course corrections to our roadmap, if you will. I will briefly touch upon three challenges, viz. a lack of diversity in our production base, the much-discussed investment gap, and the low level of spending on health and education.
The most difficult challenge in the coming years is going to be to diversify our economy to get out of our overwhelming reliance on a single sector, the ready-made garments, for employment generation, GDP growth, and to fill our foreign exchange coffers. While it might sound a little paranoid to even mention that our boom days are in jeopardy or even might end if the bottom falls out of the RMG sector, many insiders have already started to ring the alarm bell. BGMEA has already sounded the call for battle and has been asking the government for the last two years for various forms of support to prop up the industry. The incumbent president of BGMEA is seeking assistance from the banks, government, and global supply chain. “In the last 5 months, more than 40 factories have closed down and over 25,000 workers have lost their jobs,” she wrote in an op-ed in The Daily Star. BGMEA officials have stated in no uncertain terms last week that the industry is running at a loss. The BGMEA chief has blamed external forces including competition, downward pressure on price, and uncertain global sourcing trends for the downward spiral.
To add to the existing woes of the RMG industry, foreign media has once again started to raise questions regarding: i) The safety record of the RMG sector; ii) Working conditions in the factories; and iii) Wages paid in the RMG sector. The Wall Street Journal in its October 24 edition ran a big front-page story about Amazon’s dealings with Bangladesh’s garments industry. In the investigative report, published under the banner, “Amazon Sells Clothes From Factories Other Retailers Blacklist”, the WSJ detailed some of the practices in a few of the units labelled “dangerous plants in Bangladesh”. BGMEA soon posted a rejoinder on its Facebook page, but the story ought to be an eye-opener for all, once again.
Turning to the lack of diversity, IMF last year suggested that further progress in diversifying exports is critical to sustaining strong and inclusive growth. USAID’s Comprehensive Private Sector Assessment (PSA) identified 16 emerging sectors including agribusiness (food processing), healthcare, information and communications technology and outsourcing, light engineering, pharmaceuticals, and tourism as some of the most promising industries beyond the ready-made garments (RMG) sector for private sector engagement and investment. It is imperative for the various ministries to act in coordination to boost these sectors.
The country needs to address some of the lingering issues that have become a drag on private investment and foreign capital inflows. Tax revenues in Bangladesh are currently low at 9 percent of GDP, and the country needs more revenues to finance infrastructure investment and social spending. Foreign direct investment (FDI) has been impacted by red tape, an uncertain policy regime, poor infrastructure, and lack of transparency. The costs of many infrastructure projects, including the Padma Bridge and the Dhaka-Chattogram road links, are spiralling out of control. And all of these are the outcomes of inefficiency, negligence, a lack of accountability and in many cases corrupt practices of people related with the projects, according to a report in this newspaper (“Mega but slow: Poor planning, uncertainty over funds take toll on big projects”). Lax project management and poor oversight has repeatedly been identified as the Achilles heels of almost all public infrastructure projects.
For years on end, our budget has been quite miserly in its allocation for health and education, including manpower development. According to some experts, Bangladesh ought to allocate six percent of its GDP for education and three percent of its GDP for health. This means that these shares deserve to be doubled. The current budget allocation for both is way below the global trajectory in these sectors in low- and middle-income countries. “With such a poor public spending record in education and health, it is impossible for Bangladesh to register substantial progress towards attaining SDGs by 2030,” according to professor Selim Raihan of Dhaka University.
A final word of caution for our leaders and policymakers. Some have been paying too much attention to increasing our GDP growth rate at the expense of other social objectives and national aspirations. “We are aiming to achieve the double-digit growth as quickly as possible through timely implementation of all nationally important infrastructure projects including megaprojects”, the finance minister said in his budget speech.
A study done by Harvard Business School’s professor Erik Werker shows that countries that achieved a period of double-digit growth fared poorly when contrasted with those that achieved 6-7 percent GDP increase. Statistical tests showed that the former group lagged in the following metrics: amount of FDI received, investment, export growth, industrial composition, and public spending on education. These growth-chasers, to coin a new phrase, have not generally conducted the sorts of reforms to the legal, regulatory, and governance environment that could have generated higher growth. They have also not generally invested their rents well in infrastructure or human capital.
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.