Socio-economic progress and shaping the future

Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad

Photo: Star

Bangladesh has made progress over the years, significant progress in many respects. For example: three-fold increase in food grain production since Liberation, average annual GDP growth rate of 5.4% over the past decade and a half, and about 6% during the last 2-3 years despite global recession; internationally acclaimed reduction in infant mortality rate; 4th global position (after China, European Union, and Turkey) in terms of value of readymade garments (RMG) exports; Bangladeshi expatriates around the world remitting to Bangladesh US$ 10-11 billion annually in recent years accounting for around similar proportion of the GDP; a well-developed road network stretching widely across the country; net enrollment at the primary level of education (class I) of over 90% parity or better in favour of girls in the enrollment at primary and secondary levels of education; and formulation and adoption of a number of key national policies and strategies, particularly by the present government.

Mention must be made of National Education Policy 2010. This is a comprehensive policy covering all segments of society and responds to felt-needs for quality education for all at lower levels and quality higher education in all disciplines. If properly implemented, the goal of providing education of international standards in all disciplines should be achieved. The policy is inclusive, i.e. everybody will be included and nobody excluded. In this context, it focuses in particular on disadvantaged children such as children of ethnic minorities, street children, those living in difficult terrains such as haor, baor, char, and hills as well as in economically and otherwise backward areas of the country. It also focuses on imbibing students with human values and qualities right from the beginning on one hand and development of human capabilities of all students in their chosen subjects at various levels of education. Science education and skill development receive particular attention. Disparity among schools in rural areas on one hand and urban areas on the other are to be reduced through increasing investments in rural educational institutions suffering from various kinds of deficiencies. Religious education has received due attention. The policy is expected to be implemented over a period of nine years.

Photo: Rashed Shumon

Another policy and strategy stance adopted in 2009 should be highlighted. It is well-known that Bangladesh is at the forefront of intensifying climate change impacts. The reasons include high population density, disadvantaged geographical location, long coastal belt, widespread poverty, resource limitations, and institutional and human capability limitations. The recent years have seen climate change-related more frequent floods and cyclones causing large-scale economic infrastructural and social devastations in the affected areas. The economic and social setback has been huge. In such situations, the relief and rehabilitation needs require reallocation of development funds to these needs, causing setbacks in the development process.

Awareness has been building in the country over the past decade and a half both within the government and among academics, NGOs, and the suffering population. In response, the government adopted Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP) in 2009. This enunciates a comprehensive approach to address climate change and socio-economic issues in an integrated fashion. The government has in fact shown its total commitment to addressing climate change issues by allocating US$200 million during the current and the preceding fiscal years (i.e. during 2009/10 and 2010/11). This amount is small compared to needs but an allocation of such an amount out of the limited budgetary resource shows that the government is committed to doing all it can to combat climate change impacts. Obviously, lot more resources will be needed from the international community to effectively address the issues already faced and those that will be emerging as climate change intensifies. Indeed, Bangladesh is not at all responsible for the climate change that is occurring. The responsibility lies with the developed countries which caused global warming by emitting huge quantities of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere over the past 150 years and more. Bangladesh is a strong advocate in the international arena for the developed countries to drastically reduce their GHG emissions in order to bring the process of climate change under control by containing the global temperature rise to 1.5oC. Bangladesh is also negotiating hard for its legitimate share of international resources, financial and technological for combating climate change impacts. In fact, although exempt as a least developed country, Bangladesh is willing to follow a low carbon path, provided adequate international support is available and the required acceleration in its economic growth for accelerated poverty reduction is not compromised.

The third policy area that I would like to comment on is the focus on improving relations with the neighbouring countries for mutually beneficial cooperation in various potential areas. The communique signed by Bangladesh and Indian Prime Ministers following the recent official visit by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India is a highly significant document which can be built on for solid and expanding cooperation between the two countries. It is also recognized that there are many issues in the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna (GBM) region, which are not bilateral but multilateral. This region is endowed with huge water resources that can be jointly developed and shared by the coriparians for increased mutual benefits. Reportedly, India is willing to approach the water issues in GBM region from a basin-wide perspective, involving all the coriparians. Studies have shown that a pragmatic approach on the part of the coriparians, certainly keeping in perspective mutuality of interest but with a spirit of give-and-take, win-win results for all coriparians are sure to be achieved. In other words, each country will gain more through regional cooperation, water-based and otherwise, compared to narrow nationalistic approaches. Obviously, hard work is necessary on the part of all the coriparians to realize these benefits. The GBM regional leadership surely can learn from the benefits being derived from ever expanding and strengthening cooperation by European Union, ASEAN, and other regional groupings.

Photo: Raj Anikat/drik news

It is also a significant commentary on how the Bangladesh economy is fairing that Bangladesh has been given the rating of BA-3 in the Moody's Investment Services Sovereign Rating Exercise 2010 in terms of economic stability and credit-worthiness. It puts Bangladesh just behind India and ahead of all other South Asian countries. Obviously, this is an international recognition signifying improved international image of the Bangladesh economy. Bangladesh is now making good stride in using information technology widely and deeply through a process of what is known as digitalization. This is indeed a process, which will move the country up the scale in international league table of digital connectivity.

It is also to be recognized with great admiration that the nationally demanded (as indicated by the last parliamentary election results) trial of the perpetrators of war crimes has begun. One expects that these trials will be carried forward to their logical conclusions.

Also, the original Constitutional framework of non-communal inclusive Bangladesh has been restored by a Supreme Court judgment in July 2010. The Constitution also provides for creating equal opportunity for all citizens without regard to ethnicity, colour, creed, or sex. Therefore, the highest law of the land calls for an inclusive society to be established where all citizens, who are constitutionally proclaimed as the owners of the Republic, are enabled to enjoy their legitimate rights, privileges, and shares of socio-economic progress.

The above prognosis is reflected in the 2008 election manifesto of Bangladesh Awami League, the principal component of the ruling grand coalition. The manifesto states clearly that the goal is to establish an economically vibrant, disparity and exploitation free, non-communal, democratic welfare state. This is reflected in a significant manner in the two budgets this government has so far provided. In both cases, the focus is on strengthening the national economy, particularly agriculture and other rural sectors. There has been significant increase in the coverage of safety-nets and major programmes for employment generation for the poor are also included. Women's issues have received increased attention and women's issues-focused budgets have been prepared by several ministries. And so have the issues of ethnic minorities and of people belonging to relatively backward areas and disadvantaged groups.

Photo: Star

It is indeed important to recognize the achievements and do whatever is necessary to take the achievements to higher levels. But, it is even more important to recognize the challenges and mistakes which must be overcome in order to take the country forward, ensuring that the citizens are all on board in terms of their legitimate shares of progress.

One of the major challenges is the increasing disparity between the rich and the poor and disadvantaged, and between urban and rural areas. Certain areas of the country are falling increasingly behind others. Women's status has by and large improved over the years, but they remain at the wrong end of the disparity regime. The increasing disparity manifests itself in economic, social, and political terms. Each process continues to reinforce the others, with the disparity syndrome tending to remain ever entrenched. But the policy of removing disparities is part of the vision of the present government. Therefore, it is crucially important that appropriate policies and actions are implemented effectively to promote social, economic, financial, and political inclusiveness.

A second area to focus on is to ensure effective implementation of policies, budgetary provisions and programmes. Only proper implementation can ensure the results. In this area, a lot remains to be done. The key fault areas include lack of effective coordination, bureaucratic procrastination and inaction, wastage of resources, absence of proper monitoring, poor enforcement of accountability of government functionaries, failure to effectively reign in unruly elements among genuine or so-called party members or support groups. All these areas need very urgent attention in terms of effective corrective action.

It is important and also recognized in the Constitutions as well as in Awami Leagues's 2008 election manifesto that local governance must be effective for sustained national progress. It is essential that the various levels local governance are endowed with appropriate devolved powers and equipped with necessary administrative and financial autonomy so that they can perform their responsibilities properly. As of now, there are complications and incongruences in the local governance acts and procedures, which have given rise to dissatisfaction and difficulties at various levels of local governance. These must be sorted out soon, particularly in line with the Constitutional provisions and promises made in the 2008 Awami League election manifesto.

Finally, political sagacity is called for on the part of both the government and the political opposition to avoid political confrontations, which benefit none in the ultimate analysis and inflicts damages and losses to the economy, and sufferings on the people whose interests are to be served by the politicians. It is about time people-centred approaches are developed by the political parties to settle their differences, ushering in an era of political tolerance and civilized political behaviour that will ultimately be beneficial for all concerned, particularly the people of the country who are, according to our Constitution, owners of the Republic.

The author is an ecoomist is chairman Dhaka School of Economics and Chairman, PKSF.