The fault in our idea of progress
Puzzling positive developments in our economic indicators, which hardly delineate the real socioeconomic conditions of the people in Bangladesh, are not new phenomena. For instance, our GDP growth hitting the mark of 7.25 percent for the outgoing 2021-22 fiscal year has yet again managed to leave the nation with raised eyebrows. In the face of a global economic crisis and a deep-seated hangover from the pandemic, Bangladesh eagerly awaits its LDC graduation with a roaring economic growth – despite rising inequality, record inflation, and high social and environmental degradation sitting remarkably at the heart of it. As these contradicting statistics are tried to be made sense of through debates and deliberations, it is the ordinary people who take a hit.
Despite being in a storm of mutually reinforcing economic crises right now, our policymakers – emboldened by such misleading measures of progress – are quick to respond sanguinely, adding further insult to the injury. With the LDC graduation on the horizon, it would be fitting to remind ourselves that material-centric indicators rarely constitute a healthy public. And that with our pushy agenda for higher and even higher growth, it would be very easy, and perhaps convenient, to forget the ones who are yet to get on board while Bangladesh prepares to take off. It does not take an expert to realise that all these optimistic statistics are hardly being translated into inclusive development. Development that would enable people to collectively benefit from factors such as equal distribution of national wealth, wide social safety net coverage, clean air and water, quality education, basic healthcare, a strong legal and judiciary system or free speech – none of which are factored in the GDP, a globally controversial metric and the "crowned prince" of our development journey so far.
The lion's share of this GDP growth comes from our overdependence on the ready-made garment (RMG) industry, a sector burgeoning painfully on the backs of exploited workers, whose minimum wages have remained stagnant since 2018. This only goes to show that, as we glorify this growth, the cost of living a dignified life spirals out of control at the hands of those who are directly responsible for it, signifying a degree of manic and unashamed oppressiveness that persists for a totalitarian kind of growth. Ironically, the overwhelming reliance on this single industry for export just might cost us a high price, since a whopping 70 percent of Bangladesh's share of exports utilise LDC-specific benefits, which will be gradually removed after graduation. We are also set to have our exports – both in dollars and in percentage – decline by 14 percent, with our garment exports levied with the highest increase in tariffs. So, instead of cashing in on cheap labour for maximising this disproportionate growth, the focus could have been shifted to mobilising our domestic resources for creating a more conducive environment for higher private and foreign investments, for capacity enhancement of our labour, and for exportable product diversification. That would have not only improved the livelihoods of our labour force, but also allowed us to find our footing in the competitive global market.
But the fact of the matter is that Bangladesh generates such worryingly low yields of revenue as a percentage of its GDP – with a tax-GDP ratio of 7.6 percent, the lowest in South Asia – that resource mobilisation in itself becomes a Herculean task. What does this signify, then? A governance system of tax revenue collection mired in corruption and complacency? A growing informal economy? Rigid policies that allow tax evasion? We cannot – or dare not – say for sure. What we can understand, however, is that such staggering levels of tax revenue directly translate to extremely poor levels of public expenditure meant for improving social welfare. It translates to the low preparedness of our education system that fails to equip young people with the skills necessary for today, let alone for after the graduation, or a social safety net that amounts to peanuts against the peaking inflation, or the negligence towards the destruction of our forests and rivers, or the absence of universal healthcare.
The health sector, especially, is looking at an imminent crisis with the upcoming graduation. It is already in shambles, ensuring the majority are just one medical disaster away from being relegated to a lower socioeconomic class. Now, add to that the looming cessation of the pharmaceutical waiver under the TRIPS agreement, which has allowed the pharmaceutical industry to flourish substantially due to its waivers and flexibilities – be it through meeting the local demand for medicines without having to import, or through local drug manufacturers being able to export drugs, even with expired patents, or through affordable access to essential medicines for families in low-income brackets. Now, with the LDC graduation – without an extension of the agreement for graduated LDCs like Bangladesh till the end of the transition period – the industry is bound to face huge setbacks with patent and licensing issues, while vulnerable families are doomed to an irrecoverable welfare loss due to the consequential price hike of medicines.
And this is just one glaring example among many others. Almost all sectors have gone mouldy due to inefficiency, corruption, or the culture of impunity. This serpentine web of issues needs to be addressed urgently, with a concerted effort through strong structural reforms and proactive policy instruments; and yet, all we seem to care about is this totalitarian growth. The growth is contested by eminent economists, not just as a concept, but also based on how it is measured and does not align with "correlates and other proxy indicators." Such gross discrepancies have created the need for an autonomous independent body that would collect and comprise national data, free from any manipulation, but let us not get carried away.
In 1968, US Senator Robert F Kennedy famously remarked that we consider "everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile," while sharing his opinion on how we measure economic performance and how we mismeasure the quality of our lives. Moreover, in its essence, GDP does not take into account the prices we are having to pay for our strange fixation with growth; they are just externalities. The metric pretentiously makes a cosy place for itself in the list of sustainable development goals and joins the cause of "leaving no one behind." Sadly, under the aegis of this very instrument, we are proceeding towards our graduation and designing the path beyond it, "leaving behind" countless vulnerable lives to grapple with a new set of reality, thanks to our higher economic status.
Iqra L Qamari is a junior consultant at the Public Private Partnership Authority.