Published on 12:39 PM, May 22, 2022

What Bangladesh needs to accomplish to be an upper-middle income country

Since 1971, Bangladesh has made significant economic progress. In terms of per capita purchasing power parity, it has overtaken Pakistan. Among the three populous South Asian countries, in 2020 India ranked highest (USD 6,200), Bangladesh second (USD 4,900), and Pakistan third (USD 4,600). Nepal is the poorest (USD 3,800). Based on the lower-middle income threshold of USD 3.20/day, the poverty rate in India and Bangladesh exceeds 50 percent, and is above 30 percent in Pakistan.

Due to the chaotic governing style of the Rajapaksa family, the World Bank has lowered Sri Lanka from an upper-middle to a lower-middle income country, the status of all other South Asian countries. Despite the Rajapaksas, Sri Lanka puts to shame the other South Asian countries in terms of per capita income (USD 12,500) and poverty rate (only 11 percent). The obvious question, why is Sri Lanka outperforming the rest of South Asia?

Whatever else explains Sri Lanka's superior economic performance, a crucial factor is having better schools, which means a better educated work force. If this explanation is right, it implies that, to realise Sri Lanka's economic performance, other South Asian countries must achieve basic education levels as good as in Sri Lanka.

Primary schools are the foundation for a child's education. The most important goal of a primary school system is to enable all children to read and write the national (regional in India and Pakistan) language. There are many other primary school goals, but they should not divert us from the importance of functional literacy and numeracy.

A relevant illustration as to why literacy and numeracy matter is the Bangladesh ready-made garment sector, the one large sector of the Bangladesh economy that successfully competes internationally. Garment factories hire workers who, on average, have completed some secondary schooling. Based on a survey of 2013, among the Rana Plaza garment workers who survived, 90 percent had completed primary school. Among female workers, at least half had some secondary schooling, and a quarter had the Grade 10 secondary school certificate (SSC). Among male workers, over half had at least SSC level schooling. These education levels are far above the average in Bangladesh.

We may not be able to export agricultural products given the country's large population. The same applies for mineral resources. The only resources we can develop for certain is our human resources. Bangladesh can realise a demographic dividend. However, to realise it we need to invest more on education and improve the education status of the next generation's workforce. Good quality education is the necessary input. Period!

Between 2000 and 2015, many countries—including Bangladesh—dramatically increased student enrolment and completion of the primary cycle. In South Asia, by 2015 about 95 percent of school-age children enrolled in school. In India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, since 2015 about 80 percent of the primary age cohort has been completing primary school. So far so good—but completing primary school does not mean a child can read and write (and do basic arithmetic). In many developing countries, reasons ranging from inadequate school budgets to civil war and corruption in school administration are preventing children from learning. The corruption problem is particularly acute in government schools.

The measure of literacy can range from very simple to the command of language among journalists and teachers who write daily. The UNESCO definition of literacy is the ability to write and read with understanding a short simple statement. about their everyday life. By this very low measure, the present adult literacy rate in Pakistan is below 60 percent. In India and Bangladesh, it is about 75 percent, and in Sri Lanka over 90 percent. As the Bangladesh garment sector illustrates, employers in the formal sector have education expectations far above the Unesco definition of literacy.

In South Asia, the best available comparative evidence on children's achieving at least basic Grade 2 or 3 level literacy is the World Bank's "learning poverty" index. The index estimates the share of children aged 10-14 who cannot read at a basic level. The index counts two groups: 1) children who dropped out of school or never enrolled and therefore are assumed to be illiterate; plus 2) children in school at ages 10-14 but are unable to read at a basic level.

To illustrate, in Bangladesh about one in five children aged 10-14 are out of school. Among those enrolled, the World Bank estimates that nearly half are unable to read at a basic Grade 2 or 3 level. Summing the two statistics, 58 percent of Bangladeshi children aged 10-14 are estimated to be "learning poor". The learning poor rate in India (at 55 percent) is similar; in Pakistan (at 75 percent), it is much higher. By contrast, in Sri Lanka only 15 percent are learning poor. Incidentally, the share of children aged 10-14 in West Bengal able to read Bangla is very close to the Indian average.

Relative to the Unesco literacy definition, the learning poverty index is a more realistic estimate of national performance in providing children with a decent primary school foundation. Overall, in South Asia the learning poverty rate is 58 percent. China's learning poor rate is only 18 percent. In Southeast and East Asia (including China, but excluding high-income countries: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan), estimated learning poverty is 22 percent.

At the secondary level, the world's most important comparative assessment of national school systems is the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Once every three years, PISA assesses reading, mathematics, and science performance among large samples of upper secondary students, age 15, in 80 countries. Most Southeast and East Asian countries participate. At least in the large coastal cities, China outperforms average high-income countries—as do Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. In Southeast Asia, most countries (Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Philippines) participate. Their results are lower than in Singapore and East Asia, but there is indirect evidence from other assessments that Southeast Asian countries outperform South Asian countries (Sri Lanka excepted). In 2009, one Indian state participated in PISA. The performance was so weak that the state government vowed never to participate again.

What does this mean for policy and priorities? One conclusion from the Bangladesh garment sector is that, without a high-quality school system, from primary school to HSC, no country is likely to achieve per capita GDP above USD 10,000. This suggests three imperatives for government schools.

First, primary schooling should be focusing on the foundational skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. These skills are now lost in a long list of competencies and other subjects. Second, a key element of re-design has to be preparing and supporting teachers to teach these skills—and measuring students' progress in basic skills. Third, plans for universal secondary education up to HSC should be made and implemented, concentrating on consolidation and further development of the core skills, adding to them English language and basic science at the secondary level.

Preparing the goals and plans and overseeing their implementation should be a major priority for the government. According to the 2019 Annual Primary School Census, seven in 10 primary school students attend government schools (or so-called newly nationalised schools). The share of children in non-government schools has risen over the last two decades, but the great majority of children are still attending government schools. Non-state education providers, should be encouraged, provided they are harnessed within the government's regulatory framework.

Who is going to resolve the present low-quality "education pandemic"? The "vaccine" here is primary school teachers providing foundational literacy and numeracy. Government school teachers need better training. They need to be empowered to provide educational services in school—instead of diverting students to private tutoring in teachers' homes or coaching centres.

Private citizens and business leaders can play an important role by influencing school management committees, or by taking inspiration from corporate social responsibility in other countries. The activities may be private philanthropies or generous on-the-job training. By private philanthropy, we do not refer to high-end English medium schools. A private provision of education can be a "low fee" school model that exempts low-income families from paying any tuitions.


John Richards is a professor at the School of Public Policy, Simon Fraser University, Canada. Shahidul Islam is an education policy researcher.