Bangladesh has just celebrated its Golden Jubilee, crossing a challenging, difficult, but successful 50 years. However, with the world taking a different turn, the next 50 years are bound to be far more challenging.

Mahfuz Anam, editor of The Daily Star, made these observations on Saturday at a lecture, ‘Bangladesh in the Next 50 Years: Vision of an Editor’ held at hotel in the capital city. The lecture was organised by the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS).

“One of the fundamental movers of a country to the future is demography,” said Mahfuz Anam, pointing out that Bangladesh’s population which is now 168 million on a 144,000 sq km area of land, will be 210 million in 2040. The land area will not increase, there are limited resources, natural calamities and climate change.

“The people will need to be fed, sheltered and their health will need to be taken care of, they will need transportation. Our challenge,” he said, “would be to turn this ‘burden’ into a virtue. This would mean skilled labour, an innovative workforce ready for the world.” He felt urbanisation was key to the problem and the creation of at least 10 mega cities around the country including in Dhaka, Chattogram, Mymensingh, Sylhet, Rajshahi, Khulna, Jashore, Dinajpur and Rangpur would make a huge difference.

He went on to say that there was need for internet and infrastructure throughout the country. “In a small country,” Mahfuz Anam observed, “investment in infrastructure has high returns in usage. Per capita returns are the highest in the world. High speed trains, internet, all this is doable. This will spread industrialisation throughout the country. Then the huge population becomes a positive factor.”

The Daily Star editor then highlighted the demand for a modern education to create a productive workforce. “Our education system is archaic,” he said, “The curriculum is changed every 15 to 20 years and this pushes the country backwards. Companies are not finding qualified human resources. The curriculum needs to be updated every month, teachers need to be trained, institutions of excellence need to be created in all districts.”

Coming to the issue of governance, the senior journalist said that efficiency was a serious problem in this regard. He pointed to the governance in South Korea and Singapore as examples of successful governance in countries similar to Bangladesh.

He said, “In Bangladesh the rise of the executive has dwarfed the legislative and judiciary. There have been no substantial discussions in parliament for the last 30 years.”

Again mentioning demography, he said Bangladesh must take advantage of its demographic dividend where the youth at the peak of productive capacity were the dominant population.

Bangladesh graduating from LDC to a lower middle income country will mean losing the preferential access to global markets which has been pivotal for the country. It also receives loans from the World Bank, ADB and such financial institutions at concessional rates, but this advantage will also go. Intelligent leadership is required to prepare Bangladesh for that future. After all, Chile, Brazil and Argentina all graduated to middle income countries, but have been stagnating for the last 35 years. Philippines has been stagnating for the past 25 years, said the editor, adding, “What we have achieved may become a burden. But South Korea is a good example because it took the right steps.”

We have slipped down considerably when it comes to freedom of expression
Mahfuz Anam, editor, The Daily Star

“Our geography is quite exception,” said Mahfuz Anam, “as we are wedged between two giants, India and China. This is a source of funds, investment and market. But deteriorating relations between India and China can be worrisome. However, so far Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has dexterously navigated India and China investment, but this will be challenging in the next ten years.”

Youth is the engine of growth, but if we don’t use the engine well, it can drag us down. There is need for skilling, upskilling and multiskilling
Maj Gen (retd) ANM Muniruzzaman, president, BIPSS

“We have slipped down considerably when it comes to freedom of expression,” continued editor Anam, mentioning that intolerance towards dissent was a fundamental flaw.”

He also touched on the democracy-development debate, the threat to religious harmony, politicisation of the civil service, food security and other significant challenges Bangladesh would need to face in the years to come.

Moderator of the event, Maj Gen (retd) ANM Muniruzzaman, president of BIPSS, in rounding up the event, also spoke of the challenges ahead, saying, “We are entering a period of transformation. Science and technology brings us hope and Bangladesh must reap these benefits. One advantage Bangladesh presently enjoys is the youth demographic. Youth is the engine of growth, but if we don’t use the engine well, it can drag us down. There is need for skilling, upskilling and multiskilling.”

The BIPSS president also highlighted the challenge of climate change which would be an existential challenge in the next 20 years. Ending on a positive note, he said, “Despite everything, we have hope, not despair. With the right kind of leadership, Bangladesh will reach even newer heights.”

The lecture was followed by a lively question and answer session. The event was attended by foreign diplomats, retired civil and military bureaucrats, retired diplomats, journalists, academics, students and others.