How Bangladesh made progress amid crisis

Prothom Alo illustration

About the average living standard after independence, the World Bank, in a report on 25 September 1972, noted that around 90 per cent of people here live in villages while 80 per cent are involved in agriculture. A villager owns one and a half acres of land on average.

Apart from this, they borrow another one acre of land from the affluent and earn their livelihood by cultivating it. This land is divided into 10 or more parts. Many lands are far away from home. They have one cow each for cultivating the land.

Almost every family keeps rice worth two meals at home. They borrow money from relatives for a festival, wedding or any other social event.

They go to the moneylenders if they require a good amount of money. Most of them can pay only the interest, except for the principal, as they live hand to mouth. If the crops suffer damages, it mires the borrowers into the debt cycle.

The situation is even worse for the villagers who do not own any land. Such villagers are one-fifth of the total amount. Their houses are very small and dilapidated, usually made of paddy straw. They survive mainly thanks to the mercy of the landlords and are driven from their homes during bad harvest seasons.

Survival was in doubt

The journey of independent Bangladesh started amid such a situation. The World Bank then said in a report the issue of Bangladesh's development is very complex even in the most favourable situation. The people here are very poor, with a per capita income of between USD 50 to 70. The figure did not increase throughout the last 20 years. It is overpopulated as some 1,400 people live in each square kilometer. The life expectancy here is very low - below 50 years. The unemployment rate is between 25 and 30 per cent while a large part of the population is illiterate.

The World Bank was a bit reserved in its statement, but several economists openly expressed suspicion over the survival of Bangladesh. A Norwegian economist wrote in 1976 that Bangladesh cannot actually survive economically, rather it will depend on foreign aid forever.

Noted economist Austin Robinson, former president of the International Economic Association, has clearly written that the rate of population growth is higher than that of production. It simply results in famine, war and death. He calculated that it would take 90 to 120 years for Bangladesh to reach USD 900 per capita income.

Social capital pushed the country ahead

After 51 years, the per capita income of Bangladesh is USD 2,824 (Tk 296,520). The economists, since the beginning, have marked the population here as a major problem. They said a large part of the population is illiterate, dependent on agriculture and have low life expectancy; there is no industrial product and participation of women in economy is very low.

Now researchers said participation of women plays a significant role for the growth of Bangladesh. Per capital income has increased as much as child death and maternal mortality rates decreased. Women employment has increased; Bangladesh has progressed on index like women education far better than India and Pakistan.

Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) has shown in a research titled ‘Aspirational Momentum: The Development Story of Bangladesh’ that progress of these social indices played a significant role on the economic development of Bangladesh.

Researchers said low-income and poor people accepted low-priced oral saline method, family planning method and agriculture equipment cordially. Private organisations and companies are making people aware and providing equipment. The government has also provided policy support. All these played a big role for the economic development of the country.

Comparing to other countries

A World Bank report showed how Bangladesh performed comparing to other countries in South Asia. However, some of these statistics are updated and some are from pre-pandemic period. Thirteen per cent of population, for example, live below poverty line (people with daily income below $2.15) in Bangladesh while this rate stands at 1.3 per cent in Sri Lanka, 4.9 per cent in Pakistan, 10 per cent in India. According to researchers, situation has worsened because of coronavirus pandemic. Bangladesh, however, carried out no such study over the past five years.

Currently, average life expectancy is 72.8 years in Bangladesh. According to the 2021 data, average life expectancy is 66 years in Pakistan, 70 years in India, 76 years in Sri Lanka. In 2021, rate of population growth was 1.5 per cent in Pakistan, 0.8 per cent in India and 1.1 per cent in Sri Lanka. According to the recently release census, currently population growth rate stands at 1.22 per cent in Bangladesh.

In another study, BIDS director general Binayak Sen showed Bangladesh is ahead of India and Pakistan in 14 social indices altogether. Bangladesh progressed better than Pakistan on the index of child death rate, death rate of child below five, birth rate, average life, adult literacy rate, women participation in primary and secondary education. Bangladesh is ahead of India in almost all indices including women’s participation in job, maternal mortality rate, death rate of child below five, and secondary education rate. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen also wrote several times on Bangladesh making progress on social indices better than India.

Is achievement at risk?

The Covid-19 pandemic prolonging more than two years, followed by the economic crisis, now poses risk to achievement of many social indices. Not many studies have been carried out on the impact of the pandemic on various social indices. Even the government does not have any reliable data on poverty situation. Economists, however, think Covid-19 and economic crisis has weakened many social indices, posing risk to many achievements. If the government does not pay attention to these now, eventually economy will slow down.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, non-government organisation BRAC’s governing body chairperson Hossain Zillur Rahman said coronavirus pandemic started affecting social sectors directly. People reduced cost on various issues including education and health as their income was involved with it. Other problems also arose with learning loss appearing and child marriage rising significantly. Maternity or child health aspects also affected severely.

There is a third impact, which draws less attention and that is to give sole priority to the revival of economy from the impact of the pandemic. This has a positive side. But issue of social recovery has not been discussed at all. As a result, damage has been done regarding awareness in addition to learning loss. This is also related to the rise in child marriage and it has a long-term effect. Recovery of these issues like learning loss, child marriage, and women health is supposed to take long time, he added.

Hossain Zillur Rahman said cost cutting has started in the social sectors as economic crisis began after coronavirus pandemic. In the meantime, opportunities of social strategic investment have shrunk further amid the already created learning loss. As a result, social index progress sloths and a fear of negative trend looms large in several sectors, and there might be a big impact on overall development, he added.

This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Mishbahul Haque and Hasanul Banna