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Tomoo Hozumi

Bangladesh has achieved significant progress in the past few decades, including successfully reducing the infant mortality rate. The mortality rate of children under five years of age in Bangladesh declined from 121 per 1,000 live births in 1992 to 40 per 1,000 live births in 2019. This is a reduction of 67 per cent in 27 years.

Since independence, the birth rate in Bangladesh has decreased as well. The total fertility rate (TFR) was 6.3 in 1975, which decreased to 2.3 in 2019. This is another significant achievement through which Bangladesh has been able to circumvent the risk of population explosion.

Bangladesh has also achieved progress in terms of many indicators including the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). But Bangladesh now has to face two interrelated challenges to benefit from a demographic dividend. One is the increasing proportion of elderly people and the other is the limited demographic window of opportunity.

The population pyramid of Bangladesh in 2015shows that child birth had started to decrease. By 2050, the population structure will be top heavy, when the majority of the population will be elderly. What this means is that compared to now, a fewer number of young working-age people will have to take care of a larger number of senior dependent people. People aged over 65 years are considered to be senior dependent citizens.

When the percentage of senior dependent population is 7 percent or more of the total population, it is called an 'aging society'. If the proportion is 14 percent or more, then it is called an 'aged' society. Bangladesh will become an ageing society by 2029 and an aged society by 2047. So, Bangladesh will make this transition from ageing to aged society in 18 years. For comparison, Japan made this transition in 24 years. For France, the transition period happened in 115 years, for Sweden in 85 years, for Britain in 47 years and for Germany in 40 years. Thus, the transition happened at a much slower pace in these countries compared to Bangladesh. On the other hand, similar to Bangladesh, the transition period for countries like Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, and China will also be short. But these countries are more affluent than Bangladesh.

During the demographic window of opportunity period, the proportion of working-age population (aged 15-64 years) of a country is larger compared to the dependent population. For Bangladesh, this window started in 1978 and will start decreasing in 2033. So Bangladesh will enjoy the demographic window of opportunity for 55 years. As of 2021, 78 percent of the window of opportunity has already passed. In comparison, Japan enjoyed the same for 60 years. For countries like China, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Indonesia this period will be much shorter.

In 1960, 20 people of working age people were supporting one senior dependent in Bangladesh, which has decreased to 13 people supporting one senior dependent in 2020. This will further decrease to 6 people of working age by 2040, and 3 by 2060, supporting one elderly dependent. This challenge can be faced only if today’s children and youth are 3 to 4 times more productive than today’s adults. And for that reason, time-sensitive investment in children is crucial today. These things are happening in other countries as well.

In 1995, Bangladesh spent 1.2 percent of the GDP in the health sector, which decreased to 0.79 percent by 2012, while the average global allocation in health is more than 5 percent. Investment in education has increased a bit but it is still half of the world average.

Bangladesh is standing at a crossroads for its sustainable development today. We need to make prioritized investments in our children particularly in sectors such as health, nutrition, water, sanitation and hygiene, early childhood development, education and protection of children and women while the country’s demographic window of opportunity is still open. These investments are highly time-sensitive given the very rapid speed of the concerned changes as described above. Doing so is not a matter of charity or adding a “soft” side to economic development. It is essential for Bangladesh to take the maximum advantage of the favorable conditions in the remaining period of the demographic window of opportunity and to be prepared for the challenges of the forthcoming ageing and aged society.

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Syed Golam Faruk

The working age population is larger in Bangladesh. But this will change soon and the proportion of our dependent population will increase. The government is aware of that. The demographic window of opportunity will not be always available. So, we have to utilize this. The education sector (secondary and higher secondary) is planning to fully utilize this demographic window of opportunity. We are trying to change the education system including the syllabus and teaching and learning processes so that are prepared for the fourth industrial revolution.

Towards that we are incorporating new technologies while also emphasizing soft skills like morality, creativity, social commitment, harmony, and self-control that are sustainable and important for the 21st century. We are also changing the evaluation processes. We started this before the pandemic. We would be seeing visible changes in the education system now if we were not faced with the COVID-19 pandemic.

We have been confronted with new challenges as schools are closed due to the pandemic. We are coming up with innovative steps, such as online and television-based classes, to deal with these challenges. We have started online assignment-based evaluations, which is not only an efficient method of evaluation but good approach to teaching and learning as well. Our teachers and students are skilled in these new approaches now. Due to this, access to internet and ICT devices is increasing for students as well.

The government has been working to build the skills of children; it has never held back from investing in them. It will increase its investment in education and skill development in due time as necessary. But we also have to ensure maximum utilisation of the current allocation.

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TM Asaduzzaman

Skill development is a priority for the education system today. The government has reaffirmed its commitment in this regard in the recently approved five-year plan. Work opportunities in the near future will be determined by automation and creativity because of the fourth industrial revolution. In that context, there will be fewer employment opportunities in traditional industries and more in modern industries.

We have to start thinking about future employment opportunities where there will be a high demand for intelligence, social and emotional skills and adaptability. This change will come soon. We have taken initiatives to reform the education system accordingly. The syllabus has been updated and hopefully, this will be implemented from the next year. As the birth rate is low now, the government will have the opportunity to invest more in children and we have to utilize this chance.

ICT should be prioritised in secondary and higher secondary education. We should train teachers as well. Investing in teachers to improve their professional skills is crucial. We have must work together and be inclusive to best utilise our demographic window of opportunity.

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Abdur Razzaque

By 2029, the proportion of people aged over 65 will be 7 percent. We can look at this from a different perspective. Bangladesh aspires to become an upper-middle income country by 2031. But we will become an aging country before that. Bangladesh will become a high-income country by 2041. Due to the pandemic, many of our achievements are now at risk. The income growth may slow down in the future because of COVID-19. We may not be able to become a high-income country before 2047.

We have not been able to benefit from demographic dividend due to the low participation of the working-age population in the labor market. While 85 per cent of the working-age male population of Bangladesh is engaged in the labour market, for the female population, this figure is only 36 per cent. Thus, in total, 60 per cent of the working-age population is engaged in the labour market.

In Vietnam, a developing country like ours, male participation is similar to that of Bangladesh. But the participation of women in the labor market is 73 per cent. In total, 80 per cent of the working-age population is engaged in the labour market in Vietnam— which makes a big difference. If the female participation increases, we can benefit from our demographic dividend. We also have many informal sectors in Bangladesh which are not very productive. We can make progress if we can increase their productivity.

40 per cent of the total workforce of this country is engaged in agriculture but the contribution of this sector to the GDP is only 13 percent. This means, the sector lacks productive workers.

Bangladesh should learn how other countries are making progress. Britain spends 30 per cent in social protection, 12 per cent in education and 22 per cent in healthcare. Children, working age population and elder citizens get benefit from this. We spend very little on social protection. The latest budget has allocated 3.11 per cent for this, but a large portion of this allocation is spent for pension. We are unable to allocate enough for children. 29 per cent of the youth who are of working age are involved neither in education nor in jobs, leaving them unproductive. We need a strong social protection system. Investments in women and children are never wasted.

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Farah Kabir

We have to invest in children because they will take care of us when we grow old’‑we must move away from such ideas. This way of thinking once led to the preference for male children in families. We have to invest in children because it is their right. The constitution assures protections for all, including children. Food, clothing, healthcare are their fundamental rights. We have to keep that in mind. Investing in children is not charity. We must be inclusive of children, women, marginalized and underprivileged people in all investment plans.

We have to invest in education and for developing soft, intellectual and creative skills, and in entrepreneurship training. We need to invest in the youth entrepreneurs who are coming up today. To take care of our elderly citizens, we have to invest in healthcare and other service sectors. This cannot be done by the government alone. Private sectors have to play a role here. More than 80 per cent of the budget comes from the private sectors.

Investment in social protection will ensure safe environment for girls and women. How much of the current allocation in social protection is being utilized? Only 30 per cent of the health sector allocation last year was utilized and most of it was spent as salary. We have to raise questions and change the management system in this regard. We have to ensure transparency and accountability. And we must not forget about our girl children. Still 50 to 60 per cent of them are becoming victims of child marriage in this country. We have to think about them. Investing in mental healthcare is also very important.

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Nazma Mobarek

It has been discussed that out investment in social safety nets is low. But considering our socioeconomic context, we have a fairly-large social safety net allocation. We are a developing country and the government has limited resources. We have an allocation of BDT 1,07,624 crore for this purpose this year.

The government is supposed to play a regulatory role. Currently, around 80 per cent of domestic investment comes from the private sector. So development partners and the private sector need to come forward and invest in children, joining hands with the government.

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Hossain Zillur Rahman

It has been mentioned here that 29 per cent of the youth are not in education, training or jobs while women's participation in the domestic labor market is only 36 per cent. We need to pay attention to these facts. A substantial number of jobs are occupied by people from other countries because our education system is failing to fulfill the requirements we have today. Employers are complaining that they cannot find efficient employees while the youth are complaining that there are no jobs available. We have to address this paradox. And for that we have to determine what to do and how to do it at the same time. What we have to do is to ensure universal child healthcare, improve childcare services, increase women's participation in the labor market etc. But how to do that is the main challenge for Bangladesh.

We are currently in the middle of a pandemic. Educational institutions have been closed for around one-and-a-half years. We have to re-open the institutions and compensate for the losses so far in this regard. Another thing is that the quality of secondary education has declined. We have discussed the issue of soft skill development here, but who will provide these soft skills trainings? We have a perception of vocational education in this country that it is only for the poor. We must come out of this wrong idea.

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Asa Britta Torkelsson

While the birth rate in Bangladesh is decreasing, the total population continues to increase because of the age structure of the population. With this, the density is increasing as well. The increase in the average age of marriage and use of contraceptive measures has played a significant role in achieving a diminishing birth rate.

But the child marriage rate is still high. We have to focus on reducing that. To utilize the demographic window of opportunity, increased participation of adolescents and the youth is important. For that, we need to ensure access to secondary education and employment opportunities.

At the same time, we have to ensure sexual and reproductive healthcare, and child and maternal healthcare. Gender-based violence must be checked to create a safe society for girls and women so that they can make improvements in all aspects of their lives. We cannot make progress leaving behind half of the population from the development journey. Service sectors need to be improved so that women can play their role and transform their unpaid work into fully counted contributions. Besides investing in children, investing in mothers is also necessary. Bangladesh has significantly decreased the maternal mortality rate but there is room for more improvement. It is important for women to be able to make decisions, too. Facilitating the demographic shift in Bangladesh favorably and transforming that into human resources is one of the most important goals of the UNFPA. We have been working in this regard with the government of Bangladesh for long. This pandemic has created many obstacles, but we can overcome them if we work together and in harmony.

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Tuomo Poutiainen

There are many things that can be done to meet the needs of the labor market. This is the best time to invest in the youth and for creating employment opportunities for them. Bangladesh is enjoying its demographic window of opportunity now, but it will not last for long. Investing in education for developing skills has been discussed here. We should look into what are the solutions in terms of investing in primary and secondary education, how to continue to modernise the skills and the ecosystem, and particularly, how to create a much more equal labor market for women and girls.

We need to look into affirmative actions for ensuring a broader variety of modern skills for women and girls. I think there should be investment by the government in this area. Emphasis should be a holistic way to develop competence and certified skills. Investments should be based on the principle of life-long learning. We need a coherent approach for investment from the government and private sector.

There is a stigma about vocational education but we have to invest to address that, since this education is about developing necessary skills. The modern labor market requires certified skills, people who know how to operate sophisticated machines and who are able to provide the needs of the private sectors.

It is important to understand that the skills required for future labor markets cannot be learnt from informal means. There has to be formal education. I think that the COVID-19 situation has shown the need for a strong social protection system and an employment policy. Employment policies and modern social systems go hand in hand.

We need to ensure women’s skill development to increase their participation in the labor market. To cope up with the new demands of industries, they need to possess modern skills, and this can be ensured only by formal trainings. Contribution from the private sectors is also necessary. We need to think how we can transform the informal economy into the formal economy.

Tomoo Hozumi

Participation in the labour market is an important issue for countries like Japan and Bangladesh. Women's participation in the formal sector will become increasingly more important as the number and proportion of working-age people will start shrinking soon. Over the last 10 to 20 years, this has been an issue of policy debate in Japan. As a citizen of Japan, I would say that in terms of gender-related indicators, Japan is very low in many aspects, including women's participation in the labor market. This has been an issue of policy debate not because we as a society suddenly became more gender-aware, but we realised that our society will not be sustainable if about half the working age population remains outside of the labour market. If half the population cannot utilise their potential by getting themselves into the labour market, this means we are not being able to utilise their skills.

One characteristic of demographic transition is that it happens silently, and this is why it cannot attract the attention of the society. I hope that this issue can be brought to the attention of the media and the public in the coming days. We all have to understand the significance of this issue and work together. UNICEF is interested to work with you all for that purpose.

Firoz Choudhury

Investing in education, healthcare and technology for children has been discussed here today. The need for creating employment opportunities has been emphasised. Special focus for girl children has also been highlighted in the discussions. The educational institutions are closed due to this pandemic situation. Many girls are becoming victims of child marriage. Students are lagging behind in learning. How we can compensate for that and make them employable for the future has been discussed in detail. I thank you all on behalf of Prothom Alo for participating in the discussion.

Recommendations

· It is necessary to increase investment in children while Bangladesh’s demographic window of opportunity is still open.

· ICT and digital skills should be prioritised in secondary and higher secondary education.

· Investment is necessary to transform the youth of today into a skilled workforce.

· Teachers' training is necessary for their professional development.

· It is crucial to pay attention to children’s education and early-childhood development.

· Coordination between public and private initiatives is necessary to best utilise our demographic window of opportunity.

· Increasing women's participation in the labour market is crucial if we want to reap the benefits of our demographic dividend.

· The curriculum should be updated considering the challenges of the 21st century.

· It is necessary to develop an inclusive and strong social protection system.

· Allocation for health, education, nutrition and sanitation should be increased.

· To develop digital skills, devices and technologies must be made accessible and affordable for all.

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