Bangladesh celebrated 50 years of independence in 2021. It received much applause from the international community and development agencies for its growth and development from the mid-1990s. But the caveats and questions linked to the development achieved by Bangladesh must be taken into account. The fact is that NGO-led development in Bangladesh does not address the structural causes of poverty and inequality. What has mainly contributed to this development are public awareness campaigns and the role of NGOs in bridging the ‘capacity gap’ caused by the absence of good governance. When 24.1 million people become “extremely poor” during the pandemic caused by COVID-19 and the state does not provide them with enough food to eat, it means that this development is not sustainable. Second, like most developed countries today, Bangladesh’s development has not led to improved governance, commonly referred to as the ‘virtuous circle’.
It is a good idea to compare the development of Bangladesh to that of Pakistan, as it split from the latter due to the domination and exploitation inflicted on the former. Bangladesh started from a much lower position in economic, development and social indicators with an economy devastated by the Pakistani army during the war of independence; the new country lacked basic infrastructure and institutions.
In 1971, the industrial sector of Bangladesh (the former East Pakistan) accounted for 6-7% of its GDP while that of West Pakistan accounted for more than 20%. In 2016, industries accounted for 28.77% of Bangladesh’s GDP, while the figures for Pakistan, India and the South Asian average were 19.36, 28.85 and 27.8%, respectively. In 2020, Bangladesh’s GDP grew to $329.12 billion while Pakistan’s stood at around $262.8 billion.
However, there are caveats and questions about the development that Bangladesh has achieved. There is a lot of political investment in the term development in Bangladesh. Almost all politicians and heads of government use this term to sell their economic transformation project to the people. So much so that the word “development” has become an empty celebratory term. For government leaders, there is an easy equation between development and economic growth. Economic growth is a misleading indicator of the standard of living of ordinary people in a society. This is almost axiomatic in development economics and yet there is an unhealthy tendency in government circles in Bangladesh to present economic growth as the most significant indicator of development. So when we say there has been development in Bangladesh, we are not asking a more important question: Whose development? Development for the few or development for the majority of society? Indeed, in development economics, this phrase is very common: development for a few or development for all? Development may be the goal of a state, but the goal of life is not just development. On the contrary, the purpose of life is to be happy and to be able to lead a peaceful life. From this point of view, in development economics, the term Gross Domestic Happiness instead of Gross Domestic Product has been used for a long time.
American journalist, Mr. Nicholas Kristof wrote an article in New York Times on March 10, 2021 under the title “What can Biden’s plan do to fight poverty?” Look at Bangladesh”. In it, he advised President Joe Biden to learn from Bangladesh how to reduce poverty. The Economist called Bangladesh’s development an enigma. The Bengali economist Prof. Kaushik Basu in his article “Why Bangladesh Booming” published in The project uniongreatly admired Bangladesh’s progress.
The Nobel Prize-winning economist, Bangladeshi-born Prof. Amartya Sen, refers to Bangladesh as a success story in most of his development writings and speeches. But the question we tend to ask is, how “happy” are the ordinary citizens of Bangladesh, who have to work hard to earn their living? By the term “happy” we mean socially meaningful happiness.
Professor Sen defined the term development as the removal of barriers to the realization of life’s opportunities. But the opportunities for those who oppose the government of Bangladesh are far away. Kidnappings and extrajudicial executions have become regular practices of government forces. At least 1,920 cases have been documented from January 2009 to December 2018. During the same period, 126 people died as a result of torture in custody and dozens became permanently disabled as a result of knee injuries during their detention. jail.
We often tend to consider only macroeconomic indicators and miss indicators such as democracy, individual freedom, existence of opposition parties in parliament, freedom of the media, freedom of expression, instruments independent of the organ of the state, being an integral part of Sen’s concept of development. , which are totally absent in Bangladesh now. If Sen does not support the Soviet brand of socialism, it is because of the absence of these phenomena. At the same time, it outright rejects the neoliberal mantra that “the market is God” because such insistence on the market ignores provisions for free education, free healthcare and the social safety net. for the poor, as well as measures to reduce inequalities. Certainly, Bangladesh has achieved some development in the education sector, but has totally failed to guarantee health care and the social safety net, and to reduce inequalities.
Freedom House, a Washington-based research organization, designated Bangladesh as a partly free country in 2020. No international agency recognized Bangladesh’s general elections in 2014 and 2018. Bangladesh’s ranking in the list of countries established by Freedom House of course reflects those two general elections. . Bangladesh does not even exist in the list of democracy indices produced by this organization. In the World Freedom Index, Bangladesh ranks 39, which is the ninth from the bottom. In political rights and civil liberty, Bangladesh only scores 15 and 24, which is the ninth from the bottom while the best scores in these categories are 34 and 33 respectively. Tanzania having the scores of 12 and 22 is the lowest. It should be noted that Bhutan, despite having a monarchy, ranks at the top of the freedom index, the political rights index and the civil liberties index.
While knowledge is the basis of development, Bangladesh scores very poorly in the Global Knowledge Index 2020: Bangladesh’s position is the lowest in South Asia and ranks 112 out of 138 countries. This is alarming because it indicates a superficial education system. Needless to say, development requires a solid industrial base, financial technology and a rich superstructure, for which a deep and flawless educational system is indispensable.
Is inequality a problem? Dr. Vitaly, a professor of economics at Moscow State University, who has witnessed both the Soviet system and present-day capitalist Russia, explains, through the “demonstration effect” theory, that inequality makes people unhappy. According to Wealth-X, an American institute, reveals that from 2012 in 5 years the number of billionaires has increased by 17%. Bangladesh has now overtaken China when it comes to increasing the number of billionaires. At the same time, in terms of the number of extremely poor, Bangladesh, with 24.1 million, now ranks 5th in the world. This means that Bangladesh is the most unequal country in the world. Equality between humans is the basis of the theory of justice formulated by Professor John Rawls whom Sen considers his guru.
Regarding subjective well-being or happiness, Professor Sen further explains that humans want to see their existence as meaningful, want to see that society and the state regard their existence as important. There should be such a system where people should be able to do whatever they want on their own; otherwise, they cannot be happy. The Amartyan concept of happiness transcends mere utility derived from their economic activities; rather, it invokes pure joy in accomplishing their desired social activities. Amartya suggests that humans enjoy independence and that state, society and family do not interfere in an individual’s own domain; otherwise, they cannot be happy. Amartya goes on to say that happiness does not only depend on one’s own happiness because humans feel happy seeing others happy too. This is where the need to ensure equality in society lies. In short, happiness does not only depend on one’s own happiness; it depends on the happiness of others, of society, of the collective, of the surrounding environment, of the general state of the whole world.
From this point of view, is Sen’s favorite country, Bangladesh, a happy country? Undoubtedly, there is growth, there is wealth, there is upward mobility in the indices of development, but there is no happiness because that depends on a multitude of other factors. For people to be happy, they must have the right to vote, the right to wealth, the right to congregate, and the right to live life in their own way. But the people of Bangladesh do not enjoy these rights at all. Not only one’s own happiness, but also the happiness extracted from seeing others happy, makes people happy, but the dizzying inequalities prevailing in society have made this impossible in Bangladesh. The GDP per capita in the United States is higher than that of the Scandinavian countries, but the citizens of the latter are happier than those of the former. Indeed, inequalities are much lower in the Scandinavian countries.
Certainly, the government of Bangladesh from 1991 has taken many development measures, especially in women’s education, although the main task of women’s education and women’s empowerment is carried out by NGOs. . The women of Bangladesh have made their homeland indomitable in the international clothing market and have revolutionized the country. Bangladeshi workers have continuously increased central bank reserves through remittances, even during the pandemic. The peasants continued to work hard and increase their production even after the advent of COVID-19. Therefore, the main architect of development in Bangladesh is the working people and yet Bangladesh is one of the countries where the working class is the lowest paid. Those who are hypnotized by stories of development from above, do not know the real stories that hide under the apparent luster. They do not know that social inequality, endemic corruption and the periodic denial of human rights to workers are an important aspect of this development.
*About the authors:
- Dr N N Tarun Chakravorty is visiting professor of economics at the Siberian Federal University, Russia, and editor of the South Asia Journal. [email protected] A British-trained economist who did his MA at the University of Leeds and his PhD at the University of Bath.
- Dr. Subho Basu is Associate Professor of South Asian History at McGill University. [email protected] Received his M.Sc. from JNU, New Delhi and Ph.D. from Cambridge University