Two contrasting remarks by two economists made in a gap of four decades tell the growth story of Bangladesh.
In 1973, Austin Robinson, a Cambridge economist, wrote: "At present Bangladesh is the text-book example of Malthusian stagnation... I can't see an escape from extreme poverty with the present rate of population growth in Bangladesh."
Two years ago, Kaushik Basu, former chief economist of the World Bank, lauded the success stories written by Bangladesh escaping from Malthusian stagnation with a success of population control. "Bangladesh has gone from being one of the poorest countries in South Asia to an aspiring "tiger" economy."
Robinson's remarks had painted a grim outlook for the country. Kaushik Basu's words are a befitting reply to his dismal words.
Yet, let's make an effort to take a look back as scholars say every nation's future, the set of choices it makes and the choices it can make are inextricably linked to its history--to its past.
Emerged with a grim future
For Bangladesh the good thing was hosting an extraordinary conference of foreign distinguished economists in Dhaka one year after she was born through a nine-months armed battle by defeating the Pakistani army.
To study the economic development of a war ravaged country around two dozen economists from socialist, capitalist and mixed economies such as the USA, UK, France, Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungry, Poland, Norway, Japan and India joined the conference.
On the host's side, over a dozen Bangladeshi economists including Nurul Islam and Rehman Sobhan participated. Being the brains of the Planning Commission and Bangladesh Institute of Development Economics, now BIDS, they had written all the papers presented in the conference.
The gathering was a combination of practical experience with theoretical expertise which would help Bangladesh draw a strategy for its economic development.
Unfortunately, Bangladesh was not sufficiently solvent to organise such an expensive conference. The government began its journey with an almost empty purse a year ago. It was largely dependent on foreign aid. In that situation, the then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made his infamous remark– "Bangladesh is a bottomless basket." The conference was made possible by a special grant of the New York based Ford Foundation and the International Economic Association, a London based think tank.
Wrapping up the conference they left Dhaka with some chilling forecasts for Bangladesh, a newborn on the global map with extreme poverty.
How did the foreign economists view the situation then in Bangladesh?
Cambridge economist Austin Robinson, who joined the conference as an official, described a grim picture that existed in the new born country. The government was facing innumerable everyday problems and crises that were confronting a new country--just recovering from a war, faced by serious shortage of food grains, with a devastated transport system, with inadequate financial reserves and a break-down of its foreign trade arrangements, he wrote in a study on the economic development of Bangladesh.
In their views, the outlook for the newborn country was so dire that some scholars and economists were to raise a question over its survival: "Is Bangladesh viable?"
"Many scholars and analysts feared that the country would remain a ward of the global community, acutely dependent on foreign aid. Some went as far to predict a Malthusian nightmare in the country, with its population outgrowing the availability of food," wrote Robinson.
US economist Hollis Chenery, who joined the conference as a representative of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, made a chilling forecast for people of Bangladesh that it would need 125 years to increase per-capita income to $900 from average income per-capita about $70.
Rise of Bangladesh
Gone are the days. Fifty years down the line, Bangladesh now tells the world a different story: a story of success in many fields. Bangladesh has been able to raise the average per-capita income to $1000 in 40 years. Currently it's per-capita income is over $2000. Economist Chenery has been proven wrong.
Bangladesh now is considered a model for other developing countries.
Take the remarks of the World Bank former chief economist Kaushik Basu for example.
"Bangladesh has become one of Asia's most remarkable and unexpected success stories in recent years," the economist wrote in 2018 for the World Economic Forum. "As a result of progressive social policies and a bit of historical luck, Bangladesh has gone from being one of the poorest countries in South Asia to an aspiring "tiger" economy."
Such praise is not a one-off phenomenon of recent years.
Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen has been praising the success of Bangladesh for years.
In 2005, he lauded the success of Bangladesh in rural development, education and health sectors and called upon the Indian government to follow the model of Bangladesh for its success in these sectors.
"We have many things to learn from Bangladesh," he told newsmen at Kolkata Press Club at a publication ceremony that Bangladesh's achievements in these sectors are remarkable.
Global organisations and media have also lauded the success of Bangladesh.
In 2015, an UN report on global hunger highlighted Bangladesh – a one time food basket case – for having cut chronic hunger by more than half since 2000.
The same year, The Christian Science Monitor, in a report titled "Bangladesh became a model for reducing hunger" said four decades ago, the newly formed and desperately poor South Asian nation of Bangladesh saw its already-high levels of extreme poverty and chronic hunger skyrocket with floods, leading to the Bangladesh famine of 1974.
Farmers and farmland were swallowed up in rampaging waters, distribution of the imported food supplies that the country depended on became impossible, and an estimated 1.5 million people died. The country – which former Beatle George Harrison raised money and awareness for in the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh – became associated for the long term with hunger and malnutrition, reads the US news outlet report.
"Today, the one time food basket case has transformed into something of a food basket – and a model for hunger reduction for the rest of the world," says The Christian Science Monitor five years ago.
The forecast made by economists in the 1973 conference that Bangladesh would face the nightmare of Malthusian stagnation has been proven wrong.
In 1973, economists, as Austin Robinson wrote in his study, found it difficult to answer the question whether Bangladesh can escape from grinding poverty into cumulative growth as Bangladesh was a textbook example of Malthusian stagnation.
Farmers are the unsung heroes behind this success as they have transformed Bangladesh into a food basket and brightened its image as a model of hunger reduction for others.
The growth story of Bangladesh seems to have become a synonym for the myth--the rise of a Phoenix from the ashes.
Our predecessors, over two hundred years ago, were well off. It's not a mere claim only by us, but travelogues by eighteenth-century's renowned travellers recorded the facts.
But, when Bangladesh emerged as an independent country 50 years ago in 1971, it was one of the poorest countries in the world. The days of Pakistan were bitter for Bangalis. For almost two decades, during the period of undivided Pakistan, Bangladesh-then East Pakistan, was in the grip of economic stagnation; disparities with West Pakistan while resources were transferred from the less developed East to the more developed West Pakistan.
Her people experienced an insufferable journey. A country that was born out of blood and fire had little wealth to rebuild on. Having no mineral resources, her resources were the soil, water and people's hands. And the other biggest strength was the indomitable spirit of her people.
People are the master of their destinies. They have relentlessly been making efforts to improve their living and livelihood. Over the years, no natural disasters such as floods and cyclones, no political turmoil, no poor governance could stop them from building the future. This indomitable spirit has made Bangladesh a miracle. And in the words of economist Kaushik Basu "Bangladesh has gone from being one of the poorest countries in South Asia to an aspiring "tiger" economy."
Our economic growth hit a record 8.15% in FY 2018-19, which was beyond the wildest imagination in 1973. The record growth is a reminder of the forecast by economist Branko Hovart of the Institute of Economic Science of Yugoslavia in the 1973 conference. Based on the experiences of socialist economies, he along with some others was convinced that Bangladesh could grow by 8% per year. His forecast however was found unrealistic by some others including Cambridge economist Robinson. They have been proven wrong. Branko had realised the true potential of the people of the newly born Bangladesh.
The record growth is a continuation of the economic success. Bangladesh averaged more than 6% growth over the last one decade. The strength of the growth is in its consistency which has made Bangladesh one of the five fastest-growing economies in the world.
This rapid growth has enabled us to reach lower-middle income country status in 2015.
In 2018, Bangladesh fulfilled all three eligibility criteria for graduation from the UN's Least Developed Countries (LDC) list for the first time and is on track for graduation in 2024. It aspires to become an upper-middle income country by 2030.
All global financial institutions like the World Bank and the IMF and renowned economists fell in love with our growth story. They paint a rosy picture about our future growth.
Bangladesh's journey was never smooth. It had to overcome many hurdles – political and natural disasters. The country was derailed from its track as military dictators grabbed state power and ruled the country for around 15 years from 1975 to 1990.
The country began its new journey after the fall of military dictator HM Ershad's regime at the end of 1990. Since then, Bangladesh has gradually emerged with a new look.
Readymade garment export, remittance from expatriate labourers, rise in food production through the relentless efforts of our farmers accelerated the country's economic growth, which has been consistent in the last one decade.
Bangladesh has achieved many successes. Yet the troubling rise in inequality, poor governance, democratic deficiency, absence of strong institutions, poor quality of education and health, increase in air pollution and continuous degradation of the environment emerged as hindrances to ensuring the quality of our growth. All these run counter to the spirit of our Liberation War.
Yet, there are hopes against all odds. It is because of the resilience of the country's people as they have demonstrated in the past and again in the current coronavirus pandemic. Despite a poor health care system, the low death rate from the virus compared to developed countries having strong health care still remains a puzzle.
After the three-month shutdown the economy is bouncing back. When most of the economies experienced contraction, our economy recorded over 5% growth last fiscal year. Asian Development Bank (ADB) in a report in December said economic activity in Bangladesh has recovered more strongly than expected with both exports and remittances growing in recent months amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Some of our economists are hopeful that the recovery will be faster than many other countries.
At the fag end of 2020 we achieved another milestone: the last span of the 6.15 km Padma bridge, the biggest project costing around $4 billion being implemented with our own funding, was installed on December 10, a week before the Victory Day. Completion of the construction of the main structure of the bridge calls for celebration of the success as it demonstrates the financial capability of Bangladesh, a country that was born with a grim outlook.
The whopping success came on the eve of Bangladesh's golden jubilee of independence next year. This reiterates again the indomitable spirit of Bangladesh. And it proves again it can shine more if major roadblocks are minimised.
Bangladeshis feel sad when they see their country at the bottom of global indices related to governance and our rights. They expect Bangladesh to be at the top of those indices along with other nations.
A country that has emerged with a bright humanitarian face on the global arena by giving shelter to a million Rohingyas, the world's most persecuted community in modern history, deserves much better.