A number of economists at the end of the last century made predictions about a huge development in the country's socioeconomic sector. The real development has indeed exceeded their forecast thanks to an unimaginable expansion of the private sector.
Despite the development, however, some weaknesses like businessmen's tendency of making excessive profit and not returning bank loans still persist after so many years, said a few of those economists at a dialogue on Saturday night.
Besides, limitations regarding poverty, inequality, growth, technology, modernisation and land have remained the same as before, said the economists at the third session, named "What is the Social Role of Economists?" of the ongoing dialogue titled "Ajker Agenda," organised by the research organisation Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC).
Economists at the programme said due to the firm understanding of the pros and cons of socialism and capitalism, there was a lot of unity among economists before and after independence, but now the conflict among them has escalated.
Apart from that, economists are not able to join the movement on social issues like inequality and poverty as before due to professionalism.
Moderating the virtual event, PPRC Chairman Dr Hossain Zillur Rahman said five economists who joined the service after completing their formal education in economics in the 1970s participated in a discussion in 1998. The current dialogue with those economists compares that time with the present.
Hossain Zillur Rahman himself was one of those five economists. The others were Dr Mustafizur Rahman, Dr Sayed Akhtar Mahmood, Dr MM Akash and Dr Syed Hashemi.
Dr Rehman Sobhan, chairman of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) who participated in the discussion, said, "We keep referring back to the 1960s, which is a crucial issue. We have to talk about the relationship between economists and the political forces, which is a very important factor."
Dr Mustafizur Rahman, distinguished fellow at the CPD, said politicians sought advice from the economists in the 1960s, but now that practice has decreased.
He said the income gap between the top 5% and the bottom 5% of people has widened from 23 times to 133 times in the six years since 2010. Income inequality is increasing in society, as is consumption inequality. A powerful tool to reduce it is needed.
"The amount of default loans in the banks has been increasing. Economists can play a role in resolving the issue by forming a Banking Commission or by taking an initiative to raise awareness among people to force the Bangladesh Bank to take steps regarding the matter.
"In addition to that, some better initiatives can also be taken through debates regarding policies," Dr Mustafiz said.
But the reality is that economists are so involved in their profession that they do not have the opportunity to work as activists, he opined.
He also said, "Understanding among economists in the 1960s was quite good. All the good economists were together. Everyone was in favour of independence. Now the division is growing."
Dr Sayed Akhtar Mahmood, former lead private sector specialist of the World Bank, said, "Economists have specific responsibilities in terms of growth, poverty alleviation, employment, and supply of essential commodities. Economists would ask the society what they want. Again, they have the responsibility to give advice on what the society should want."
He said, "In 1998, there were some signs of improvement in the country's economy. There were signs of improvement in the ready-made garment industry. There was a tendency of not to repay the loan. The efficiency of privatisation and national institutions was being discussed. All these discussions are still going on."
He said, "There has been a great development in the private sector during this time. They work for profit. The policy of the government is to control the party working for profit."
He said, "There were many initiatives even 23 years ago. Then we had to say that all those initiatives did not materialise. The same thing has to be said after 23 years."
Dr MM Akash, head of Economics Department at Dhaka University, said, "In some cases the goal of all economists is one. SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) is an example of that. However, there may be disagreements over how the SDGs will be achieved."
He also said, "Earlier, socialism and capitalism were defined clearly. What was good and what was bad was defined. Now there are many differences among the youth. Now economists say one thing. Students listen to it and check with other subjects."
He further said, "In the pre-independence period there was no opportunity for the development of the middle class. As a result, there was not much discussion about them. Over time, a large middle class has developed. They are also in various discussions."
Hossain Zillur Rahman said, "Businesses in some popular sectors were monopolised by a certain class in the 1970s. Getting licences for some businesses was difficult then, and they are difficult now. "