Mis­sion Im­pos­si­ble?

Bangladesh aims to be­come a mid­dle-in­come coun­try by 2021. But given its po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity and so­cial crises, is this a bridge too far?

Southasia - - Contents - By Dr. Moo­nis Ah­mar Dr. Moo­nis Ah­mar teaches In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions and is Di­rec­tor, Area Study Cen­ter for Europe at the Univer­sity of Karachi.

Vi­sion 2021 is start­ing to seem like a bleak prospect

The vi­sion of a new Bangladesh be­fore it cel­e­brates its golden ju­bilee in De­cem­ber 2021 is an in­ter­est­ing phe­nom­e­non. Lift­ing the coun­try from ab­ject poverty and un­der-de­vel­op­ment is the corner­stone of the Bangladesh Per­spec­tive Plan (2010-2021) (BPP) ap­proved by the Na­tional Fi­nance Com­mis­sion and also sup­ported by the mem­bers of Euro­pean Union. The Awami League (AL) gov­ern­ment led by Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina is de­ter­mined to pur­sue Vi­sion 2021 so as to seek re­elec­tion in polls due in 2014.

The Bangladesh Na­tion­al­ist Party (BNP) is po­lar­ized and is in the grip of demon­stra­tions launched by the op­po­si­tion against what it per­ceives as po­lit­i­cal vic­tim­iza­tion. In this back­drop it will be an up­hill task for Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina’s gov­ern­ment to lure for­eign in­vest­ment and trans­form Vi­sion 2021 into re­al­ity. Armed with a two-thirds ma­jor­ity and wit­ness­ing bet­ter eco­nomic in­di­ca­tors, the AL gov­ern­ment is con­fi­dent that it will push through ma­jor tasks un­der vi­sion 2021. Can Bangladesh trans­form from a least de­vel­op­ing to a mid­dle-in­come coun­try and how will the po­lit­i­cal stand­off be­tween BNP and AL, which is con­sid­ered as a ma­jor desta­bi­liz­ing fac­tor, im­pact pro­jected eco­nomic growth in com­ing years?

Ac­cord­ing to UNB, PM Hasina re­cently told an 11-mem­ber del­e­ga­tion led by Plan­ning Min­is­ter A K Khand­ker that the BPP aims to trans­form Bangladesh into a mid­dle-in­come coun­try by 2021 when the coun­try will cel­e­brate its golden ju­bilee. She ex­pressed her op­ti­mism that many in­vestors from abroad are in­ter­ested in in­vest­ing in Bangladesh but at the same time lamented that “the coun­try could not achieve the de­sired de­vel­op­ment even af­ter 40 years of in­de­pen­dence as the po­lit­i­cal party that led the lib­er­a­tion war was out of power for a long time and un­demo­cratic gov­ern­ments and anti-lib­er­a­tion forces had ruled the coun­try for a long time.”

It is an­other story that the AL gov­ern­ment, which ruled the newly in­de­pen­dent coun­try from 1972-1975, was ac­cused of po­lit­i­cal re­pres­sion, cor­rup­tion and bad gov­er­nance. Like­wise, the sec­ond AL gov­ern­ment from 1996-2001 was also blamed of loot and plun­der while ne­glect­ing the is­sues which kept the coun­try poor and un­der-de­vel­oped. There­fore, crit­ics ar­gue that AL wants to use BPP for po­lit­i­cal con­sump­tion and as a means to seek re-elec­tion and is not se­ri­ous in al­le­vi­at­ing the plight of the com-

mon peo­ple or pro­mot­ing eco­nomic growth in the coun­try.

In or­der to get a clear pic­ture about the much pub­li­cized 2021 plan for Bangladesh, one must know ba­sic facts in this re­gard. Ac­cord­ing to Ab­dur Rahim Har­ma­chi’s re­port pub­lished in The Bangladesh Chron­i­cle, the first ever long term plan of the coun­try en­ti­tled, “Per­spec­tive Plan of Bangladesh 2010-2021: Mak­ing Vi­sion 2021 a Re­al­ity” was ap­proved at a meet­ing of the Na­tional Eco­nomic Coun­cil. The plan en­vi­sions mak­ing Bangladesh a mid­dle-in­come coun­try with $2,000 per capita in­come by 2021. Ac­cord­ing to the Bangladesh Eco­nomic Re­view 2011, per capita in­come was $818 in 2010-11 fis­cal year and $751 in 200910. The plan tar­gets an­nual real GDP to rise by 8% by 2015 and 10% by 2021. Ac­cord­ing to the plan, the con­tri­bu­tions of agri­cul­ture, in­dus­try and ser­vices sec­tors to the GDP have been fixed at 15, 32 and 52.5% by 2015 and at 15, 17 and 48% by 2021. The plan also ex­pects power gen­er­a­tion to rise to 15,375 MW in 2015 and 20,000 MW by 2021. In terms of lit­er­acy, the plan hopes to erad­i­cate il­lit­er­acy from Bangladesh by 2014, re­duce the fer­til­ity rate to 2.2% and bring the num­ber of peo­ple below the poverty line to 13.5% by 2021. In the area of trade, the plan aims to at­tain around 40% of GDP from ex­port earn­ings and re­mit­tance by 2021.

Some of the ideals of BPP in­clude es­tab­lish­ing a cor­rup­tion free so­ci­ety, rule of law, modern in­fra­struc­ture, egov­er­nance, high eco­nomic growth rate, sig­nif­i­cant rise in per capita in­come, GDP, GNP and a marked al­le­vi­a­tion of poverty. How these ideals are to be ac­com­plished in a span of 9 years time and how do­mes­tic fault lines which im­pede the process of de­vel­op­ment will be re­moved, must be con­tem­plated. It is wish­ful think­ing to as­sume that Bangladesh, which is grap­pling with the men­ace of po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity, vi­o­lence, ram­pant cor­rup­tion, poverty and ab­sence of rule of law will trans­form in a decade’s time as a “suc­cess story” in South Asia.

When un­cer­tainty looms large on the hori­zon of Bangladesh in terms of po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity and a peace­ful en­vi­ron­ment, fa­vor­ing large-scale in­vest­ments and en­trepreneur­ship will not match with ground re­al­i­ties.

For­eign gov­ern­ments, in­clud­ing those rep­re­sent­ing Euro­pean Union re­cently pointed out the dan­gers and threats faced by Bangladesh in or­der to meet the goals and ob­jec­tives en­vi­sioned in the 2021 plan. For in­stance, on the oc­ca­sion of cel­e­brat­ing Europe Day on May 9 and 40 years of part­ner­ship be­tween Bangladesh and Europe, the Euro­pean Union del­e­ga­tion in a press con­fer­ence in Dhaka called upon the gov­ern­ment and op­po­si­tion to ini­ti­ate po­lit­i­cal di­a­logue in or­der to pro­mote bet­ter in­vest­ment con­di­tions. The EU del­e­ga­tion com­pris­ing the Am­bas­sadors of Nether­lands, Ger­many, Den­mark, Swe­den, Italy, Spain, France and the Bri­tish High Com­mis­sioner stated that, “our role is to en­cour­age and sup­port di­a­logue. And we be­lieve par­lia­ment is the best place for di­a­logue.”

EU is Bangladesh’s big­gest de­vel­op­ment part­ner pro­vid­ing 500 mil­lion Eu­ros of as­sis­tance ev­ery year. Trade be­tween EU and Bangladesh is huge as Bangladeshi goods, par­tic­u­larly gar­ment prod­ucts, are a source of enor­mous for­eign ex­change in­come. The con­cern of Euro­pean Union visà-vis grow­ing po­lit­i­cal po­lar­iza­tion in Bangladesh is two-fold: first, strikes and po­lit­i­cal ag­i­ta­tion in Bangladesh will raise a ques­tion mark about its ca­pa­bil­ity to sus­tain the 2010-2021 per­spec­tive plan and sec­ond, the global im­age of Bangladesh is also neg­a­tive. The French Am­bas­sador to Bangladesh, Michel Trin­quier stated, “my con­cern is the im­age of the coun­try which is re­quired to at­tract for­eign in­vest­ment for the coun­try’s pri­vate sec­tor as pri­vate sec­tor’s growth is im­per­a­tive for Bangladesh as it wishes to be a mid­dle-in­come coun­try by 2021.” On the is­sue of cor­rup­tion, the Dutch Am­bas­sador said in the same press con­fer­ence that, “cor­rup­tion is in­grained in the so­ci­ety and we want our tax payer’s money used in best ways.” EU en­voys in Dhaka dur­ing the May 9 press con­fer­ence made it clear that with­out po­lit­i­cal peace, con­trol over cor­rup­tion, good gov­er­nance and rule of law and in­fra­struc­ture, Bangladesh can­not pro­ceed to at­tain the goal of be­com­ing a mid­dle-in­come coun­try by the year 2021. The is­sues faced by Bangladesh are not any dif­fer­ent than those ex­pe­ri­enced by many post­colo­nial states. How­ever, one can­not ex­pect bet­ter qual­ity of life un­less those at the helm of af­fairs are able to per­form bet­ter so that for­eign in­vest­ment and sup­port for de­vel­op­men­tal projects is smooth.

Since its in­cep­tion as an in­de­pen­dent state in 1971, Bangladesh is heav­ily de­pen­dent on for­eign aid and as­sis­tance. Money has flowed in from dif­fer­ent ex­ter­nal sources to Bangladesh since 1972 but ram­pant cor­rup­tion, poor plan­ning and lack of pro­fes­sion­al­ism and ex­per­tise failed to make pur­pose­ful use of bil­lions of dol­lars of aid and as­sis­tance, which was pro­vided to Bangladesh in the last forty years.

The mes­sage de­liv­ered by EU en­voys in Dhaka on the oc­ca­sion of “Europe Day” was clear: they were not op­ti­mistic about the gov­ern­ment’s con­fi­dence about 2010-2021 plans un­less the fault lines which cause po­lit­i­cal schism, vi­o­lence, cor­rup­tion and bad gov­er­nance are re­moved. For­eign in­vestors will not in­vest in Bangladesh un­less a sta­ble and peace­ful en­vi­ron­ment is en­sured. To what ex­tent, the gov­ern­ment in Dhaka and the op­po­si­tion par­ties ad­here to the ad­vice and cau­tion of EU en­voys is yet to be seen.

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