Fifty Years of Independence: An Overview of Bangladesh’s Development

In Dhaka, Bangladesh the test run of the country's first metro rail train has begun. The metro will become operational in 2022.
In Dhaka, Bangladesh the test run of the country's first metro rail train has begun. The metro will become operational in 2022. © picture alliance / | Sazzad Hossain

In the mid-1970s, shortly after Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan on 16 December 1971, Henry Kissinger dismissively called Bangladesh a “basket case.” Today the country has attained sustainable economic growth, significant poverty reduction, and continued improvements in human development indicators.

The International Monetary Funds (IMF) projection on Bangladesh’s economy illustrates the countries success story. IMF projects Bangladesh’s per capita income to overtake India’s soon. Bangladesh’s economy has grown consistently between 6% and 7% over the past two decades – one of the highest in the world.  Poverty level is declining at a steady rate. Human Development Index (HDI) is a composite index of life expectancy, education and per capita income indicators. With the exception of Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Bangladesh’s HDI indicators are at par or better than other South Asian countries.

What factors contributed to Bangladesh’s accomplishment? Trade liberalization, which started earlier than its South Asian neighbors in the late 1980s, increased emphasis on private sector growth, including microfinancing of micro and small enterprises, and a balanced labour regulatory environment. In short, a sound macro-economic planning facilitated Bangladesh’s impressive economic development.

Help from outside

Bangladesh encouraged, through policy initiatives as well as financial assistance, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to be an active partner in all spheres of the country’s development -- economic, health and nutrition, education, and varied social sectors and issues. Earnings from export of readymade garments and remittance sent by Bangladeshis working overseas are the two biggest exports, and contribute significantly in creating employment opportunities, especially for the young, less educated and the female population. Annually readymade garment exports grew at over 10% consistently in the past two decades, the export value amounted to around $28 billion in 2020. There are 8 million Bangladeshi migrant workers, most of whom are employed in the Gulf States. The remittance inflow from the Bangladeshi diaspora amounted to approximately $22 billion, accounting for 6.6% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2020.

Bangladesh has been receptive to receiving foreign aid both in terms of financial and technical assistance. Development partners supported the country in its infrastructural development, human capital development, and developing sound macro policies. Bangladesh’s dependence on foreign assistance is steadily declining, and concurrently partnership in addressing global challenges like climate change, global and regional trade alliances and security matters are gaining relevance.

Germany has been a trusted partner of Bangladesh since the country’s birth 50 years ago. It was one of the first countries to recognize Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1972. It has since then been a reliable companion, including through the European Union, in development cooperation, and remains an important trade partner. It is for instance one of the biggest export markets for Bangladesh readymade garments. Germany continues its bilateral support to Bangladesh on climate change and in addressing the plight of the nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees. The largest of the Rohingya Refugee camps are located in a coastal area and thus becomes even more vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.

Continuing challenges

It is to be recognized that there are continuing challenges in the economic and social fronts for Bangladesh to graduate to a middle-income country. While poverty reduction has a diminishing trend, with a population base of around 170 million, 20% are still living below the poverty line. The health and nutrition indicators too warrant further improvements to meet the SDG goals. Bangladesh, especially its coastal belts, is highly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, which includes storm surges, drainage congestion and sea level rise. Most of Bangladesh is less than 10 meters above the sea level.

While Bangladesh receives accolades for its socioeconomic development indicators, its scorecard on human rights and governance are a concern. Political violence, primarily leading to injuries, extrajudicial killings (e.g., crossfire, torture or beaten to death), physical attacks on journalists are not uncommon in Bangladesh. According to Odhikar a Bangladesh-based human rights organization, in 2020, there were 2,883 injuries due to political violence, 150 attacks on journalists, 1,538 reported rape cases, and 196 extrajudicial killings such as crossfire, or death through torture or being shot. The status of freedom of expression in Bangladesh is worrisome. Reporters without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index ranks Bangladesh 152, the worst amongst its South Asian neighbors.

The Bangladesh Digital Security Act 2018 has been a contentious phenomenon, as human rights organizations and many from the civil society view it curtails freedom of expression significantly. In 2020, 142 journalists, writers, bloggers, opposition leaders-activists, teachers, lawyers, journalists, cartoonist, and others have been arrested and jailed under this Act. The social media has come under serious scrutiny. Law enforcement officials and ruling political party members are often the plaintiff in filing lawsuits under this Act, and the alleged law offender is seldom granted bail. The plight of the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar continues, and very little have been achieved towards their safe, dignified return.

The preceding two parliamentary elections witnessed gravitation of political hegemony to a single party, Awami League. The credibility of the two national elections as well as local level elections has been questioned on allegation of vote rigging, and the major opposition party, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), abstaining from fielding candidates in most instances. The presence of ineffective and weak opposition has considerably compromised the checks-and-balances essential for representative parliamentary democracy. The overwhelming domination of the incumbent ruling party has led to political interference in decision making across different branches of the government. Consequently, separation of power amongst the judiciary, legislative and executive branches of the government has become tenuous. Poor governance characterized by weak rule of law has contributed to widespread corruption. Under Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perception Index report, Bangladesh’s score is 146; only Afghanistan (ranked 165) has a higher score in the region.

In retrospect, Bangladesh can be proud of many of its achievements of the past five decades. In areas it has made progress; accolade must be shared amongst its stakeholders – the private sector, NGOs, government and the development partners. However, much more is needed to be done in the area of promotion of democracy, good governance, and strengthening of Bangladesh’s core institutions that are entrusted to safeguard the constitutional rights and liberties of its citizens.  In the long term, strengthening of democracy, rule of law, good governance will yield rich dividends for Bangladesh in terms of sustained social and economic development thereby attaining self-reliance.