Hello 2021, goodbye low hanging fruit

2020 was not the year we wanted but maybe it was the reality check we needed Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed 2020

It was not supposed to be like this, 2020 was meant to be more predictable.

But well, you know, pandemic. One word to explain a whole year, and at least the next.

For President Trump, with base intact and defiant, impeachment seemed barely an inconvenience in January. His recklessness in the face of Covid, however, ended his incumbency with the biggest presidential vote in US history for President-elect Biden.

For Boris Johnson, in normal times, just hitting Christmas with any sort of post-Brexit deal was going to be a good result. But with Covid shining a light on cronyism and incompetence across his government, and the schadenfreude of recent global “plague island” headlines adding some bite at the end of a grim year for death totals, he now needs his full majority, and five-year term to rebuild his self-anointed image as a “feel-good” prime minister.

For the world at large, the temporary reduction in carbon emissions wrought by the virus did at least highlight the value of cleaning up our energy and consumption systems. How and whether it can get there is of course another question.

As for Bangladesh? Instead of 2020 being a dress rehearsal for the world to hear about Bangladesh reaching towards middle income status and 8% growth as it approaches its 50th anniversary of independence, the pandemic has taken the entire stage. Here, there, and everywhere, only one-word matters.

While the pandemic has brought unprecedented co-operation to create new vaccines, it has also set dominoes falling in all parts of the global economy bringing uncertainty and hardship for many in the years ahead.

Is this all an opportunity for a global new deal to fight inequality and climate change, the starting gun for even greater asset grabs by elites, or a bit of both, I do not know. But it is safe to presume Bangladesh will not be top of many overseas agendas in the year ahead.

Much as I believe Victory Day 2021 is an ideal occasion for Bangladesh’s achievements over the past five decades to draw the global attention that the eighth largest population in the world — more people than Russia, Lebanon, Norway, and New Zealand combined — living in a space smaller than England and Wales deserves, if it is a few more years still before the country’s profile starts to punch at its weight, so be it.

There is far too much still to accomplish and far too many people denied decent conditions and opportunities, to be concerned about whether outsiders share the nation’s celebrations during 2021.

The country will still have much to celebrate, and should take pride in giving refuge to Rohingya people fleeing ethnic cleansing. Positive as this is, it is still sensible to use the time of Covid as a much-needed reality check.

It is the everyday labour of millions of workers that has built the reliable food supply, RMG reputation, and flow of remittances, on which GDP growth has been built. The nation’s RMG sector has built an impressive export track record despite the tragedies of Rana Plaza and Tazreen, but faces new challenges. Bangladesh’s farmers have made huge improvements in productivity and output across a naturally already fertile land but are not in a position to employ many more people and millions of expatriate workers face added uncertainty in the face of the pandemic.

While entrepreneurs have demonstrated excellence in sectors like pharmaceuticals and IT, all sectors face limits to their potential so long as investment in skills training either lags or is completely lacking for large swathes of the population.

The very fertility that rivers bring to the land is Bangladesh’s very own resource curse. It has historically allowed the nation to farm well and grab plenty of low hanging economic fruit, but the density of population and cheap labour it created has historically limited investment in education, and even after independence, baked in a culture of low expectations.

So it is that even as Bangladesh’s nominal GDP hovers around the world top 40 and in PPP terms is on the edge of the top 30, its per capita rankings are around 100 places lower. The IMF’s 2020 estimates ranked Bangladesh’s per capita GDP 135th out of 186 countries.

When you consider Bangladesh is ranked 163rd out of 190 countries in the World Bank group’s ease of doing business index, 125th out of 167 countries in the Legatum prosperity index, and 133rd out if 189 countries in the UN Human Development Index, the correlations become clearer and given that a quarter of the adult population is illiterate, less surprising.

Only during the last 15 years has the nation in all its historical incarnations ever come close to universal enrolment in primary school education. This is something to be ashamed of in a land that celebrates movements for language. It seems futile to show much concern about universities places in global rankings when the mass of population is left behind altogether.

Those with the money and influence appear much more willing to debate the merits and disadvantages of different types of education, than pay more taxes to invest in improving education standards for all.

The demographic dividend should improve literacy statistics, but without more investment in high-quality education and training for all, the nation will still lag behind.

Latest reports suggest Bangladesh will, unlike many economies, still see some GDP growth this year, but the future is uncertain. The outlook for future years would be more positive if the nation had more high-skilled and better paid workers and was less reliant on providing a reservoir of cheap labour for employers at home and abroad.

The shock of this pandemic offers a chance to revisit such fundamental questions.

Hopefully, we can start getting better answers. The world may have much worse to face in decades ahead. 2020 was not the year we wanted, but maybe it was just the reality check we needed.