Rainbows end in the delta 2018

Published in 5th anniversary supplement Dhaka Tribune 18 May ’18

On April 24, as families mourn the 1,135 people killed in the Rana Plaza disaster, it will be cold comfort to consider how the RMG sector has changed in the last five years.

Belatedly, change has come, and not just via high profile collaborations to enforce factory safety standards and fund compensation.

More promisingly for workers, some garment industry leaders and Bangladeshi owned businesses are rejecting global downhill races to the bottom for investment in raising productivity and climbing the value chain.

Whether there are enough of them is debatable. But the path they seek – better skilled workers who can make, maintain and use better infrastructure – is worth finding across every sector.

You may not think it at an air-conditioned seminar in one of the so called ‘tristate’ area’s talking shops, but hard labour and perseverance are inherent national qualities. They have had to be for most Bangladeshis to survive all that geography, history and nature have thrown at them.

Such resilience is reflected in millions of increasingly productive farmers, migrant workers and female factory workers; it is their toil that drives the nation’s economy, not metropolitan elites.

Election year will undoubtedly bring all manner of promises from all manner of politicians. But the record shows economic growth – and the rent seeking that inhibits its potential – to have been remarkably consistent whoever has been in charge. Ideology is no silver bullet either. State owned banks are a sinkhole of taxpayer subsidies to incompetence and cronyism. Yet the state owned IDCOL is a world leader in delivering millions of solar home systems. Competence takes many forms. And Bangladesh needs to find them all.

However politically notable the project’s turnaround from its status five years ago, one Padma bridge does not go far enough.

That single slice of Metro Rail due to be built in the next five years? It will be hugely popular when opened. But compared to the rail links, motorways and ports the economy truly needs, it is like bringing a sticking plaster to a heart bypass.

More planners and decision makers need to appreciate there is no alternative. Two percent of humanity is not going to get a Green card. Even if every university student emigrated and you doubled the number of Bangladeshis working abroad by 2023, Bangladesh will still be home to more people than Russia, Norway and New Zealand combined, in a space smaller than England and Wales.

All the goals in the world. Democracy, Equality, Human Rights, Sustainable Development, have to be delivered inside Bangladesh.

Change the mindset and more tangible improvements can follow. It is low investment in education and workplace skills that keeps around 140 countries more productive and above Bangladesh in global per capita GDP rankings. Turn that around, build local expertise and finance and the virtuous cycle can truly spark.

No one ever reaches the end of the rainbow, but the journey can be worth it anyway. There is no new frontier, we have to make it here.