November 2023

Realities of sustainability

TDF’s latest webinar charted the course of Bangladesh’s path to global growth, and assessed what the future may hold for the country amid economic, political and climate shifts

What lies behind the impressive development of Bangladesh, a nation once called a ‘basket case’? This was the topic for debate at The Democracy Forum’s latest webinar, which also discussed the nation’s future prospects and challenges to further growth, including the climate crisis and political tribalism.

In his introductory comments, TDF President Lord Bruce referred to the South Asia region’s ‘strong fundamentals’ due to its young workforce, with Bangladesh a prime example of such strength, with its economic growth (faster than that of India and Sri Lanka over the last decade), and the development of the garment sector – the second largest in the world after China – which has paved the way for the country’s prodigious rate of growth, accounting for 85% of its exports.

But an arguable over-reliance on the garment trade could be problematic, added Lord Bruce, as Bangladesh has done little to diversify into other high value-added industries, such as pharmaceuticals and electronics. Nervousness about the country’s future economic prospects are widely shared, he warned, with plummeting living standards undermining the country’s confidence and inflation a big problem. Underlying economic problems besetting Bangladesh is the prevalent hand of authoritarian politics. Regarding the fundamental nature of the challenge that faces the country’s continued progress, Lord Bruce cited the OECD policy review of Bangladesh written for the UN published recently, which warns that the ‘impressive accomplishments to date, while commendable, have resulted in (only) a partial economic transformation]’ and that ‘the persistence of significant vulnerabilities poses a potential threat to future advancements’.

Panellists at TDF’s Oct. 18 webinar, ‘Bangladesh’s path to global growth’

Many factors have contributed to the remarkable story of Bangladesh’s strong track record on growth and development, even in times of global uncertainties such as the Covid pandemic, said Dr Sohela Nazneen, a Senior Fellow at the University of Sussex’s Institute of Development Studies. But she wondered if the country could sustain its momentum as it tackles shifts in global economic structures and the challenges of addressing inequality and building strong institutions, as well as lack of trust, red tape and corruption. And does Bangladesh have the political skills to enable people to thrive rather than simply cope, and to train them for work in high-end jobs? Addressing gains in women’s rights, Nazneen stressed the key roles women have played in Bangladesh’s development, especially in the garment industry, and the gains they have made in education. But while absolute poverty has reduced, she added, gender inequality has risen, with transitory poverty having a real gender impact. And while the country’s history of female prime ministers is a landmark by any standard, in everyday life women still face difficulties such as public and domestic violence.

Excellent economic growth means Bangladesh is on the right track

With Bangladesh at a critical juncture today, can the undoubtedly impressive ‘miracle’ growth of previous years be sustained? Regulation, rule of law and the freedom to dissent are all crucial to continued development, said Nazneen, and the challenges are huge, particularly given that Bangladesh is a small country within a larger geopolitics. So, she concluded, the ultimate question is: where do we go from here?

Highlighting the sustainability of Bangladesh’s overwhelming growth in the past decade was Mohammad Golam Sarwar, a Doctoral Researcher at SOAS, University of London, and Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Dhaka. Sarwar considered how the global growth-based development model makes a country like Bangladesh a victim of the worsening climate crisis, as the pursuit of human development leads to ecological destruction. What are the possible justice and responsibility imperatives for the development-induced climate crisis, he asked?

He spoke of how GDP is linked more to economic activity than actual growth or value, and also addressed the alarming and permanent brain drain of young people to foreign lands, as well as whether Bangladesh should follow alternatives to development, approaches such as ‘de-growth’, harmony with nature and decolonising growth by way of ‘deconstructing’ the unsustainable model, and what the prospects and challenges are in this regard.

The Bangladesh state has been very good at listening to its citizens

At issue for Naomi Hossain, a Professor of Development Studies at SOAS, were the risks posed by authoritarianism and closing civic space for Bangladesh’s development success and future investment. She considered how the current government’s legitimacy depends substantially on its development performance, which has, she argued, always been about more than economic growth and grand infrastructural projects, which are so ‘fetishised’ by the ruling elites; it has much more to do with the economics of everyday life, namely the price of food and energy. Many argue that Bangladesh can attain faster growth and public investment without the troublesome demands of democratic accountability, said Hossain. But the Awami League is not the Chinese Communist Party: it lacks the capacity to control its people.

Women have played a key role in Bangladesh's development, but gender inequality has risen

Bangladesh’s undoubted development success has always depended on responsiveness: the Bangladeshi state needs to be oriented to listening to its people, and meeting their basic needs, and it has done this very well up to now. It may not be as democratic as Western models, but has been very good at listening to its citizens. However, it will find it difficult to continue to do this, the more authoritarian it becomes, warned Hossain.

Journalist and Badrul Syed Ahsan considered the role of democracy in Bangladesh’s global growth over the years. Democracy is a state of mind, he said, and for Bangladesh, it is a work in progress. The county had started off on right track in 1972, drawing up a Constitution within a year of independence – not many countries do this, Ahsan said. But in 1975 tragedy struck with the assassination of founder Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and most of his family., and years of military rule followed as the nation fell victim to various coups and abortive coups, undergoing 21 years of what Ahsan called ‘an age of darkness’.

Bangladesh’s democratic journey has been a tortuous path, and what matters is the future. Excellent economic growth means Bangladesh is on the right track, though over-population and climate problems are serious issues. Democracy depends on rule of law, freedom of speech etc, but also on diversification of exports, argued Ahsan This all depends on what happens in the January 2024 elections, and how credible they will be. The government’s performance on the economy over past 14 years has been very impressive, with infrastructure development and food security. Bangladesh is still moving towards a better democracy, and there is reason to believe the democratic system will be sustained. Yet, whatever happens in the election, Ahsan believed that the next government needs to bridge the widening gap between rich and poor, and between political parties, as well as bring about decentralistion and jobs, and a deep politicisation of political institutions so that they are state institutions rather than being subservient to particular political parties.

In his closing comments, TDF Chair Barry Gardiner said that the major climate catastrophe facing Bangladesh in the coming years needs a huge response on a war footing, if Bangladesh is to have a sustainable future.

Yvonne Gill is a freelance journalist based in London