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BD’s topmost challenge lies in reducing gaping disparity

Economist Prof Anis Chowdhury tells FE

Asjadul Kibria | April 02, 2018 00:00:00

A macro-development economist of international renown noted with satisfaction the progress Bangladesh achieved in 47 years but warned that the rising disparity might derail the overall development.

"The achievements of Bangladesh in last 47 years are praiseworthy. The emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign country in 1971 gave us self-confidence; and we got an opportunity for our creativity to blossom. Our progress, in social and human development in particular, stands out," said Dr Anisuzzaman Chowdhury.

"However, rising disparity or inequality is the topmost challenge for sustainability of the country's overall development," added the internationally-renowned macro-development economist of Bangladesh origin while talking to The Financial Express (FE) in Dhaka last week.

Popularly known as Anis Chowdhury, he is now an adjunct professor of Western Sydney University and the University of New South Wales in Australia.

Dr Chowdhury cited from the latest Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES-2015) that the country's income Gini co-efficient increased to 0.483 in 2016 from 0.458 in 2010. Again, the top 10 per cent of the households are enjoying around 38.16 per cent of the national resources against 24.61 per cent six years back.

At the same time, the lower 10 per cent of them lost almost a half of their entitlement to national resources. Their share of the national resources dropped to only 1.01 per cent in 2016 from 2.00 per cent in 2010.

"The most alarming development is inter-generational disparity which is rising fast in the country," he said pointing to the deplorable public educational institutions vis-à-vis English medium private institutions as a contributory factor.

"Society's elite entrench their interest through children's education in well-resourced English medium private institutions; they remain ahead of the children of the commoners who can only afford under-resourced over-crowded public schools and universities," he added.

Dr Chowdhury, who was a Professor of Economics at the University of Western Sydney (Australia) during 2001-2008 before joining the United Nations, also noted that the elite had no trust in the national or public system.

In his view, this is due to politicians of all persuasions as well as bureaucrats who are giving wrong signals as they send their children overseas for education and they themselves go abroad for simple medication procedures that can easily be done here.

"Thus, they have no incentive to invest in the national or public system. In short, our elite do not have any stake in the country," Dr. Chowdhury argued.

"The disjoin between the elite and the mass or ordinary people fuels discontent which can lead to social and political instability", he added.

In this connection, he recalled the rising disparity between the two wings of Pakistan and the lack of democratic governance that led to Pakistan's breakdown within a few years after it had celebrated a decade of development.

Thus, Dr Chowdhury opined that Bangladesh's eligibility to graduate from the Least Developed Country (LDC) status to a developing one would be meaningless, if various forms of inequality and relative deprivation continue to rise.

Mentioning that the current discourse among the political class in the country emphasises growth or income only, he argued, "Only economic growth or rise in income can't be development".

"GDP (gross domestic product) can rise, even when industries pollute or damage the environment, but people will be less healthy," he explained.

"GDP will also rise, if a large number of concentration camps are constructed, but people will lose freedom."

"What is development, if people can't breathe due to pollution or if they can't feel safe while walking on the streets?" he questioned.

Dr Chowdhury observed that Bangladesh needed to find a solution to the problem of rising disparity in its founding principles - a democratic polity and a socialist economic construct. Both are critical to rebuilding trust and social capital.

Anis Chowdhury, who also served as Director at the Macroeconomic Policy and Development Division and Statistics Division of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN-ESCAP), expressed reservations about bilateral and regional free trade deals.

"In many cases, bilateral or regional free trade agreements go beyond trade and force the weak partners to accept tough conditions on intellectual property rights and dispute settlements," he explained.

"Developing countries like Bangladesh can protect their interest better through multilateralism," he opined. "That's why the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is still relevant for them, though its future becomes uncertain."

The economist blamed the developed countries for undermining the WTO.

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