Sustainable development of Bangladesh

Lessons from Korea

Mostafa Amir Sabbih | Sunday, 24 November 2019

Bangladesh is the land of 160 million inhabitants and one of the most densely- populated countries of the world. It has achieved significant progress in poverty reduction. In Bangladesh, the proportion of population earning below US$1.90 (PPP) per day decreased from 44.2 per cent in 1990 to 13.8 per cent in 2016. The country has also expanded on average by 6 per cent per year over the last decade, largely driven by garment exports and workers' remittances which helped the country gain the lower-middle income status in 2015. Bangladesh achieved commendable success in attaining Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), particularly MDG 1 (Eradicate extreme poverty) and MDG 4 (Reduce child mortality). It has also made significant progress in attaining gender parity and school enrollment in primary and secondary education. However, there are a number of challenges that remain for sustainable development in Bangladesh.
At the seventieth session of the UN General Assembly on 25 September 2015, 193 UN member states adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The learning of MDGs taught us that the achievement of some SDGs would require a much greater stretch in Bangladesh. Bangladesh ranked 111th out of 156 countries as per the latest SDG index (SDGI) 2018 by the Sustainable Development Solution Network. This part outlines the key areas of challenges for sustainable development in Bangladesh.
Inadequate quality of education
Promoting quality education is the most essential factor for improving human capital and sustainable development of a country. Bangladesh has had a remarkable performance regarding the treatment of disparities in the access to education, school enrollment rates in primary and secondary levels. However, this increase in quantity was not complemented by the quality of education. The results of the National Student Assessment carried out by Directorate of Primary Education in 2011 exposed that only 25 per cent of the students could master Class 5 English competencies while only 33 per cent could master Class 5 Mathematics competencies at the end of primary school cycle. A similar result was found for the secondary school pass students. Students fail to obtain the required level of competencies due to the substandard performance in quality components, such as teacher-student ratio, the proportion of trained teachers, teacher absenteeism, and inadequate technical education system. According to Bangladesh Education Statistics 2018, there is only one teacher per 45 students in secondary schools, while only 66.9 per cent of these teachers are trained.
Unemployment and youth unemployment
One major area of concern for Bangladesh with regard to inclusive development is its persistent unemployment and youth unemployment. At the present rate of labour force growth (1.9 per cent), an additional 21 million people will enter into the labour force by 2030. This poses both a challenge and a window of opportunity in the form of demographic dividend for Bangladesh's. However, Bangladesh economy absorbed just under 50 per cent of the increase in the working age population into the economy in the period of 2000-10. According to Labour Force Survey 2016-17, still 4.2 per cent of total labour force and 10.6 per cent of youth are unemployed. Further, the 29.8 per cent of youth are not in education, employment and training. Unemployment often resulted from lack of new job creation, particularly in the industrial sector mainly driven by inadequate private investment and existence of a large informal sector or grey economy (85.1 per cent of total employment).
Inadequate infrastructure, industrialisation and innovation
Bangladesh lags far behind other developing countries with regard to its physical infrastructure such as roads, highways, ports, transport and communication which are necessary for augmenting the private investment and economic growth. As per SDGI 2018, Bangladesh ranked very poorly with regard to its overall quality of infrastructure with a score of 2.9 in the scale of 1 (extremely underdeveloped) to 7 (extensive and efficient).
It is very difficult to sustain the pace of economic growth without a strong, diversified and highly productive industrial sector. The export industry of Bangladesh is not very much diversified and highly development on in some particular products. Based on the Herfindahl-Hirschmann Index (HHI) or concentration index, this concentration has increased in recent times with 0.40 per cent in 2018 from 0.34 per cent in 1995. Bangladesh's export basket has continued to remain development in only one product -- apparels, and particularly low-end items.
ICT is a good enabler of cost reduction/productivity enhancement and innovation facilitation. SDGI data suggest that the use of ICT in Bangladesh is still at its early stage. Although the number of mobile broadband subscribers increased substantially (27.1 per 100 people) over the last two decades, still only 18.2 per cent people use internet for their work or recreational purposes. Further, government expenditure on R&D is almost non-existent and data also are not available.
Poor status of rural development
In Bangladesh, still 65.7 per cent people live in rural areas where agriculture is the dominant sector. The share of agriculture in GDP declined from 24.5 per cent in 1990 to 13.8 per cent in 2018. This presents some concerns since the largest segment (40.6 per cent) of the labour force is still engaged in this sector. Absence of a developed product market, access to credit and other inputs as well as high transportation cost reduce farmers' profit and contribute to lower productivity. Rapid population growth in rural areas resulted in more fragmentation of land and peasant impoverishment. Further, due to the lack of opportunities to work in non-farm activities and heavy dependence only on one single crop (rice), workers tend to migrate to the urban areas and do temporary non-farm jobs.
Concerns for environmental sustainability
Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries that are facing immense challenges due to climate change. Bangladesh ranked as one of the extremely vulnerable countries as per the Climate Change Vulnerability index (0.3 on a scale of 0-1). Its geophysical position coupled with highly dense population, limited resources and dependence on nature makes Bangladesh a hazard-prone country with many subsequent catastrophic events like irregular rainfall patterns, floods, flash floods, cyclones, saline intrusion, drought, sea level rise, tidal surge and water logging. Another precondition of environmental sustainability is responsible consumption and production. However, industries are causing 60 per cent of the river pollution through wilful discharge of effluent, even by those few having effluent treatment plants.
Action Agenda to address the challenges: Strategic lessons from Korea
The Republic of Korea, from being one of the aid-dependent Least Developed Countries (LDCs) of world during the 1960's, is one of the advanced industrialised countries at present. Korea achieved this success due to its rapid economic growth (with a per capita GDP of US$ 29,742 in 2017 from US$ 253 in 1970). This growth was largely driven by its productivity increase in the industrial sector and its human capital investment. The evolution of Korea's ICT sector from underdeveloped to an IT powerhouse during the period of 1980-2008 played a key role towards increasing its productivity and trade competitiveness. Further, during this period, Korea also made a rapid transformation of its rural economy through its community-based "New Village Movement". In addition, Korea has made some notable progress with regard to achieving environmental sustainability through strategic decision making. Therefore, Bangladesh, which is also one of the LDCs, expected to graduate by 2024, can take many lessons from Korean experience to address its sustainable development challenges.
Promoting quality education
Korean experience suggests that during the process, some types of trade-off between quantitative growth and qualitative improvement of education are inevitable. With Korea, during the rapid universalisation process of elementary and secondary education, the deterioration of educational circumstances occurred for a considerable amount of time. However, the quantitative expansion of education became a driving force towards policies improving education circumstances and a plus factor for educational investment. As a result, it has improved to a decent level at the present. In addition, in the early industrialisation stage where the capacity of the private sector has not yet developed, the role of the government in education, which is public in character, is very important. With Korea, government-oriented/concentrated advancement systems have been maintained all over the education system such as the single-track school system; liberalisation of training and recruiting teachers; enactment and operation of national education courses; and a national and authorised textbook system including national, public, and private schools. Such measures were very effective in securing minimal levels of quality and equality of education among regions and classes.
Building resilient infrastructure, industrialisation and innovation
Korea's success of developing modern transport infrastructure suggests that strategic plans for economic growth should be combined with transport infrastructure. The government of Bangladesh should adopt Public Transit-oriented policy measures through including and adapting to the Intelligent Transportation System for national/regional/urban public transport. Further, there should be a convergence and integration of the public transport system with good access and benefit for users. Finally, there should be a clearly stated vision of the government such as promoting dense development for transit station areas, leading the urban planning by prioritising green transport and encouraging private car users to change their mode to public transport.
Korea adopted three key strategies in order to develop their industrial sector which can be important lessons for Bangladesh. These include, 1) An 'economic growth first' strategy for eradication of poverty which is similar to Bangladesh; 2) Promote export-led growth with shifting industrial strategies over time -- from labour-intensive exports (current stage of Bangladesh) to Heavy & Chemical Industries investment (to upgrade exports) to human capital investment rationalisation (for export competitiveness) to FDI & R&D (research and development) (to upgrade technologies); 3) Prioritise and promote early and effective development of those capabilities and assets which were essential to enable sustained economic growth.
Korean ICT revolution experience suggests that the strategy to develop the ICT sector and promote innovation should be operationalised in two phases. First phase may include testing and improving upon technologies already developed in advanced countries while the second phase should concentrate on innovation (investing more in R&D), commercialising new technologies and convergence of core technologies.
Reducing rural-urban gap and attaining inclusive growth
The success of the 'Saemaul Undong' or the 'New Village Movement' of Korea, based on values of inclusive growth and inclusive partnership suggests that it can be a good model for reducing the rural-urban gap and increasing employment opportunities. It can also be a good reference point for operationalising the SDG Localisation Framework of Bangladesh. But in order this model to be successful and sustainable in a country like Bangladesh, some preconditions are required to be met such as, creation of common values; voluntary participation of community members; upward decision making process; pooling of fund from central and local government; inclusion of low and middle income villagers and local groups; and shared prosperity. Another important precondition is a successful land reform. This model can improve agricultural productivity through supporting small farmers; enforce value chain through providing the farmers better access to market; and promote sustainable agriculture (SDG 2) through generating non-farming income. Some of the prescribed mechanism for rural job creating by Saemaul Undong include providing microfinance to support small farmers; operating and nurturing social enterprises in villages; and rejuvenating local economy through carrying out projects in local off-seasons.
Ensuring environmental sustainability
Bangladesh can learn few strategic lessons from Korea's transformation from a Brown economy to a Green economy. Korea boasts of being the only developing country with successful reforestation (the 1960s~1980s) and currently 64 per cent land areas are under forest coverage. But the industrial success brought serious environmental pollution in the 1970s and the 1980s: rivers, soil and the air were in a state as the current situation of the capital city of Bangladesh. However, an alarm among people by the early 1990s and the shift to local autonomy (1994) prompted serious actions to address pollution. Many innovative initiatives such as the volume-based Waste Collection Fee System was introduced during that time and today Korea has one of the most modern waste collection and recycle systems in the world. Korea launched the Green Growth strategy as a national strategy in 2008 where much emphasis was put on reducing GHG emissions, lowering dependence on oil, coal and gas for energy and strengthening climate change adaptation capacity.

Mostafa Amir Sabbih is a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD). Views expressed in this article are of the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation he works for.
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