Bangladesh’s human capital

Just 1.8 percent has been allocated for education in the federal budget for 2012-13. There is an uproar over how a population of 180 million can be serviced with this percentage. But it is not just the finances that matter here.

Bangladesh also has a low budget expenditure on education (it was only 2.4 percent of the GDP in 2008). But in spite of this, the country has seen remarkable improvements in its education system. Bangladesh has been successful in attaining gender parity at primary and secondary levels of education and an increase in enrolment rate. Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world, is the only country in South Asia besides Sri Lanka to have achieved parity in male and female enrolments at both primary and secondary levels.

At liberation in December 1971, the literacy rate in Bangladesh was only 16.8 percent. The crisis of 1971 had destroyed almost one-fifth of the country’s economy; internal displacements because of the war impeded progress and crippled growth for years to come.

So how did Bangladesh beat us in education and so many other fields? Simple, it values its human capital. What was once a mistreated and backward part of Pakistan is doing far better than us in numerous social indicators. Population-control, for one: it has an estimated population of 149 million today, whereas it was the more populous of the two Wings of united Pakistan.

After liberation the government of Bangladesh laid the foundations of an extensive education system. In 1974 primary education was nationalised and made free. Education was placed under a centralised administration and teachers became state employees. To emphasise the importance of primary education the government separated it from the Directorate of Public Instruction and set up the Directorate of Primary Education in 1980. It took up two Universal Primary Education (UPE) projects in 1981 on a limited scale, one with donor support and the other with the government’s own funds. At the same time, the government started a massive mass education programme for illiterate people. The literacy rate rose from 16.8 percent in 1971 to 24.8 percent by 1991. Under a law passed in 1990 primary education became compulsory from 1992.

The Bangladesh Literacy Survey, 2010, paints a remarkable picture of how far the country has come since independence. It shows how, with political will and sound reforms, positive change is possible in a country’s development indicators. Bangladesh sought to do so not only through provision of basic education to school-age children but by also taking measures to minimise dropouts.

The demand side too has been as responsive: even the poorest families have come to value education and give high priority to the basic education of their children, boys and girls alike. Bangladesh has made impressive gains in reducing gender disparities in primary and secondary schooling – one of the MDGs. The ratio of females to males in primary schools has steadily increased from about 83 percent in 1991 to 96 percent in 2000. At the secondary level, there are already more girls enrolled than boys. Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world is the only country in South Asia besides Sri Lanka to have achieved parity in male and female enrolments at both primary and secondary levels. If the country can sustain the current annual trend growth of net enrolment of 1.83 percent, it is on track to attain 100 percent net enrolment by 2013.

National development planning and successive budgets have identified and accorded highest priority to education and literacy as a major intervention strategy, both for human resources development and poverty reduction in order to raise the quality of life of the people.

As a result of increased literacy, Bangladesh has also scored successes in health, population and nutrition indicators. Bangladesh’s infant mortality rate of 41 is much lower than India’s (52 per 1,000 live births) or Pakistan’s (61 per 1,000 live births). The total fertility rate declined by a remarkable 57 percent from 1975 to 2007. The country experienced its steepest decline during the 1980s and the early 90s: in 1986 a major intervention in primary education was made and studies were undertaken on primary education to make it need-responsive and time-befitting. The reform that resulted from this intervention was the remodelling of the primary education curriculum.

From a traditional mode the curriculum was transformed into a competency based one bringing in radical changes in both pedagogy and learner-assessment system. The following reforms in the secondary curriculum were initiated: (i) establishing equivalence of education (curriculum) standard to the international level; (ii) inculcating values into the curriculum; (iii) curriculum to be made need-based and job-oriented; (iv) the curriculum to be designed in such a way that learners’ potential is exploited to the fullest extent. On the basis of these research findings, secondary curriculum had been reformed and revised in 1996.

There has been impressive increase in terms of adopting modern methods of family planning as a result of awareness and increased gender parity in primary enrolment. The contraceptive prevalence rate has increased from 36.2 in 1993-94 to 47.5 in 2007. In comparison to some other South Asian countries, Bangladesh’s position (48) is also worth mentioning: the rate is higher than that of Pakistan (just 19) or Nepal (44). (India’s is 49.)

Increased literacy and enrolments in primary schools has had noticeable impact on nutrition in children. The percentage of children underweight for age has declined also to 41 in 2007 from 56.3 in 1996-1997. Under-five mortality per 1,000 live births has declined from 115.7 in 1996-97 to 65 in 2007. Maternal mortality rate per 100,000 live births has come down from 322 in 2000 (BMMS: 2001) to 194 in 2010 (BMMS:2010).

Because of increased literacy and the resulting awareness and there has been impressive progress in controlling several diseases like malaria, filaria and tuberculosis. The life expectancy has increased from 44 years (1970) to 67 years (2007). In life expectancy Bangladesh is ahead of India. One of the other significant achievements of the health sector in the last two decades, which has contributed towards relatively higher life expectancy, is partial or complete eradication of certain life-threatening diseases like polio and DPT-a goal Pakistan is far from achieving even by 2015.

There are no two opinions that the socio-economic prosperity of a country critically depends on the quality of its human capital and the development of human resource requires an educated and responsive population. Human resource development is only possible when education is compatible with the development needs of the country and when it effectively contributes to intellectual development of a person. Bangladesh’s example is a testament that education is the foremost priority for development and progression in any sector and can turn things around for the better if there is sufficient political will and demand for that by the masses.

So what should we do? Remove the blinkers that keep us so focused on our own critical situation and have a look around. India, Iran, China, Bangladesh.

The writer is a member of the Pakistan Education Task Force and founder of Children’s Global Network, Pakistan.