The Economist: Bangladesh made major progress

The Economist says lives of poor improved a lot in 20 years


Between 1990 and 2010, Bangladesh has made extraordinary improvements in almost every indicator of human welfare, The Economist reported.

“Economic growth since the 1970s has been poor; the country’s politics have been unremittingly wretched. Yet over the past 20 years, Bangladesh has made some of the biggest gains in the basic condition of people’s lives ever seen anywhere,” the popular British magazine wrote in two reports published in its November 1 issue.

In the 20 years, life expectancy rose by 10 years, from 59 to 69. Bangladeshis now have a life expectancy four years longer than Indians, despite the Indians being, on average, twice as rich, the reports said.

It further said Bangladesh has also made huge gains in education and health.

More than 90 percent of girls enrolled in primary school in 2005, slightly more than boys. That was twice the female enrolment rate in 2000.

Infant mortality had more than halved, from 97 deaths per thousand live births in 1990 to 37 per thousand in 2010. Over the same period child mortality fell by two-thirds and maternal mortality fell by three-quarters. Maternal mortality now stands at 194 per 100,000 births, the reports added.

In 1990, women could expect to live a year less than men; now they can expect to live two years more than men do.

“Some of these changes are among the fastest social improvements ever seen. Remarkably, the country has achieved all this even though economic growth, until recently, has been sluggish and income has risen only modestly,” said the reports.

On family planning, the reports said Bangladesh not only halved the rate of fertility within a generation, but also increased women’s influence within their own households. For the first time, wives controlled the size of families.

According to the reports, four main factors contributed to the surprising success.

They were the government’s programme of voluntary family planning, growth in textile sector where four-fifths of its workers were female, remittance from abroad sent by six million Bangladeshis, and green revolution, mircocredit and the role of NGOs, particularly Brac and Grameen Bank.

“And both the boom in the textile industry and the arrival of microcredit have, over the past 20 years, put money into women’s pockets, from which it is more likely to be spent on health, education and better food,” the reports added.

The reports also said Bangladesh has maintained a broad consensus in favour of basic social spending despite military coups and a toxic politics dominated by the bitter infighting of the “battling begums” (Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia).

Moreover, Bangladesh‘s achievements remain vulnerable to political interference, the reports said, adding that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was vindictively meddling with Grameen Bank, removing its boss and trying to impose her own choice upon the institution’s shareholders, all to punish its founder, Muhammad Yunus, for daring to think of setting up a political party.

Between 1971 and 2010, rice harvest more than trebled though the area under cultivation increased by less than 10 percent.

Bangladesh still has formidable problems. Its nutritional standards are low and stalled for a few years in the early 2000s. While the government has managed to increase school enrolment, the quality of education is abysmal and the drop-out rate exceptionally high, the reports said.

Bangladesh is badly governed, stifled by red tape and faces severe environmental problems. But in terms of the success of its grass-roots development, it has lessons for the world, the reports went on to say.