Economic progress during Hasina’s second term

Tahseen Alihas a doctorate in history, specializing in modern South Asia.

Economic indicators suggest the people of Bangladesh are content with the direction of their lives and that of the country as the second term of the Awami League continues. But it is also necessary to dispel some misconceptions about the current situation. One persistent myth maintains there is unemployment amongst educated Bangladeshis. An analysis by American economist Forrest Cookson does not find any evidence to substantiate this idea. Using data taken from the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), surveys conducted by the Research and Development Centre (RDC) and real-time assessments made by the management leadership of the Bangladesh garments industry, Cookson finds that it is, instead, the opposite that is true. The shortage of Bangladeshis in middle management in the garment industry across the country can serve as an example.  It goes without saying that the garment industry management would prefer their compatriots, so the overwhelming number of foreigners in such positions indicates a dearth of applications from educated and skilled Bangladeshis. This suggests they may already have jobs elsewhere.

Figures from 2016 show a five percent unemployment rate and an underemployment rate that is extremely low and virtually negligible for women. According to Cookson, frictional unemployment – the process of leaving a job and taking up a new one – contributes to the aforementioned unemployment rate. Analysis of the garment industry shows the rate was 3.5 percent.

One of the great strides made by the Awami League government under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been to dramatically expand access to electricity across rural Bangladesh, a process expected to be completed by the end of 2018. In the case of electrical connections in households, Cookson notes that is the official figures which are lower than those provided by RDC surveys. Though urban or western readers take electricity for granted, it is life-changing in rural Bangladesh. Electricity makes lights, fans, charging mobile cellular phones, microwaves, refrigerators and televisions a viable reality for rural inhabitants. In June this writer heard first–hand accounts from new recipients of electrical connections in rural northern Bangladesh about the many ways they intended to utilise this new service to enrich their lives. Refrigerator and television ownership amongst households with electricity stands at 46% and 74% respectively, and according to Cookson, 97% of households with electricity have at the very least a fan.

The Sheikh Hasina government has also invested heavily in both education and healthcare. The expansion in education includes free textbooks and free schooling, but contrary to the claims of naysayers, the expansion has not diluted the effectiveness of education. Indeed, household surveys show that families are satisfied with the quality of teaching, textbooks and administration of schools. During her first term as prime minister (1996 – 2001) after the restoration of democracy in Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina had initiated a program of providing basic free medicine and medical care through rural care clinics which have been enhanced and expanded. Perceptions of doctors and medical facilities are solid; while work remains to be done, progress is on track.

Despite obstacles – both manmade and natural – Sheikh Hasina’s government has persevered, making tangible real life improvements in the lives of people across the country. There is popular confidence that Bangladesh is heading in the right direction and faith in Sheikh Hasina’s leadership. RDC public opinion surveys taken in March this year showed that 64 percent of respondents felt that their own lives had improved for the better, with 54 percent stating that their family’s financial standing had improved and 68 percent feeling that the country overall was on a path agreeable to them. As many as 72 percent of respondents have a good opinion of Sheikh Hasina personally, with 56 percent having a positive view of Sheikh Hasina’s ruling Awami League Party. Only 15 percent and 18.5 percent had a similarly favourable view of the Jatiya Party (JP) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) respectively.

While electoral support for AL has remained by and large constant, support for the BNP has declined, which can also be seen in the rise in the number of undecided voters. The BNP’s misgovernance during the 2001-2006 term, support for the infamous Jamaat – e – Islami, attempt to block the War Crimes Trials and open attacks on ordinary people during the run–up to the 2014 general elections and in 2015 have clearly not endeared it to voters, including its own erstwhile supporters. Favourable opinion of Khaleda Zia, the head of the BNP, was 26.3 percent, significantly lower than Sheikh Hasina’s approval rating. The trend holds true among the 18 – 29 age group as well, where both Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League are overwhelmingly more resonant than other political personalities and parties, including Khaleda Zia and the BNP.

As Bangladesh heads towards the next general election scheduled to be held in late 2018 or early 2019, the road towards continued prosperity and advancement for the country seems to be clear.