Basket-case, test-case & best-case: Developmental narratives

Dhaka,  Tue,  26 September 2017
Published : 21 Aug 2017, 22:01:35
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Basket-case, test-case & best-case: Developmental narratives

Having tested so many developmental assaults and obstacles, Bangladesh's credentials to becoming the 'best' case is unparalleled. The 'best' refers neither to a developmental nirvana, nor a developing country irreversibly crossing into the developed domain. It is simply a country simultaneously adapting to a string of unending adversities, resisting economic retardation and climbing the income-ladder, not so much with natural resources or factory production but with human resources contributing a larger share, writes Imtiaz A. Hussain
Shifting from a 'basket-case' to a 'best-case' country need not be a spectacular journey, inevitable or even unravel any nirvana, though the lessons learned could be priceless. From its hapless 1971 start to its hopeful 2017 springboard, Bangladesh's developmental experiences carry enlightening experiences.

Motivating this article is a piece by Wolfgang-Peter Zingel of Heidelberg University's South Asian Institute, entitled Bangladesh, the test case, itself referencing Bangladesh: The Test Case of Development, written by Just Faaland and Jack R. Parkinson in 1976. Both works posit the same idea: "if 'development' would work in Bangladesh, it would work everywhere," a clear rebuttal of Henry Kissinger's 1971 'basket-case' reference (a categorisation inferred from his comments, not spoken by him). Though Faaland/Parkinson observations preceded Bangladesh's actual economic take-off by almost a decade, their hope fuelled the even greater Zingel hope. Based on Bangladesh's past performances ("higher level of economic and social well-being than at any time since the colonial days"), Zingel projected the country to be an unfolding "test for climate change and energy."

Journeying from economic/social boot-strapping to ecological defence-building does not entail a large leap. Climate-change ravages can hit an economically-plagued country as forcefully as it can a developed country, while preventive/curative measures demand too painstakingly slow a timeframe to instantly appeal. Zingel takes stock of the several 'test' thresholds demanding Bangladeshi action: garnering international solidarity; pursuing democracy; advocating women's emancipation; fighting ecological battles; overcoming the expiration of the Multi-fibre Agreement constraint that would have truncated its ready-made garment (RMG) industry; promoting manpower export, and thereby remittance inflows as an alternative to foreign direct investment (FDI); and mustering resilience and adaptation against, especially weather, adversities; and so forth. Surely a silver lining had to await any country expending such enormous efforts to pull through them all.

Not any heavenly 'nirvana' but grim ground realities confront the enthusiastic participant, and certainly not a climaxing moment, rather just the opposite. Since few, if any, country has consistently kept as high an annual growth rate for a long stretch of time as Bangladesh since 1990 (the start, not just of its democratic revival, but also its 'Siamese twin', liberal economic orientation), Adam Smith's 'workshop of the world' aphorism hit the spot as directly as it did England in late-18th Century. It motivated Bangladesh's market economy shift, again, much as it did Britain in its own time. Both have become the country's mainstay and hopeful mainspring. The result has been to establish a 'nation of shopkeepers' (another Smith refrain) where once the military ruled, political in-fighting perpetually prevails, and Islamic extremism constantly threatens. None of these, however, have significantly stopped the country's machines from ticking, assembly-lines rolling, and transactions crisscrossing the world. Though not a textbook blueprint, what stands out is an entirely different type of capital than what Smith had lionised: hardiness and adaptability of drastically exposed people. Serving as a source of non-replicable comparative advantage, they took Bangladesh into transitions and carried the country through them all when plans did not work, paradigms crumbled and politics became alienating. 

Affecting half the population when he wrote this piece in 2012, poverty, Zingel correctly points out, remains a huge weight. Though that proportion has dwindled to about a third of the population by 2017, it is still too large, only partly diluted by a higher middle-class growth. If the past constructs the immediate future, as Zingel has himself noted, should Bangladesh continue staying ahead of its many adversities, just a few more years of sustaining the same generation-long growth-rate (of 5.0 per cent or better) should irrevocably loosen the poverty-line. With more people crossing that threshold, conspicuous consumption has been set on the road to expansion and market-driven development can only deepen.

Corruption, also noted by Zingel, is one obvious drawback, but a practice with ever-increasing palliatives (as the Scopus section of this newspaper noted on July 21, 2017). External developments (collapse of petroleum prices, urgent reforms initiated in migrant-hosting countries, as across the Arab lands, and political volatility, especially in areas of possible Islamic extremism), demand more attention. On the one hand, a softer and smaller Bangladeshi remittance sector can only be compensated by expanding domestic production, and on the other, returning migrants cannot help but feed the market economy with their cosmopolitan tastes and expanded consumption. With ample savings, the country can now launch its own large-scale domestic ventures. Against the backdrop of the country's massive infrastructure-building projects underway, how we attract foreign investment may prove crucial to how fast the country moves up the middle-income ladder, while offsetting declining remittance earnings.

On the negative side of all of the above would be our failure to convey to the world our capacity to have a peaceful transfer of governmental power. In other words, since our 50th birthday preparations for 2021 will stimulate the economy, crossing the election hurdle admirably in 2019 could further accelerate the economy in desired directions, critically knocking off more impediments along our pathway.

Having tested so many developmental assaults and obstacles, Bangladesh's credentials to becoming the 'best' case is unparalleled. The 'best' refers neither to a developmental nirvana, nor a developing country irreversibly crossing into the developed domain. It is simply a country simultaneously adapting to a string of unending adversities, resisting economic retardation and climbing the income-ladder, not so much with natural resources or factory production but with human resources contributing a larger share. Reliving Bangladesh's shift from a basket-case to a test-case, Alice Baillat, of the French Institute for Environment and Development, coined an appropriate term: 'weak power climate leader'. It may be the term Zingel was hinting all along, at least to answer his own puzzle. It is the subject the next Scopus article addresses.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

imtiaz.hussain@iub.edu.bd
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