Why do people make bad political choices? Why is it that well performing governments are often not appreciated for the milestones they have reached? One possible explanation is that people often take the advancements that they have collectively availed under a particular leadership for granted. This makes them either simplify or discount the challenges that they earlier faced and they begin believing that more improvements are possible under a different political setting. This aspirational position is not illogical, but it is questionable to what extent it is grounded in pragmatism. After all, if we fail to re-elect well-performing governments, then what exact incentive are we giving political parties to make better economic management their focus? If people incorrectly evaluate our developmental strides, then how can we harness a balanced narrative of our economic transformation? These questions are critical for Bangladesh at the present political juncture, when the nation is awaiting a general election in December 2018.
So how exactly should we evaluate our economic performance over the last 10 years? There are very few countries in the world whose developmental challenges are as acute as the ones we face in Bangladesh. The country, in terms of sheer size, is very small. Its land area is only 56,980 square miles, which is smaller than the state of Illinois in the US. Yet, it is home to more than 160 million people – a population size that is more than half of the population in the US. This, in some sense, means that an average US citizen has for herself nearly 33 times more land than an average Bangladeshi, since the US is 66 times larger than Bangladesh. Even a country like Malaysia, which is more than double in land size compared to Bangladesh, is home to only thirty-two million people. Therefore, the intense pressure of high population density and of living in a flood-prone delta amplifies the socio-economic challenges of Bangladesh, which is often ignored in our development discourse.
Putting it frankly, clothing, feeding, sheltering, educating and maintaining a minimal level of social order among the general population becomes a daunting task in any country where so many people are cramped together on a tiny piece of land, especially one prone to floods and other natural disasters. No wonder that, when the country gained independence, political and developmental pundits did not express much hope for its future prospects. This developmental challenge, in more recent times, was further complicated by two additional factors:
i) the rise of fundamentalism between 2001 and 2006 that dented the country’s international reputation, and,
ii) an acute energy crisis that almost halted our economic transformation.
Thus, when Sheikh Hasina was elected as the prime minister in 2008, addressing these two faults became fundamental. But solving the energy crisis was not easy. Power generation needed considerable investment, which our national budget (at that point in time) could not finance. This compelled the government to think outside the box and open up scopes for private participation and investments in the energy sector. As a result, over the last decade, the power generation capacity has increased from 5,200 MW in 2009 to more than 16,000 MW in 2018 – an unprecedented milestone that was never before been witnessed in our country’s energy sector.
And this salvation of the energy sector did pay its dividends. Between 2008 and 2018, our exports have grown from $14 billion in 2008 to more than $36 billion in 2018 – a performance which would have remained a distant dream had our policymakers failed to solve the initial energy crisis. Even our per capita income has increased from $619 in 2008 to more than $1,750 in 2018. But the Awami League’s economic achievements are not solely confined to these few success stories. One of the key paradigms shifts it brought to economic management is that it laid out a comprehensive economic plan for Bangladesh – encapsulated in the ‘Digital Vision 2021’ – which envisions Bangladesh transforming itself into a middle-income country by 2021. Furthermore, to attain this broad milestone, the government has developed two detailed Five-Year Plans – the Sixth Five Year Plan 2010-15 and the Seventh Five Year Plan 2015-2020, which elaborates the targets, strategies and policies that the government aimed to implement during its tenure.
Accordingly, the improvements that Bangladesh experienced on its socio-economic front did not emerge out of the blue. Today, life expectancy in Bangladesh is 72 years, which is, for example, more than India. Who would have thought on the eve of Dec 16, 1971 that the people of this war-torn nation would one day live longer than an average person in India? Even when it comes to “Under Five Mortality per 1000” – Bangladesh has reduced it to less than 33, while for India and Pakistan it is 40 and 75 respectively. Overall, even the most conservative assessment of our economic performance over the last decade will acknowledge the transformation we have experienced – especially if we factor in the constraints that perpetually complicate our development initiatives.
But charting out this developmental path is only one crucial element of Hasina’s economic legacy. A daunting challenge that she faced after assuming office in 2009 was to identify and uproot all the terrorist groups that gained a strong grip over the country’s social and political terrain between 2001 and 2006. Her determination to fight and challenge the extremist outfits came at personal risk. In her political life, she has faced numerous close assassination attempts – some of which were executed by militant organisations. Yet, through her decisive policies against all sort of terrorist outfits, she has earned the nation strong credibility on the international stage. In particular, eliminating the terrorist outfits conducting operations in North-East Indian States has earned Bangladesh significant prestige with both India and the West as a sincere partner in the war on terror.
As a result, it is not an accident that only during the last decade, Bangladesh was able to peacefully resolve long-standing bilateral issues such as the maritime boundary dispute and land boundary agreement that has significantly increased Bangladesh’s access to maritime resources in the Bay of Bengal and increased its own land area by more than 10,000 acres.
The credibility of the current administration in the international stage has also meant that it was able to open new doors in economic diplomacy. Over the last few years, Bangladesh has entered investment agreements with China, India, Japan and Russia – which (in effect) means that Bangladesh currently enjoys more than $60 billion dollars of foreign investments and loans in the pipeline. It is also pertinent to recognise that never before in the history of our country have opportunities of such a scale ever opened up on the international front. And there is no denying that it is only Hasina’s dignified statecraft that has allowed Bangladesh to navigate the competing geopolitical interests of these world powers, while simultaneously developing strong win-win bilateral relations with all of them.
Thus, moving forward, the challenge for the present government – if it is re-elected – is to effectively materialise the investments that are currently in pipeline to give the state of infrastructure in Bangladesh the necessary face-lift it requires. The present government also has one more key challenge to address: it needs to substantially improve the governance and effectiveness of the state bodies responsible for delivering public services to citizens. As evident from the East Asian Miracle, a bureaucracy that is effective in offering public order, macroeconomic stability and mobilizing resources to finance public goods such as infrastructure and human capital is viewed to be fundamental in managing the economic rise of any nation. And this is only possible when merit-based appointment is complemented with a public-sector incentive structure that allows the public sector to attract the best of minds.
Consequently, the transformation we witnessed over the last decade needs continuity, and the only pragmatic leadership option that Bangladesh has at this point in time is Hasina. There is no denying that any administration in charge of governance makes mistakes, especially when it has been in power for a decade. But, its strength lies in its capacity to learn from such mistakes and gain adaptive efficiency. And at this present juncture, no one benefits from such degree of adaptive efficiency that is needed to practically navigate the incredibly difficult geo-political terrain of Bangladesh than Hasina.
The nation also needs bold people-centric leadership, and Hasina’s personal story makes her the most able candidate. Her undying commitment to serve the people is rooted in her pain and personal loss. That is the aesthetic beauty of her story and that is the very reason why the economic emancipation of ordinary people remains her central political priority. There cannot be any better reason why going forward with her as our leader remains the only viable option for Bangladesh. And that is why there is a pertinent need for Awami League 3.0.