The Bangladesh model

Two weeks ago, while speaking on a television show, I demanded the PTI to turn Pakistan into a Bangladesh before transforming us into a Sweden.

Interestingly, a video clip of the show went viral in Bangladesh and even the prime minister of Bangladesh commented on it, extending a hand of friendship to Pakistan after a long time and offering to share experiences. South Asian print media also picked the debate and this paper reported it three days ago, though it was the only paper that chose to censor my name – denying me a rare moment of recognition.

Many readers have raised a legitimate question: why should we look at countries that are like ourselves, instead of emulating the best in the world? After all, the PTI’s populist promise of development is based on bringing home the best practices of the most developed countries, and delivering us development in days and weeks.

Imran Khan had assured the nation that it was possible because of the two distinct advantages he enjoyed as a leader: one, he had spent a lot of time in the West and thus had cracked the code of Western development. And two, unlike the corrupt leaders in the Third World, he is thoroughly honest. Unfortunately, becoming a developed country is much like becoming a millionaire. It is easier for a motivational speaker to deliver dreams, much harder to change the reality.

There are many complications associated with what many experts call the challenge of ‘getting to Denmark’ by emulating the Western countries. The economies and governance systems of developed countries have evolved over centuries and there is no actionable memory of how this process unfolded. These Western countries went through very different historical circumstances and are very different kinds of societies today.

Looking at Bangladesh is important because it is a Muslim South Asian country that shares many social, political and economic experiences with us. Not very long ago, many economists saw Bangladesh as a basket case because of the country’s narrow resource base, very small land mass and vulnerability to extreme natural hazards.

Today, Bangladesh radiates a very different image. Its GDP is growing at a whopping 7.1 percent, creating jobs, throwing up a vibrant middle class and reducing poverty. For six years in a row, Bangladesh’s GDP growth has remained greater than 6 percent and most economists expect this run to continue. Pakistan barely touched 5.8 percent GDP growth after a decade last year and this may drop to less than five percent during the current financial year.

Even more importantly, economic growth is reaching the poor. While well over 40 percent of Bangladeshis lived in extreme poverty in 1991, according to a World Bank estimate, extreme poverty has gone down to less than 14 percent. In other words, about 50 million fewer Bangladeshis are in extreme poverty as a result of the improving economy.

Pakistan is facing a balance of payment crisis, which is mainly based on a huge trade deficit. During the last fiscal year, our imports were $61 billion, while our exports were merely $23 billion, creating a yawning gap of $38 billion. While remittances covered $20 billion, we were still left with the $18 billion gap to fill.

Bangladesh’s export-led growth model has helped it avoid the serious external sector problems that Pakistan is faced with. At the moment, Bangladesh’s exports stand at $37 billion while Pakistan’s exports are merely $22 billion. Interestingly, exports in both countries are textile based with one major difference: Pakistan is a major producer of the raw product ie cotton, while Bangladesh doesn’t grow any cotton.

Pakistan’s model of textile industry has been completely reliant on exploitation of cotton farmers. Profits were shifted from farmers to spinners by keeping the prices artificially low and forcing farmers to sell their produce at low prices. As a result, we have developed a textile sector that is less competitive, and reliant on protection. Our textiles collapsed with the crisis in the cotton crop and high production cost.

Thanks to this exploitation, Pakistan’s cotton growing areas remain the least developed parts of the country. Our textile sector cannot exist by using imported cotton, while Bangladesh’s textile industry is value added and has depended on imported cotton from the very beginning.

Contrary to Pakistan’s model of crony capitalism, where protected industries and sectors have thrived, Bangladesh has provided opportunities to its entrepreneurs. Pakistan is producing sugar that it cannot sell to anyone except itself, and sinking huge resources on elite housing societies that enrich Pakistan’s who’s who but destroy the national economy. Crony capitalists from both sectors are ruling us and multiplying their wealth through their hold over the state.

Alongside economic development, Bangladesh’s achievements in the social sector are equally impressive. Bangladesh is on the top of the South Asian countries in gender equality. The cuntry’s net enrolment rate at the primary school level has reached 98 percent while secondary school net enrolment is now around 54 percent, up from 45 percent in 2000. Pakistan, on the other hand, has the lowest primary (72.5 percent) and secondary (43.9 percent) school enrolment rates in the region.

Improvement in human development is indicated by a sharp drop in population growth. Bangladesh’s current population growth is merely 1.1 percent per annum while Pakistan is growing at 2.4 percent annually. This growth is resulting in resulting in the shrinkage of the availability of natural resources per person.

Bangladesh’s politics is as divisive and poisonous as in Pakistan. However, the Bangladeshi state has not used religion as an instrument of identity, even though religion is probably the only thing that distinguishes Bangladeshis from Indian Bengal. Bangladesh is a secular country and has been able to deal with religious extremism better than Pakistan.

This widening gap between the two countries cannot be filled by making Pakistan more honest or through the frugality or honesty of the caliph we have sent to the residence of the prime minister’s military secretary. Bangladesh is not a terribly honest country. On Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, it ranks on 143 while Pakistan ranks 117. In order words, Pakistan’s rank is better by 26 points. Since 2012, Pakistan has improved its score from 27 to 32, while Bangladesh has moved merely from 26 to 28.

Though the PTI knows everything about Europe and its secrets of development, it is well advised to look at the neighbourhood and learn a few lessons – provided it can spare some energy from selling buffalos and tilting at windmills.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.