In Bangladesh there are ups and downs in its social fabric in terms of economic wellbeing of the people though the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is growing at a satisfactory pace of over 6.0 per cent during the last few decades. The uneven distribution of the results of economic growth among people is a major cause of frustration and disappointment for people at grass root level. A small section of the people - especially the urban elites and well-to-do rural few are the beneficiaries of economic growth and a major portion of people living in the countryside are left in the wilderness - deprived and frustrated. Nevertheless, some of the socio-economic researchers prefer to be optimistic about the future of the country with a slow and steady pace of progress over time. At the same time, they do not forget to mention their concerns that growth is futile if it does not improve the wellbeing of the people at large.
The Director of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Report Office Selim Jahan correctly asserts that economic growth is of little value unless it improves the life standard of all. He categorically remarked in an exclusive interview that "Economic growth doesn't have any absolute value unless it is related to the welfare of people". He, the lead author of Human Development Report 2016, explained the value of using the Human Development Index (HDI) as a measure of progress in people's life.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB) in the 1980s, developed structural adjustment programmes for Asia and Africa, aimed at restructuring the economies to help them stabilize and accelerate growth. But they failed to address some fundamental questions like: growth of what, for whom and by whom? Well being of the economy is important, but it should not be at the cost of well being of people at large. At the end of the day you have to see whether it adds to the wellbeing of the entire population of a country or the world.
The Human Development Index (HDI) is a measure of achievement in key indicators of human development: a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable and a decent standard of living. The HDI is the geometric mean of normalized indices for each of the three dimensions. The HDI thus provides a measure of long and active lives, of acquiring knowledge and a decent standard of living, which are of universal values. We analyse how these topics affect the lives of the people: (i) whether it improves their lives, (ii) whether the benefits are equitably distributed, and (iii) whether it is environmentally sustainable. Jahan, however, acknowledges that HDI is not a perfect measure of human wellbeing. He notes that "I often say: the Human Development Index is as vulgar a measure as GDP per capita, but it is not as blind to the broader aspects of human development".
Bangladesh ranks 139th among 188 countries covered in this year's report, moving up by three spots. Bangladesh has done very well in terms of certain social indicators such as (i) life expectancy, (ii) under-five mortality, (iii) the maternal mortality rate, and (iv) gender equality. There are even more promising signs, according to Jahan. He said "If you look at the value of the index [for Bangladesh] over the past 25 years, it has more than doubled. It shows the consistency of progress in the economy and the people over that period. If you look at the index, there are 14 countries with comparable per capita incomes to Bangladesh, but they are all below it in the ranking. This means Bangladesh has been very successful in translating increases in income into improvements in human lives… That should be celebrated".
As a Bangladeshi, Jahan admits this makes him quite happy: "I am still very much a small-town boy [from Bangladesh] … whenever I see Bangladesh is improving and doing well I feel very proud". He also discussed the country's ongoing problems, including the recent rise of militancy and violent extremism. He said that "I always try to relate it to the question of identity. As long as we accept people with multiple identities and respect those identities, there won't be any tension. But if I decide, for example, that I am a man and defined only by that identity and decide it is superior to that of others then I will begin to disrespect the rights of women, be abusive toward them and stop listening to them".
It is the same thing at the state level. If a state respects, protects and promotes its diversity there is no problem. But, if a state believes it is defined by one identity and forces everyone to conform to it, it leads to extremism. The human development paradigm could be helpful in imparting the necessary values in this context. Human development talks about (i) knowledge, (ii) universal citizenship and (iii) taking a global view. It says every human life is important and equally valuable. On the whole, the socio-economic researchers have expressed optimism about Bangladesh's future. When one looks at Bangladesh, he/she can see a society that has had a century old secular tradition nurtured by people of different religions and ethnicities coexisting peacefully in a harmonious society. Bangladesh society as a whole still holds high those principles and values.
The writer is a retired Professor of Economics, BCS General Education Cadre.