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What’s holding us back?

  • Published at 09:00 pm April 20th, 2017
  • Last updated at 10:43 pm April 20th, 2017
What’s holding us back?

UNDP recently published its annual human development report for 2016, giving us useful insight into the current condition of human well-being in the world and Bangladesh’s place in it. But before we delve into the findings, let us quickly go over the inception and evolution of the term “development” in this context.

“Development” has become a buzzword now, but as a formal concept, it was first introduced after the Second World War with the establishment of the Bretton Woods institutions and popularised gradually thereafter.

Initially, development was thought to be all about economic growth, and throughout the 60s and 70s, development policies were geared towards that end. However, the implementation of such policies led to unintended negative consequences like increasing income inequality, environmental degradation, and so on, which forced policy-makers to reevaluate their policies.

Later in the 1990s, the concept of sustainable development was introduced to combat the negative effects of growth-based development.

The idea of sustainable development was pioneered by economists Mahbub ul Haque and Amartya Sen, in collaboration with the UNDP. They added new dimensions to development, namely, education, health, and standard of living, and sorted countries into high, high-medium, medium, and low human development countries.

According to the human development index (HDI), a long and healthy life is determined by life expectancy at birth, knowledge is measured by mean years of education among the adult population, and standard of living is measured by gross national income per capita expressed in constant 2011 international dollars adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP).

If we compare our position with other medium development South Asian countries, it seems we are lagging behind most of them. Bangladesh’s 2015 HDI of 0.579 is well below the group average of 0.621

In the latest report, Norway retains its number one position from the year before as the country with the highest human development, while the Central African Republic stood last.

As for Bangladesh, while we are still in the medium human development bracket, we moved up three places from 2015 with a score of 0.579 out of 1.00, occupying 139th place among 188 countries. The major factors behind this progress are better health, greater political stability, and improvements in female education.

Our government has correctly proclaimed the progress a tremendous achievement; however, a few persistent and serious problems continue to hold us back from greater progress.

Income inequality is a key problem as the data demonstrates an ever widening gap between the poor and the rich.

The “Gini-coefficient” is the standard measure of inequality in a country, with zero representing perfect equality and one representing perfect inequality.

According to the report, from 1983 to 2010, the Gini-cofficient for Bangladesh rose from 0.19 to 0.32.

Our low education budget and quality of health care are also barriers to human development, although, to be fair, the government does not have an easy job in this regard, given the size of our population and limited resources.

Nevertheless, we managed to significantly reduce child mortality and improve maternal health.

At the same time, we have private entrepreneurs who are busy trying to make the most money out of these sectors. Commercialisation of the health sector is a huge blow for developing countries like Bangladesh.

Environmental degradation cannot be overlooked either. Unplanned industrialisation has destroyed many rivers like the Buriganga and the tannery industry in Hazaribag is also a thorn in our side.

If we compare our scores from 1990 we find significant progress in a few indicators: Life expectancy is up from 58.4 years in 1990 to 72 years in 2015. Mean years of schooling rose from 2.8 to 5.2 years.

Gini per capita at PPP rose from $1,266 to $3,341 in 2015. Overall, HDI value has jumped from 0.3386 to 0.579. If we see the trend of contribution of each component, we can see life expectancy is contributing the most.

Education is below average and Gini per capita is average.

But if we compare our position with other medium development South Asian countries, it seems we are lagging behind most of them. Bangladesh’s 2015 HDI of 0.579 is well below the average of 0.631 for countries in the medium human development group, and below the average of 0.621 for countries in South Asia.

And if we factor in inequality, our HDI drops to 0.412, a loss of 28.9%. The average loss due to inequality for medium HDI countries is 25.7% and for South Asia, it is 27.7%.

Another important feature of the report is the Multi-dimensional Poverty Index, first introduced in the 2010 report, which recognises multiple overlapping deprivations faced by households in terms of education, health, and living standards.

The most recent survey data that is publically available for Bangladesh’s MPI estimation refer to 2014.

According to the UNDP report, 40.7% of the population in Bangladesh are multi-dimensionally poor, while an additional 19.6% live near multidimensional poverty.

Now it is time to take time-appropriate steps to enhance human development in Bangladesh. Inclusive growth is a must for sustainable development.

Good governance and proper functioning of existing institutions should be ensured to complement the developmental pace. Education and health sectors should be under state control like in Malaysia and after a certain point, privatisation can be encouraged.

Skilled human capital is another important factor.

Let us make a commitment to transform Bangladesh into a high human development country in the coming years by playing our respective roles as Bangladeshis.

Naim Ebna Rahman is a graduate student of development studies.