Bangladesh was born on December 16 1971, following a devastating war that cost the lives of 3,000,000 people. They were victorious in their fight for independence, yet the prospects of the Bangladeshi people living in the 70’s were disheartening, earning it the now rather infamous connotation of a basket case, as Henry Kissinger called it back in 1971. Emerging from the rubbles left by the war, the resilient Bangladeshis began the rebuilding of their newly established nation. Economic growth was slow to take off, and it rebounded to the pre-war level about twenty years later, in the 90’s. Yet, it was after the 90’s that the country began to attain palpable progress and only over the 2000-2010 decade that the country achieved great poverty reduction. The depth-of-poverty MDG target of 8 percent was attained five years ahead of schedule, and Bangladesh was set in the right path for achieving the first MDG goal of halving the poverty headcount to 28.5 percent by 2015.
Bangladesh has turned the political business cycle phenomenon upside down.
Political business cycles are cycles in macroeconomic variables – output, unemployment, inflation – induced by the electoral cycle. This type of business cycle results primarily from the manipulation of policy tools by incumbent politicians hoping to stimulate the economy just prior to an election and thereby improve their reelection chances.
Expansionary monetary and fiscal policies have politically palatable consequences in the short run. When pursued to excess, these very policies can also have very unpleasant consequences in the longer term in the form of accelerating inflation, decreasing savings, worsening foreign trade balance, and long-term expansion of government's share of the GDP at the expense of private consumption and investment. So immediately after the election, politicians tend to “bite the bullet” and reverse course by raising taxes, cutting spending, slowing the growth of the money supply, and allowing interest rates to rise. As a result, the regular holding of elections tends to produce a boom-and-bust pattern in the economy because of the on-again-off-again pattern of government stimulus and restraint to induce an artificial boom at every election time.
Bangladesh’s experience also shows the existence of a political business cycle in GDP growth, albeit with exactly the opposite pattern of boom and bust. GDP growth has consistently declined in each of the last five election years. It happened in 1991, 1996, 2002, 2007 (an election year without election) and 2009 (Figure 1). From the perspective of Western political business cycle theory these growth tendencies appear suicidal for the incumbent. Instead of expanding the economy faster to gain votes, the incumbents appear to be shooting themselves in the foot by allowing the pace of expansion to slow in the election year!
Is this another case of the Bangladesh paradox?
South Asia is the least integrated region in the world. Intra-regional trade in South Asia is less than 2% of GDP compared to over 20% in East Asia. Labor mobility and regional travel is minimal, with few exceptions. Even remote communication is low – only 7% of international telephone calls in South Asia are to countries within the region, compared to 71% for East Asia. The case for closer integration has remained strong for a while now, and it is refreshing to see that some movement, albeit watchful, in addressing some of the region's deep rooted political economy issues, particularly between India and Pakistan.
The discussions around closer integration have centered on energy, trade, connectivity and stability. All of these offer strong potential to enhance growth in the region. However, financial sector integration overall, and access to finance in particular, hardly ever make it to the agenda of regional integration forums and deliberations. This is unfortunate, because the region has a long way to go in providing adequate access to financial services and insurance products, especially to the vulnerable segments of the population. Given that South Asia is home to more than half a billion of the world’s poor, this becomes a poverty reduction goal as much as a financial inclusion goal.
Losses due to disasters to human and physical capital are on the rise across the world. Over the past 30 years, total losses have tripled, amounting to $3.5 trillion. While the majority of these losses were experienced in OECD countries, the trend is increasingly moving towards losses in rapidly growing states.
In a sense, increasing risk and losses caused by disaster are the byproduct of a positive trend - strong development gains and economic growth. This is because disaster loss is a function of the amount of human and physical assets exposed to seismic or hydrometeorological hazards, and the level of vulnerability of the assets. The richer a country gets, the more assets it builds or acquires, and therefore the more losses it potentially faces.
Rapid development across South Asia signals the need to commit greater efforts to increase resilience to disaster and climate risk. It also requires governments to develop a strategy to both protect against events today and to develop strategies to address the losses of the future. This is a challenge somewhat unique to South Asia. The losses of today, predominantly rural flooding that impacts wide swaths of vulnerable populations, will begin to diminish in relative importance to the losses of the future.
Leading newspapers in Bangladesh on July 10, 2013 sensationally headlined the survey findings from Transparency International (TI)'s Global Corruption Barometer 2013. Approximately 1,000 people from each of 107 countries were surveyed between September 2012 and March 2013. In Bangladesh, 1822 people participated in the survey conducted from February 10 - March 15, 2013. Of the total sample, 61 % were from rural and 39 % from urban areas. Based on Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) presentation of the TI report to the media on July 9, the media coverage gave the clear impression that most of the important institutional pillars of Bangladesh are perceived to be extremely corrupt. Corruption undoubtedly is a major problem here. However, the way TIB constructed the survey results led to predictably excessive perception bias in favor of corruption.
Poverty has been a concern in societies even before the beginning of recorded history. In the past three decades extreme poverty in the world has decreased significantly. More than half of population in the developing world lived on less than $1.25 a day in 1981. This has dropped to 21% in 2010. More impressively, notwithstanding a 59% increase in population in developing countries, there were 1.2 people living on less than $1.25 a day in 2010, compared with 1.9 billion decades ago. However, the challenge of poverty reduction ahead remains daunting with 1.2 billion still living in extreme poverty. Freeing the world from poverty is perhaps the most important economic goal for the world today. More than a hundred countries are still not able to move away from high poverty traps.
The fallout from the April 24 collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh has had severe domestic and international reactions. The international buyers and governments have responded vehemently to these events. Careful reappraisal of labor issues has been universally identified as a key area of reform. The objective is to ensure workers’ safety and workers’ rights. Poor labor standards can adversely affect Bangladesh’s overall reputation in the exporting sector. The government has been pressured to take a series of measures to improve workers’ safety. Representatives of the Bangladesh government, the European Union and the International Labor Organization met in Geneva on July 8, 2013 to promote improved labor standards and responsible business conduct in Bangladesh’s garment industry. Following up on the commitments made in Geneva, Bangladesh’s legislature recently amended the Bangladesh Labor Law to provide improved protection, in law and practice, for the fundamental rights to freedom of association and the rights to collective bargaining, among others.
Are these good economics and good politics now and in the future?
Within the next 30 years, urban populations in developing countries will double and UN-Habitat estimates that around 3 billion people will need housing and basic infrastructure. Already, 70% of existing housing in developing countries is built informally without appropriate structural standards. Thus, the challenge lies in reconciling informal settlements with existing and future planned environments.
In light of these challenges, the South Asia urban team at the World Bank, as part of its urbanization webinar series, organized a discussion on “Upgrading Housing in Informal Settlements.” This webinar highlighted the challenges of upgrading housing in informal settlements, and shared lessons from around the globe where targeted policy interventions and grassroots movements have mobilized resources to create success stories. Guest speakers and experts around the world joined the discussion on informal settlements.
Halima Khatun never had to worry about putting food on the table when her husband was alive. Her husband had a business which provided enough for their four children and they lived fairly contented till seven years ago, when her husband suddenly passed away.
As the years went by, one by one the children married, moved out and had their own family to take care of. Halima was left alone, fending for herself, and took up weaving mats and embroidery to help get by. But then her daughter, who used to work at a garments factory in the city after her divorce, suddenly fell sick and unable to work, she moved back in with her four-year old son. Halima was thrown into utter desperation and knew not how to make ends meet.