About twenty years ago, while working for BRAC in Bangladesh, I was accompanying some visitors to one of BRAC’s non-formal education schools in a village about two hours out of the capital city Dhaka. To my surprise, instead of the usual sight of a classroom full of children, we found that only about 10 out of the 30 enrolled had showed up. Upon enquiry the teacher pointed out what seemed obvious to her: it was December and many children were in the fields helping harvest the rice crop or doing household chores. To be honest I didn’t think much more of the issue at the time.
Duty- and quota-free access for exports to global markets is something developing country trade negotiators have demanded for years. Few other “stroke-of-the-pen” measures could boost employment and reduce poverty in low income countries in such large numbers. For instance if the US removed tariffs on Bangladeshi garments – which average around 13%, but for some items are as high as 33% – then exports to the US could rise by $1.5 billion from the FY13 level of $5 billion, in turn generating employment for at least an additional half a million, primarily female, workers. Examples of other countries facing US tariffs include Cambodia (12.8% average tariff rate on its exports to the US), India (4.01%), Indonesia (5.73%), and Vietnam (7.41%). Progress in trade facilitation would likely have even greater pay-offs to growth and employment, but these require structural reforms and investments, while the decision to remove tariffs is a simpler, “stroke-of-the-pen” measure.
At the secondary level, the performance of students from the Middle East and North Africa in international tests such as TIMS is significantly below the developing country average.
At the tertiary level, universities are chronically underfunded and not training students for jobs that the market is demanding - reminiscent of the Woody Allen line, "The food in this restaurant is terrible and the portions are too small."
Lessons on Governance from Bangladesh’s Garment Industry
One year ago today, in the outskirts of Bangladesh’s capital city, an eight-story garment factory collapsed of its own weight, killing 1,130 young workers and injuring thousands more. The ghastly photos of bodies trapped in the Rana Plaza wreckage provoked outrage in the wealthy world, targeted largely at global retailers who purchased garments there. North American and European consumers called for measures to ensure safe conditions and humane treatment for Bangladeshi garment workers, mostly young women from poor families in remote rural areas. Many called for a boycott of the big-box retailers and of the Bangladeshi products they sell.
I had just moved from Bangladesh to Europe at the time, and my advice to friends who asked was: “Go ahead and buy those skinny jeans or that tank top if you want. It’s the right thing to do for Bangladesh and its young workers.”
A puzzle: Sanitation is one of the most productive investments a government can make. There is now rigorous empirical evidence that improved sanitation systems reduce the incidence of diarrhea among children. Diarrhea, in turn, harms children’s nutritional status (by affecting their ability to retain nutrients). And inadequate nutrition (stunting, etc.) affects children’s cognitive skills, lifetime health and earnings. In short, the benefits of sanitation investment are huge. Cost-benefit analyses show rates of return of 17-55 percent, or benefit/cost ratios between 2 and 8.
But if the benefits are so high (relative to costs), why aren’t we seeing massive investments in sanitation? Why are there 470 million people in East Asia, 600 million in Africa and a billion people in South Asia lacking access to sanitation? Why are there more cellphones than toilets in Africa?
- United Kingdom
- East Asia and Pacific
- Europe and Central Asia
- Latin America & Caribbean
- Middle East and North Africa
- South Asia
- Public Sector and Governance
About a year back the Economist had an editorial piece titled "Out of the basket" and subtitled “Lessons from the achievements – yes, really, achievements – of Bangladesh.” The more in-depth piece that followed appeared somewhat bemused at how a country once labeled a ‘test case for development’ could have made such striking gains in development outcomes over the past two decades (see table 1). These gains were hard to reconcile amidst Bangladesh’s natural and Rana Plaza-type disasters, volatile politics and unfavorable rankings on governance indicators – themes which the Economist has often covered before, and after, this “achievements” piece.
This past week the Lancet has come out with a special issue on Bangladesh which the journal editors say is in order to “investigate one of the great mysteries of global health.” Specifically the published papers are meant to explore how “Bangladesh has made enormous health advances and now has the longest life expectancy, lowest fertility rate and lowest infant and under-5 mortality rates in South Asia despite spending less on health care than several neighbouring countries.” Both these publications help explain the various ‘Bangladesh paradoxes’ but they also overlook, or underplay, a few critical factors.