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Bangladesh @ 50: How the country became one of the fastest-growing economies in the world

Women have entered the workforce in large numbers, boosting the country's economic performance


December 11, 2021 6:14:59 pm
kamal quadirWomen have entered the workforce in large numbers in Bangladesh and boosted Bangladesh’s economic performance

By Kamal Quadir
TIME magazine’s cover story on January 17, 1972, was on the world’s newest country — Bangladesh — born of a bloody war. When I read it years later, a figure struck me as astonishing. The story reads, “Pakistan International Airlines left exactly Rs 117 (US$ 16) in its account at the port city of Chittagong.” From such a state, Bangladesh now stands on the foundation of a foreign exchange reserve of $46.4 billion. The journey from spare change to billions in reserve may have involved a struggle of decades, but our young nation has come a long way.pre

Walking miles through the paddy fields of rural Bangladesh only to go to school and studying under candlelight were some of the stories that we heard from our grandparents while growing up. Some of us may have been lucky enough to experience a glimpse of this not-so-distant past as well. However, these stories are folklore to a child growing up here. Today, Bangladesh has one of the largest education systems in the world with 40 million pupils, more than a million teachers and 200,000 educational institutions according to Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics. The primary school completion rate is 82.10 per cent as per the Annual Primary School Census 2019, while electrification is at 99.75 per cent. We may still tell our children about the tales of struggle of their forefathers, but they stand on a foundation which doesn’t hold them back from having aspirations on a par with citizens of any other country.

Bangladesh Time Magazine’s 1979 cover

The standard of living has improved, consumption pattern has evolved, and the economy has surged to levels that were not expected to be achieved in merely 50 years by a war-torn, newborn country. The country has made headways overcoming economic barriers and proved itself to be a force to be reckoned with in South Asia.

The income levels and the purchasing power of the people of Bangladesh are reaching newer heights boosted by the ever-growing middle class. In 2015, seven per cent of the population was attributed to this segment, which will hit around 34 million by 2025.

It was extremely difficult for women to take part in most of the economic activities in the past. In 1974, the participation of women in the labour force stood at only 3.4 per cent. The country has put in extensive efforts over the years in breaking this barrier, along with developing skill-sets, identifying and deploying women labour force in areas where they have expertise to perform well, such as ready-made garments and agro-food processing. As a result, the participation of women in the labour force reached 40 per cent in recent times. In measuring the gaps between females and males when it comes to the access to opportunity and resource, World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report 2021 ranks Bangladesh 65th in the world, while all other South Asian countries rank above 100. With an independent nation’s passport in their hands, millions of Bangladeshi migrant workers are employed all over the world and are sending back home billions of dollars.

Sometimes, I wish our founding father Bangabandhu (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman) and his generation, who struggled for our freedom, had witnessed the distance we have travelled to build today’s Bangladesh. Our forefathers might not be with us, but their dream lives on through the hardworking female worker of the second-largest garment exporter in the world; their energy continues to nudge the young entrepreneur’s relentless drive to build the next global start-up; their wisdom is carried in the classrooms of thousands of teachers who are sending pupils to world’s top universities and companies; their courage lives in our migrant workers building the world’s tallest towers.
The largest delta in the world is blessed.

Bangladesh Women are leading from the front (Wikimedia Commons)

On the foothills of the Himalayan range, the streams that carry the silt to Bangladesh from those mighty mountains eventually become the roaring rivers of Padma, Meghna and Jamuna. The fresh water, the fertile land and the sun is what made this land attractive to human habitation from ancient times. The geography that contains Bangladesh might be small in terms of landmass, and the intense density of our population is often mentioned as a striking drawback. I see it from a different vantage. A large, young working-age population concentrated in a riverine nation networked by excellent communications — both physically and digitally — is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, clocking an average growth of over seven per cent consistently for more than a decade. Even during a global pandemic, it showed its resilience by growing at a relatively impressive pace, while many countries suffered negative growth.

I was born in 1971. As we both turned 50 this year, I look back at our mutual journey to middle age and a middle-income country. The winding timeline of five decades has taken us from hope to tragedy to prosperity. As I look ahead to our common future, the dream and energy of a hardworking people makes me optimistic about a better tomorrow for all of us.

Dhaka-based Kamal Quadir is the founder and chief executive officer of bKash Limited, a mobile financial service provider in Bangladesh

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