Growing Up With Giants
Muhammad Yunus on 4 February 2006
Fellow Bangladeshis: are we ready to launch ourselves into a path to cross $1,000 per capita income, 8 percent GDP growth rate?, and to reducr poverty level to under 25 percent soon?
Lucky to have two giants as our neighbours
India and China are almost there. They have already reached the 8 percent growth rate and 25 percent poverty level. They are becoming such political powers and economic power-houses that the whole world is gathering around them to get their attention.
Bangladesh is lucky to have two globally sought-after giants as her next door neighbours. These giants are not sleeping giants. They are super-active, and growing very fast. We must learn how to take advantage of fast growing giants. We must assess our best interest in building our relationship with them. In their turn, they’ll assess their best interest in having us as their neighbour.
Obviously, they will look at us as their market, their competitor, their partner, and also as a potential trouble-maker. From our side we must make it absolutely clear that we have no intention to be trouble-maker for our neighbours, nor do we want to see them as trouble-maker for us.
But a section of our politics finds it a very attractive theme to impress on the common people of Bangladesh that India is behind all the terrible things that happen in Bangladesh. If you don’t vote for our party, India will turn Bangladesh into her client state.
Countries are not made of saints only or angels only. There are bad people in India, who can dedicate themselves to do bad things to Bangladesh. Similarly, there are bad people in Bangladesh committed to do bad things to India. Both countries must remain vigilant to catch the bad people and punish them forthwith to uphold the friendship between the two countries.
Growing up with giants
When our giant neighbours bring the whole business world to their door-steps, our door-steps come very near to the business world. Visibility and contacts are very important factors in business. They come to us easily because of having important neighbours. If we play our cards right, our economy can pick up the speed of our neighbours.
Growing neighbours are also sources of technology and experience. Expanding economies keep moving towards more and more high-profit products and services, leaving behind low- profit, labour intensive items. This creates opportunities for neighbours. This is not to suggest that Bangladesh has to satisfy herself only with the markets and the products which giant neighbours are not interested in. What Bangladesh can do will depend on our level of efficiency and management skill. Bangladesh can find niche to provide high value specialised products and services to her giant neighbours.
I am emphasising on the fact that having two fast growing giant neighbours is a great boon for us. Let us dispel the fear that living between two giants is a scary prospect — that we may be stepped on from any side, any minute! On the contrary, we’ll be the beneficiary of coasting effect of having two giants next to us. We can get a ride on the fast train with them.
An open-door, open-arm country
Future of Bangladesh lies in being an open-door, open-arm country. We must not live under the fear of the Indian wolf. We must get the constant fear of the Indian wolf out of our system. If it is a real threat, we’ll have to prepare for it and get on with our lives. If it is imaginary, we’ll have to get our minds cleansed out. Frequent cries of Indian wolf is a sign of our political emptiness.
In the world today domination does not come through sneaky conspiracies. Domination comes from economic power. If we remain a poor country, everybody will dominate us, not just India. Moving up the economic ladder quickly is the best protection from all dominations. Let us not confuse this issue.
In order to move up the ladder quickly we should open all our doors, invite everybody in, encourage our people to spread themselves all over the wide world, show their talents and win over the confidence and appreciation of the whole world. Hiding behind closed doors is no protection at all.
Let’s make Bangladesh the cross-roads of the region
Let’s envision Bangladesh as the cross-roads of the region, if not the world. Let people, products, investments from all over the world flow into Bangladesh, and out of Bangladesh, with utmost ease, safety, and efficiency. Let’s make our laws, institutions, bureaucracy, travel and transportation facilities, financial system most friendly to the movement of people, investments, goods and services in and out of Bangladesh. Let’s build everything in Bangladesh in such a way that Bangladesh becomes the natural first choice of hard-nosed investors and traders. Let Bangladesh be Bangladesh International. Let us all agree on this vision and then move forward unitedly to make it a reality at the fastest possible speed.
To make Bangladesh an international cross-roads we’ll have to address the following:
i) Reduce corruption level drastically.
ii) Provide reliable electricity all over the country.
iii) Open up ICT and make Bangladesh a very attractive country in terms of state-of-the-art ICT.
iv) Build a mega-port in a suitable location along the Chittagong coastline capable of serving the following countries: Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Eastern India, Myanmar, and South-Western China.
v) Build highways to connect the mega-port with all six countries.
We must visualise Bangladesh as the ICT, industrial and trading hub of the region. On the first day of 2006 we have signed a document which has the potential to change the economy of SAARC region. The document we signed was the document relating to SAFTA agreement. Now Bangladesh should take the lead, rather than wait for initiatives to come from other countries, to move SAFTA forward. We can be smart, open our doors, convert disadvantages into opportunities, and change our destiny.
Geographically, Bangladesh is strategically located to provide access to international shipping to Nepal, Bhutan, Eastern India, Myanmar, and South-Western China. We should start making appropriate preparations, in consultation with these countries, to create facilities for access. Again, it’ll to be our call to draw attention of our neighbours. We’ll have to do our home-work well to show them the benefits accruing to them by opening up the access to the sea-routes through Bangladesh, and doing business with Bangladesh. We’ll have to resolve formidable political and technical issues with India. Remaining passive is not at all to our interest. It is actually very costly in terms of gains foregone. True leaders not only have visions, they have to have the burning drive to push through the solid walls of obstacles to make their visions come true. Vision must be backed up by hard work and dedication.
Mega-port at Chittagong
Mega-port at Chittagong is the key to making Bangladesh the cross-roads of the region. With the economy of the region growing at a sustained high speed, demand for the access to a well-equipped well-managed port will keep on growing. A region, which includes two giant economies, will be desperately looking for direct shipping facilities to reach out to the world. Chittagong will offer the region the most attractive option. Even today, despite the problems of present Chittagong port, Kunming is requesting permission to utilise this facility.
With global competition becoming more fierce shorter and shorter lead time for delivery will become the magic formula to attract business. An efficient mega-port at Chittagong will be in high demand. This port can be built and owned by a national or international company with government participation in equity. It can contract out the management of the port to a professional port management company.
Mega-port may support an international airport in its proximity. With appropriate aircraft servicing facilities and hotels, this airport can become an airline hub. It has the advantage of cutting distances to many Asian cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Beijing, Shanghai, etc, and taking off the pressure from important SAARC airports.
During the SAARC Summit held in Dhaka recently, Dr. Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, proposed to build a highway network to connect the SAARC countries. We should enthusiastically welcome this proposal and offer our plan to build highways connecting Nepal, Bhutan, Eastern India, and Pakistan. We should make sure that our highway network extends upto Cox’s Bazar, so that it can be connected with Myanmar, Thailand, and China in the eastern side.
Regional water management plan
With borders opening up, highways criss-crossing the region, businesses growing, we can create mutual trust among our neighbours, leading to right kind of political climate to engage them to work towards preparing a regional water management plan in conjunction with the plan for regional production and distribution of electricity. Fortunately, this region has an enormous capacity to produce hydro-electricity. With political understanding Bangladesh can meet her ever growing electricity need from a mutually beneficial arrangement with Nepal, Bhutan, and India.
$100 lap-tops for school children
Bangladesh has a very young population. Half the population is under the age of 18! If we pay serious attention to them we can create a dramatically different next generation. Some countries are already signing up with MIT Media Lab to provide $100 lap-top to each school student, just like text books. Lap-top to a child gives a message. Message is: Discover yourself, discover the world, create your own world. There is no reason why we cannot sign up with MIT Media Lab to do exactly the same and give lap-tops to our students. Let us not miss this world-changing opportunity.
One way to let all children, poor or rich, boy or girl, urban or rural, feel equal is to ensure access to computer and internet. This connectivity also takes off some of the unevenness in our educational facilities. We have already witnessed a telecommunication revolution. Within a short span of five years mobile phones have reached every village in Bangladesh. At the end of 2006, one in every eight persons in Bangladesh will have a telephone! With $100 lap-top, every school student will have access to internet telephony.
Our young people can be role model
I meet many Bangladeshi young people when I am visiting foreign countries. Many of us are used to meeting Bangladeshis in New York. But it is a quite different experience to meet young Bangladeshis in a small town of Spain, or in an island in Italy, or in Argentina, Chile, Columbia. They show up to meet me at the hotel or in the conference where I am speaking. They discover my presence in the town from the newspaper reports. They come individually. They come in groups. Among everything else they express their worry about the political situation in the country. I ask them how they got there. Each tells a horror story. Each time it is a story of perseverance, tenacity, and high risk adventure. It is quite an experience to hear them tell the story of how they moved from one country to the next, how they switched from one livelihood to another. They are doing well now. They have learnt the local language and understand the local way of life. They are at ease with local people. Story one gets from a migrant worker working in an Asian country is different, but not too different. It is the story of how they are cheated by the man-power agents, and how they are mistreated by the airport officials at the time of departure as well as at the time of visits.
Bangladeshi young people reached out to all corners of the world with basically individual and family initiative, using network of friends and relatives. Government has built some facilities to help them by making it easy for them to go out. But you hear more about the harassment, bribes, extortion and unresponsiveness of the government officials than nice things about these arrangements. These young people who live under extreme difficulties are making a big contribution to the national economy. They have been sending a very substantial amount of money as remittances.
The piece of information that amazed me is: in 2004, Bangladesh received $3.4 billion in remittances, compared to India’s $21.7 billion (and China’s $21.3 billion). That is quite an achievement! With nine times larger population, India’s share would have been $30.6 billion if she had received the same per capita remittance. Bangladesh remittance earning rate compares well with Pakistan too ($3.9 billion). Total remittance to Bangladesh constituted one-third of the total foreign exchange earnings of the country. Despite all the problems faced by Bangladeshi migrant workers, this is a very significant chunk of foreign exchange earning contributed by them.
More important than the quantum of foreign exchange earning, remittances go directly into poverty reduction. The World Bank Global Economic Prospects Report says this remittance inflow has helped cut poverty by 6 percent in Bangladesh and given a boost to the rural economy.
Building up respectability as a nation
Bangladesh is a rather new name in the list of nations. It came to world’s media attention mostly through disasters — floods, cyclones, tidal-waves, etc. Reporting on disasters always highlights poverty, and helplessness. That’s the image of Bangladesh that sticks in people’s mind. Two recent negative images have been added to that. One, Bangladesh has been repeatedly found to be the most corrupt country in the world, and two, suicide bombers are killing innocent people in Bangladesh.
Image of a country is very important when it comes to dealing with the world. The better the image a country has, the better is the deal it gets. To be successful in international relationships we’ll have to build up respectability as a nation. Luckily for us Bangladesh has a very strong positive side which counters the negative image to a large extent.
Bangladesh is enormously respected globally for being the birth place of microcredit. Every country in the world feels the need for microcredit. No country can ignore it. They study microcredit in academic institutions, discuss it in meetings, conferences and workshops. Most countries, rich or poor, have active microcredit programs. They all pay respect to Bangladesh for being the originator country. Bangladesh, microcredit, Grameen have become synonymous in the minds of people around the world.
Bangladesh is remembered as the country which gave the world oral saline to combat diarrhea.
Bangladesh earned respectability by demonstrating her skill and efficiency in disaster management. World media publicly suggested that tsunami affected countries and the US, after devastating Katrina, should learn from Bangladesh in disaster management.
Bangladesh is cited as a success story in producing enough food to feed her people despite doubling the population in 35 years.
In terms of human development indicators Bangladesh is third from the top
Bangladesh birth rate has declined significantly. Fertility rate declined from 6.3 percent in 1975 to 3.3 percent in 1999 - 2000, reduced almost to half. This is cited as a global success story.
Economic performance and human development indicators of Bangladesh have been moving upwards since early 1990s. GDP growth has been over 5 per cent during this period.
Bangladesh has very impressive performance in terms of the human development indicators. In terms of these indicators Bangladesh came out in number three position in the developing world, after China and Cave Verde.
Life expectancy of women in Bangladesh used to be lower than men. Now it is higher than men, a better performance compared to South Asia as a whole.
Female labour force participation rate increased dramatically between 1983 and 2000, both for rural and urban, with sharper increase in rural, than in urban. Female labour force participation rate in rural area increased from 7 per cent in 1983-84 to 22 per cent in 1999-2000. Urban rate increased from 12 per cent to 26 per cent during the same period.
Child and infant mortality have been falling at more than 5 percent a year, malnutrition among mothers has fallen from 52 percent in 1996 to 42 percent in 2002. Primary school enrolment rates have reached 90 percent, up from 72 percent in 1990. Enrolment in secondary education has been rising. Bangladesh has already eliminated gender disparity in primary and secondary school enrolment and has made remarkable progress in providing universal basic education.
In the past decade, Bangladesh reduced infant mortality by half, at a rate faster than any other developing country has done, increased adult literacy rates by 8 per cent for women, and 6 per cent for men.
In terms of infant mortality rate and female primary enrolment, Bangladesh is ahead of West Bengal, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh of India.
Progress towards achieving millennium development goals (MDG) in Bangladesh is surprisingly on track. According to data on current trends, Bangladesh has either met or is expected to meet most of the MDG targets. If right policies are pursued dedicatedly there is a good chance that Bangladesh will reduce poverty by half by 2015.
Capacity has been built, we are ready to go
Bangladesh has outstanding accomplishment in reducing child labour. According to UNICEF, percentage of child labour in Niger is the highest (66 percent). Bangladesh has one of the lowest percentages (7 percent). Nepal is 31 percent, India 13 percent.
The list of our accomplishments is long and very impressive. We notice the admiring eyes of international delegates focused on Bangladeshi delegates when we attend international conferences, be it microcredit, disaster management, health, education, renewable energy, environment, women empowerment, or child labour.
When we visit capitals of SAARC countries we are always asked: “How did you do it? What must we do to catch up with you?”
I am not saying that Bangladesh is on top of everything. Far from it. Our list of failures is much longer than the list of successes. I bring up the list of successes to point out how wrong we are when we throw up our hands in the air to say in frustration that we’ll never make it. This list of successes will convince anybody that not only will we make it, we have already made it in many respects, and will do better than many others around us, and like us.
Good news that comes out from these successes is that we have created the capacity to address all our problems roundly and solidly. Not only we have gained self-confidence, we are ready to earn the confidence of the world. Soon a Bangladeshi passport can bring out admiration and respect from others, rather than suspicion and disrespect.
It is hard work to score points in respectability. It is easy to lose points. One tiny incident, one tiny misstep, one tiny callous decision can push us down quite a bit in respectability. Let us hold on to what we already have, and add to it, as much as we can. It is our very precious capital in facing the world.
Tremendous energy waiting to be mobilised
World is changing very fast. If we are late by a day we’ll fall behind by years. We have come a long way and we are ready to go forward with speed. Bangladesh has the fire in her belly to keep pace with her giant neighbours. Let us not allow ourselves to slow down. We need the right politics and the right leadership to mobilise the tremendous energy in Bangladeshi young people.
Let us think and work hard to make it happen.