Why Bangladesh overtook Pakistan

Columnist  | Pervez Hoodbhoy

Opinion, Oped

The IMF calculates Bangladesh’s economy growing from $180 billion presently to $322 billion by 2021.

East Pakistan’s population in the 1951 census was 42 million, while West Pakistan’s was 33.7m.

Bangladesh is not some Scandinavian heaven. It is poor and overpopulated, undereducated and corrupt, frequented by natural catastrophes, experiences occasional terrorism, and the farcical nature of its democracy was exposed in the December 2018 elections. But the earlier caricature of a country on life support disappeared years ago. Today, some economists say it shall be the next Asian tiger. Its growth rate last year (7.8 per cent) put it at par with India (8.0 per cent) and well above Pakistan (5.8 per cent).

Much of this growth owes to exports which zoomed from zero in 1971 to $35.8 billion in 2018 (Pakistan’s is $24.8 billion).  The IMF calculates Bangladesh’s economy growing from $180 billion presently to $322 billion by 2021. This means that the average Bangladeshi today is almost as wealthy as the average Pakistani and, if the rupee depreciates further, will be technically wealthier by 2020.

Other indicators are equally stunning. East Pakistan’s population in the 1951 census was 42 million, while West Pakistan’s was 33.7m. But today Bangladesh has far fewer people than Pakistan — 165 million versus 200 million. A sustained population planning campaign helped reduce fertility in Bangladesh. No such campaign — or even its beginnings — is visible today in Pakistan. The health sector is no less impressive — far fewer babies die at birth in Bangladesh than in Pakistan. Immunisation is common and no one gets shot dead for administering polio drops. Life expectancy (72.5 years) is higher than Pakistan’s (66.5 years). According to the ILO, females are well ahead in employment (33.2 per cent) as compared to Pakistan (25.1 per cent).

How did West Pakistan’s poor cousin manage to upstage its richer relative by so much so fast? It’s all the more puzzling because Bangladesh has no geostrategic assets saleable to America, China, or Saudi Arabia. It has no nuclear weapons, no army of significance, no wise men in uniform running the country from the shadows, and no large pool of competent professionals. At birth, East Pakistan had, in fact, no trained bureaucracy; it received just one member of the former Indian Civil Service.

None should be more surprised at these new developments than those West Pakistanis — like me — who went to school during the 1950s and 1960s and grew up surrounded by unconcealed racism. Short and dark Bengalis were reputedly good only for growing jute and rice and catching fish. They were Muslims and Pakistanis, of course, but as children we were made to imagine that all good Muslims and real Pakistanis are tall, fair, and speak chaste Urdu. We’d laugh madly at the strange-sounding Bengali news broadcasts from Radio Pakistan. In our foolish macho world, they sounded terribly feminine.

But in a nutshell, Bangladesh and Pakistan are different countries today because they perceive their national interest very differently. Bangladesh sees its future in human development and economic growth. Goalposts are set at increasing exports, reducing unemployment, improving health, reducing dependence upon loans and aid, and further extending micro credit. Water and boundary disputes with India are serious and Bangladesh suffers bullying by its bigger neighbour on matters of illegal immigration, drugs, etc. But its basic priorities have not wavered.

For Pakistan, human development comes a distant second. The bulk of national energies remain focused upon checkmating India. Relations with Afghanistan and Iran are therefore troubled; Being more multicultural and liberal, Bangladesh’s civil society has stopped armed groups from grabbing the reins of power. For Pakistan, these are lessons.

By arrangement with Dawn