When I was a student, Bangladesh had just gained its independence from Pakistan. It seemed to have nothing going for it: extreme poverty, a population explosion, frequent flooding, no valuable mineral resources, little infrastructure, military coups, and more besides. Economists called it a basket case.
I am therefore delighted to see that, despite all this, it is now “graduating” from being a Least-Developed Country to a being a Middle Income Country. I was privileged to host and chair a conference to mark the occasion, held in the European Parliament last month.
Bangladesh has much to celebrate at the moment. Years of growth of up to 5-6%, largely driven by the garment industry, have helped it strengthen its economy. Indeed, garment exports earn around €30 billion each year, and many of these products go to the EU, its top trading partner. Bangladeshi participants at the conference were rightly proud of this achievement.
With this economic growth, Bangladesh has been able to make progress in reducing poverty, as well as improving healthcare and education services.
However, it’s important that we recognise the challenges that Bangladesh will face as as a middle-income country, and that there are plans in place to overcome them so it can retain its new status.
For instance, Bangladesh will no longer benefit from trade-schemes it enjoyed as an LDC, such as the Everything But Arms arrangement of the EU, which allows duty-free and quota-free access to the European market for all products (except, as the name suggests, arms and ammunition) from the poorest countries in the world. New trading agreements, under WTO rules (GSP+) will bring with them new obligations, and will also lead to more scrutiny over its respect of human rights and its politics.
Indeed, when I visited Bangladesh in February, I was delighted to learn that the Prime Minister, the leader of the largest opposition party, and the Speaker of its parliament were all women. But the leader of the largest opposition party was in jail – a situation that never looks good.
This autumn, there will be general elections. It is essential that they are free, fair, not subject to a boycott and that there is no violence (not least, violence against minorities, which marred the last elections).
Worryingly, the latest Freedom House report classifies the country as ‘partly free’. It highlights a worsening situation of media freedom and civic rights. Many reporters and bloggers faced harassments and physical attacks, mostly from militant groups. Moreover, the Informatiotion and Communications Technology Act was used to arrest and charge various activists for exercising freedom of expression online.
The report also raised concerns about political freedom in Bangladesh. In 2016, Odhikar, a human rights group, reported 215 deaths and some 9,050 injuries following clashes between or within political parties. Furthermore, many key figures of the opposition party — not just its the leader — are imprisoned. Political pluralism should not be something the ruling party is afraid of. Indeed, it should be embraced as the key to vibrant democratic debate.
Then, there are problems which the international community must help Bangladesh overcome. The most prominent of these at the moment is the Rohingya refugee crisis. Bangladesh has been admirable in welcoming the refugees and providing help, with substantial but insufficient aid from the global community, providing assistance to deal with the massive influx of refugees.
However, refugees still have restricted access to food, healthcare and sufficient shelter. They have been banned from leaving their designated areas and sheltering in the homes of friends or acquaintances despite inadequate conditions in the camps for fear they will remain indefinitely.
It’s time for the international community to increase efforts to find a solution with Myanmar that allows refugees to return home.
Another problem that requires international cooperation is climate change. Bangladesh is ranked sixth out of 170 countries that will be hit the hardest by heavy precipitation and extreme weather events, including rising sea levels (which will hit this low lying country particularly badly), cyclones, flood, droughts and landslides, all of which are likely to become more frequent and more severe as climate change worsens and are likely to cause an annual GDP loss of 2% by 2050.
Climate change is a global issue that will affect everyone and for which all must take responsibility. As well as ensuring that more vulnerable countries have the resources to cope with the impact of climate change, we must do our part to mitigate the threat, which starts by a commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement.
Then, there are several internal problems facing Bangladesh that it must face up to. Rapid and chaotic urbanisation (I gather 2000 people a day move to Dakha!) stores up problems for the future. Working conditions in the factories are usually poor and sometimes dreadful. Trade Union rights are restricted. Forced marriages of young girls still persists. Religious fundamentalism appears to be on the rise. There is an acute need for economic diversification so as not to be over-reliant on garments. Inequality is acute. Malnutrition still affects a quarter of the population. Population growth is still unsustainably high.
Overall, there are many challenges that Bangladesh must confront as it becomes a middle income country. But I believe Bangladesh can adapt to its new status and improve its human rights standards while continuing to make economic progress. I look forward to seeing my Bangladeshi counterparts again soon and thank them for their participation in what was a highly engaging and enjoyable day.