World Economic Forum's report titled “Readiness for the Future of Production Assessment 2018” places Bangladesh as the poorest performer among its South Asian neighbours. This is a global ranking that covers 100 countries where a lower score indicates better performance. Our nearest competitor in the South Asian region, India, came 30th while Sri Lanka ranked 66th and Pakistan came in at 74. According to the WEF report, “Development of intelligence, wearables, robotics and additive manufacturing are spurring the development of new production techniques, business models, and value chains that will fundamentally transform global production. These technologies are also driving new, more distributed and connected value chains.”
What all this means of course is that as we factor in higher technology-driven manufacturing techniques, the era of low-cost manufacturing export (for countries like Bangladesh) as a means of growth is at risk. The report takes into account 59 indicators across the “drivers of production” and “structure of production” components. “Drivers” deal with things like artificial intelligence, robotics, etc., while “structure” comprises technology that overcomes challenges previously thought insurmountable and that unlocks the human potential in the arts, innovation, minimising environmental impact, increasing energy efficiency and reducing carbon emission. In the “drivers” category, we scored 80 and under “structure” it was 89 (both out of 100).
The report categorises nations in the following broad categories: Leading (strong current base, high level of readiness for future), High Potential (limited current base, high potential for future), Legacy (strong current base, at risk for future) and Nascent (limited current base, low level of readiness for the future). Today, 25 countries from Europe, North America and East Asia comprise the leading countries that account for 75 percent of global manufacturing value added (MVA) and they are in a position to best reap the windfall of these changes in technology that will start transforming the manufacturing process in our lifetimes.
However, as the report points out, 70 percent of all robot sales take place in China, Germany, Japan, Republic of Korea and the United States. The advent of industrial robots is nothing new. What is new is that more and more robots and robotics are playing a major role in the production process. This means that nations that are in a position to invest in these high-tech production processes will have an edge on others. Bangladesh is not alone in the “nascent country” category. Ninety percent of all countries in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Eurasia fall into the same category.
What we must remember is that the path to transforming the production workplace will differ from nation to nation. It will be impossible for a country like Bangladesh that has abundant cheap labour to make the leap to high-end manufacturing processes and nor should we aim to do so. We should prioritise where our strengths lie and strive to make ourselves the best we can be when it comes to low-wage investment destination for foreign direct investment. There is little room for complacency since improving production efficiency is now the name of the game in the global context. Transformation for us should be to begin concentrating on where we scored least.
As part of the report, countries were assessed in sub-categories and their performance in each of these sub-categories was given a score out of 10 (the higher the score, the better they fared). For instance, human capital is considered a driver of production and we scored 3.4 out of 10. Not an enviable position to be in. A mere one out of five people is involved in knowledge-intensive employment—which says something about our education system. Our universities scored 1 out of 10 (which put Bangladesh at 62nd position out of 100, or in the bottom half of global rankings); our vocational training quality stands at 3.2 (out of 10); we scored 2.8 (out of 10) on “critical thinking in teaching”; and the quality of math and science education stood at 3.2 (out of 7). All this points to something being fundamentally wrong with the way we are teaching our children, who will one day be members of the workforce. It's grand to have high rates of pass rates at secondary and higher secondary school level. But how can we expect quality workers when our educational institutions score so poorly?
When we look at technology and innovation, the country has done marvellously well in mobile-cellular telephone subscriptions, with nearly 80 percent of the population owning a cell phone and 65 percent of Bangladesh comes under cellular network coverage. Technology adoption at firm level is 4.2 (out of 10) which is not bad, but then a massive lack of awareness comes into the picture when we see half the firms have taken no cyber security measures in an increasingly connected cyber world. We have fallen behind on scientific and technical publications (2.9 out of 10) which means “science” as a field of study is now looked down upon in our education system and with the gradual demise of studying science, our applications for patents have gone down to 0.04 per million population and we scored 87 out of 100 as a country.
These are serious issues and transformation for the better can only come from sound policymaking at the top. What path Bangladesh will take to improve its rankings will depend on policymakers' sincerity to effect change where it is needed most. The areas highlighted above are just some of the more fundamental areas where attention is needed. At the end of the day, we have to decide whether we wish to take steps to move out of the “nascent” category by initiating change (which is always painful in the short-term) so that the country is better positioned economically in the near term.
Syed Mansur Hashim is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.