Enhancing human development in Bangladesh: Strategies and actions
Addressing the human development challenges of Bangladesh—whether lingering, deepening or emerging challenges—require both policy options and institutional reforms. An objective assessment and recognition of problems, strong political will and an honest implementation of strategies are preconditions for the success of policies and strategies.
The lingering problem of poverty and the deepening issue of inequalities require pro-poor macroeconomic policies with investments in human development priorities and redistribution of assets. Emphasis must not be on growth-led employment, but rather on an employment-led growth strategy with a conducive legal and regulatory framework of the informal sector, and creation of jobs where impoverished populations live. Similarly, building rural infrastructure, and enhancing financial institutions by expanding banking services to disadvantaged and marginalised groups, would help those who are living in poverty. However, poverty and inequalities cannot be addressed with macro-level policies only; those policies must be complemented with targeted interventions like comprehensive social protection programmes and school feeding programmes. Such policies can also create a dent in poverty and inequality.
The focus of policies must not be on quantitative expansion, but also on the quality of services provided to people. The issue of quality of services demands, on one hand, traditional measures like training of teachers and provision of modern teaching materials. On the other hand, innovative approaches in providing low-cost quality services in health, supply of better drinking water and improved sanitation are also needed. South-South cooperation and collaboration with NGOs may help in such creativity and innovation. Breaking the three-tier education and health structures and introducing a uniform service structure is also a must. Public administration reforms with decentralised services and building a cadre of committed service providers with necessary compensation would also help.
The deepening challenge of climate change must focus on a multi-pronged approach. Advocacy and awareness through raising human development concerns in climate change discussions, and building awareness among vulnerable populations, should be the starting point. The other building blocks should be, firstly, provision of basic social services to climate vulnerable people through designing effective public investment programmes, bridging the spending gap and promoting basic public services in riverine and coastal islands; and, secondly, promoting livelihood options through occupational diversification and viable alternative livelihood options, pursuing innovative farming practices, and protecting the ecosystem and food-chain. Cross-cutting initiatives like building on mutual synergies between climate change and public health, integrating climate change issues into development strategies, and implementing the mitigation measures would also be necessary.
The lingering challenge of youth employment would require building their capabilities on one hand, and creating opportunities for them on the other. On the first front, through appropriate education, skill trainings and acquiring digital competency, they have to be prepared for 21st century jobs. For this, they would need the four Cs—creativity, confidence, communication and collaboration. Skills training must also be imparted to young migrant workers. On the second front, opportunities for employment should be created through labour-intensive manufacturing, providing a set of support-matrix to young entrepreneurs, seizing outsources opportunities, developing "search and match assistance" and formulating internship programmes. During the time of Covid-19, responding to changed demand for skills, opting for e-commerce, and pursuing creativity and innovation are some of the options for younger people.
The lingering challenge of women's empowerment must encompass women's access to assets such as land, access to financial services, fostering their higher education, supporting their work and strengthening social protection. Cracks must be made in the glass ceiling so that, in future, it can be broken. The contribution of women in areas of unpaid household work and care work must be accounted for. Support must also be given so that women can balance better between household and out-of-house work, and between productive and reproductive responsibilities. Strategies must be pursued so that the additional burden on women due to the Covid-19 pandemic can be addressed. Laws against rape and domestic violence must be watertight and their implementation must not be compromised at any point in time.
To overcome the deepening governance crisis, we must concentrate on three issues—inefficiency and ineffectiveness, lack of transparency and accountability, and corruption and leakages. These would require, among other things, ensuring the rule of law, tackling elitism in public administration, decentralising the administration, making institutions transparent and accountable, minimising political interference in public administration, building a bureaucracy based on meritocracy, ending the network between politics and business, improving weak oversight functions, ensuring judicial independence, stopping money laundering and so on. The emerging crisis in democratic spaces and values cannot be addressed without creating an environment that allows for diverse political approaches (except for those opposed to the fundamental principles of Bangladesh), facilitating freedom of expression, protecting citizen's right to information, and providing and protecting spaces for civil society.
Addressing the serious emerging challenge of Covid-19 would require measures on several fronts—some in the short-run and some in the long, some in social services, some on economic fronts, some in areas of vaccination and some on global fronts. Taking an integrated approach, these strategies would include mobilising more data and undertaking more research, strengthening measures that have already been taken to address the relevant adverse impacts on food, jobs, public health and education, and so on. Mental health has emerged as a major issue during the pandemic. This needs to be addressed. At the same time, the existing drive for vaccinations must continue. The country will also have to deal with an adverse global situation with regard to its garments and unskilled labour export. In some cases, it will need fresh negotiations with trading partners, and in other cases, it may require a sub-regional or regional approach.
In conclusion, every human being counts and every human life is equally valuable. That universalism is at the core of future human development of Bangladesh. Human development for everyone is not a dream, but a reality. In January 1972, while he was returning from his captivity to an independent Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman described his homecoming as a journey from darkness to light, from captivity to freedom, from desolation to hope.
Today, these hopes are within the reach of Bangladesh. The nation can build what has been achieved, and can attain what once seemed unattainable. For days to come, the country will ensure a journey from deprivation to prosperity, from challenges to opportunities, from ideas to actions. And in this journey, if those who are the farthest behind are reached first, no one would be left behind.
Selim Jahan is Former Director, Human Development Report Office and Poverty Division, UNDP.