Pakistan-Bangladesh, 50 Years On

Pakistan-Bangladesh, 50 Years On
On the 26th of March Bangladesh celebrates 50 years of its separation from Pakistan which is a moment of truth and introspection for Pakistan as to how a once impoverished country has managed to overtake it in fifty years in every economic, social and human development indicator.

It is usually difficult to imagine a “could have been, might have been” scenario for a country. It has to be assessed in the historical background of every country’s peculiar situation. But the fact that Bangladesh, the erstwhile Eastern Wing of Pakistan until 1971, has charted out for itself a totally different path in human development over the past fifty years, offers a living counterfactual, the policies Pakistan could have chosen but did not.

Pakistan continues to overinvest in defense and utterly underinvest in human development that is extremely crucial in creating a strong, healthy, productive and vibrant society. Pakistan spends 4% of its GDP on defense and Bangladesh a mere 1.9%. The end result is Pakistan’s dismal performance in almost every sector of human development.

When we look at the United Nations Human Development Report 2020, it embodies ample data and comparison across several indicators for Bangladesh and Pakistan. In the overall comprehensive measure, Bangladesh ranks at 133, ahead of Pakistan’s position at 154. The difference of twenty-one places in ranking means Pakistan sadly stands at the tail end of the development ladder and falls at the lowest rung.

Bangladesh’s annual population growth is slower at 1 % compared to Pakistan’s 2%, which is an exemplary feat in controlling population. In 1971, the then East Pakistan was 70 million and West Pakistan behind with 60 million. With its misplaced priorities, Pakistan is sitting on population time bomb of 220 million, whereas Bangladesh is a shining example of a progressive country with its population at 164 million.

Bangladesh’s children are far more likely to survive beyond age five, because Bangladesh’s under-five mortality rate is 41 per 1000 live births while Pakistan’s more than twice at 86 per 1000 live births. Bangladesh invests 3.7% of its GDP on health compared with Pakistan’s 2.5%. Life expectancy at birth in Bangladesh is 72 whereas it is 67 in Pakistan. The literacy rate in Bangladesh is 74 % as opposed to 60% in Pakistan.

This remarkable progress in education, health and life expectancy is due to the pragmatic policy of the state of Bangladesh, in collaboration with NGOs and the private sector. This development model is also aligned with UN Agenda 2030.

In spite of political wranglings between the ruling Awami League and the opposition, Bangladesh’s economy has continued to move on fast track, recording GDP growth rate of 7.9% compared to Pakistan’s dismal 1.5%. Its Foreign Exchange reserve stand at $41 billion with Pakistan’s $20 billion.

Bangladesh exports are twice that of Pakistan. Unlike Pakistan, it does not grow cotton, yet in the last seven years its garment industry has augmented its revenue from $19 billion to $34 billion, a 79% rise, making it the world’s second largest exporter of garments in the world.

Clearly this paints a picture that Bangladesh is ahead of Pakistan in every human development indicator and as a country better educating its citizens, helping them live longer, helping ensure children survive and controlling population growth better. Pakistani citizens deserve that chance as well.

All of this points to separate paths the citizens and their leaders chose. The outcomes seen in Bangladesh are the result of policy choices focused on delivering better education, better health to all and empowerment of women with a more equal environment.
It shows that deliberate policies can create change and governments can better the lives of citizens even starting from a situation of impoverishment. There was nothing inevitable about it. But Pakistan made a series of political choices that are not leading it anywhere.

Bangladesh was once Henry Kissinger’s “basket case”, but it has moved far away from its earlier woes.  It is now envy of the world. Nicholas Kristof, journalist and political commentator, in his column in New York Times on March10, argued that Bangladesh can provide an example of poverty reduction for the USA with its astonishing levels of child poverty.  He noted that 98 % children in Bangladesh complete elementary school and there are more girls in high school than boys.

By repeatedly prioritizing the goals of its defense expenditure, rather than the more comprehensive ambition of offering all citizens a better shot at living longer, healthier lives, Pakistani leaders are failing on the basis of social contract with its citizens.

Pakistan is not a failed state, nor it is a failing state, nor it is falling apart, it is only falling behind. Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa struck the right chord when underlining the benefits of peace at the Islamabad Security Dialogue emphasized that Pakistan needs to put its house in order. We need a paradigm shift in the military’s perception of national security.

Pakistan needs to move away from a security state to a development-oriented state where all state institutions work within their constitutional limits. This can certainly be achieved by a politically astute, administratively adept and morally principled leadership. Each of these elements is crucial. If leadership is not politically astute, it will not get us to move ahead. If it is not administratively adept, it will not take us anywhere that matters. If it is not morally principled, it will take us to the wrong place.  The road we have been treading for seventy years is leading us nowhere. Let us learn from Bangladesh and ‘put our house in order’ as echoed by the Army Chief.

The author is former Representative United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to China, has multiple accreditations to DPRK and Mongolia, and is a Senior Advisor/Honorary Professor of Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences Beijing. He's currently Senior Associate at Harvard University Asia Center.