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From Quiet Violence to Quietly Getting it Done: the Impressive Growth of Bangladesh
Despite recent critiques, let’s not forget that economic growth in Bangladesh has delivered vastly better lives for its people.
In 1974 two Bengali-speaking Americans moved into a small village deep in the Bangladeshi countryside. Betsy Hartmann and James Boyce would live in the village – which they call Katni – for 9 months, drinking tea, smoking bidis and swapping stories with their new neighbours. The couple captured their experience in a book, “A Quiet Violence: View From a Bangladesh Village”. It’s a deeply moving insider account of the challenges of rural life in a Bangladesh fresh from independence. Full of stories of villagers ground down by the daily struggle against hunger, the book makes for a depressing read.
Within its pages we meet Hari, a landless labourer fallen on hard times and struggling to feed himself and his family. One day he catches a cold. Severely weakened from months of persistent hunger, Hari’s body struggles to fight it off and the cold quickly worsens into a fever. Without money for a doctor, Hari is dead within a weak. His widow Komal tells Betsy a few days later that Hari “died with nothing in his stomach. I didn’t have the money to buy wood to cremate him, or even to wrap him in a new cloth”.
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What makes the book so striking when reading it in 2023, apart from its tales of abject poverty, is the incredible progress Bangladesh has made since it was published. The share of people living in poverty is thought to have been around 80% in the 1970s. Today, depending on how you measure it, the share is 10-20%. In 1974, 23 of every 100 children born in Bangladesh didn’t live to see their fifth birthday. Today, it’s fewer than three. The prevalence of stunting, undernourishment and food insecurity are all down. We could continue for some time, but you get the picture. Bangladesh has largely emerged from the quiet violence of poverty Betsy and James describe. The country that Henry Kissinger called a “basket case” in 1971 is now, according to the World Bank, “a global model of poverty reduction.”
That’s some turnaround. How did Bangladesh do it? It’s a question that warrants a book, not a blog post. But the key ingredient in Bangladesh’s recipe for success was undoubtedly economic growth. While the East Asian Tigers have grabbed the growth headlines, Bangladesh has quietly delivered its own economic miracle. Even after accounting for inflation, GDP per capita has more than quadrupled since the Americans left Katni. From the mid 1990s the country has pulled increasingly ahead of the global growth average and left Pakistan, the country from which it fought a brutal war of independence, in its dust.
The story of Bangladesh’s remarkable economic growth has many chapters. Vast improvements in education – both in terms of enrolments and attainment – meant the country had at its disposable a growing and reasonably well-educated workforce. These gains laid the foundation on which effective industrial policy then built. The government offered deliberate, targeted and sustained support to increase industrial capacity through an array of incentives and initiatives guided by a string of five-year plans.
The results were spectacular, and Bangladesh enjoyed massive success in developing labour-intensive export industries, the most famous being garment manufacturing (see this GPI post for more details). Rapid growth in foreign remittances, agro-processing sectors and urbanisation were also important economic drivers. As was the empowerment of women delivered through the hard work and dynamism of the country’s activists.
The picture is not universally rosy, however. There is mounting evidence that growth in Bangladesh could (and maybe should) have been more pro-poor. For example, Stephan Klasen has shown that during the 1990s Zambia had a higher rate of pro-poor growth than Bangladesh, even though its overall growth rate was negative. Bangladesh’s “growth elasticity of poverty” – basically how sensitive changes in poverty have been to changes in growth – has also been relatively disappointing, lagging behind countries such as China, Lao, the Philippines and Vietnam. All this suggests that, given the extent of economic growth in Bangladesh, perhaps we should have seen even greater improvements in poverty rates.
Another recurring criticism is that Bangladesh’s economic transformation from agriculture to industry has been far too heavily reliant on garment manufacturing, which now accounts for around 80% of its exports (see this UN report for example). And progress in total factor productivity, the bedrock of sustained economic growth, has never been more than sluggish. The common complaints of corrosive corruption and burdensome bureaucracy are growing in volume too.
Bangladesh no doubt still has far to go on its development journey. The poor working conditions factory workers suffer have been brought to the world’s attention through high-profile disasters. By global standards, poverty is still too high and literacy still too low. The country is reliant on imported fuel to run its electricity grid, which in part forced it to take a $5.2 billion loan from the IMF amid last year’s fuel price hikes.
Not quite mission accomplished yet then. The challenge for Bangladesh now is to make the next step up the development ladder, following the likes of Vietnam. But how to achieve this will have to wait for another blog post. For now, let’s keep some perspective. Reading A Quiet Violence in 2023 – when GDP per capita is closing in on $2,500 and poverty has plummeted – is a reminder of just how far Bangladesh has come. Despite its imperfections, economic growth has delivered vastly better lives for tens of millions of Bangladeshis, in Katni and beyond. Let’s take a moment to celebrate that.
 The authors change the name of the places and people in the book to protect their privacy. Katni is the name the authors use for the village they lived in.
 The country has made huge strides in ensuring more children – especially girls – go to school. The improvements are excellent across the board, but particularly striking is the increase in female enrolment in secondary school from just 6% in 1981 to 72% in 2018. And one in four Bangladeshis enrol in higher education, compared to one in fifty in the 1970s. While we know that enrolment doesn’t always mean education, getting children in the classroom is a necessary first step. And there are signs outcomes have indeed improved. Literacy rates, for example, are up from 29% in 1981 to 75% in 2020.
 For context, despite good progress, agro-processing amounts to about $2bn in export value per year, compared to $45bn for garments