How and why is Bangladesh better off than Pakistan today?

At a time when Bangladesh will celebrate 50 years of its separation from Pakistan


Moonis Ahmar March 21, 2021
The writer is former Dean Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Karachi and can be reached at [email protected]

At a time when Bangladesh will celebrate 50 years of its separation from Pakistan on March 26, one needs to contemplate why a country – which in 1972 was called by Dr Henry Kissinger, the National Security Adviser to then US President Richard Nixon, a ‘basket with a hole’ – is cited as a success story and better off than Pakistan in many ways. How and why has an “impoverished” Bangladesh performed better than Pakistan? Are there lessons Pakistan can learn from Bangladesh?

Let me first note here that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be among chief guests on the occasion of Bangladesh’s 50th Independence Day on March 26 – in an acknowledgement of Delhi’s decisive role in the disintegration of Pakistan. One must feel bitter about Pakistan bashing that would take place in Bangladesh on the occasion in front of the Indian Prime Minister. But it is time to move on. A country where floods used to play havoc and political violence ruptured peace and stability is now self-sufficient in food and has done well in disaster management.

Bangladesh’s remarkable performance during the past decade could be gauged from the fact that it is no more among the least developing countries. The volume of Bangladeshi exports is twice as much as Pakistan’s and same is the case with its currency, taka, whose value has nearly doubled than that of Pakistan’s rupee. Bangladesh’s GDP growth rate is 7.9% unlike Pakistan’s 1.5%. The foreign exchange reserves held by Bangladesh are to the tune of $41 billion as against Pakistan’s $20 billion. Only on remittances, Pakistan is ahead of Bangladesh. Bangladesh has a population of 164 million as compared to Pakistan’s 220 million. Whereas, in 1971, the population of the then East Pakistan was 70 million and that of West Pakistan was 60 million. Bangladesh is also ahead of Pakistan when ranked in terms of passport index, literacy ratio, micro-credit financing and women empowerment.

With these facts in mind, four factors that contributed to transforming Bangladesh from an “international beggar” to an “economically vibrant country” are: leadership, innovation, planning, and ownership. Yet there are critical issues which Bangladesh is grappling with like political polarisation which has compounded due to the authoritarian mode of governance by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League. Political repression and media curbs also threaten to take the shine off the successes. However, the Awami League – which has seen one of his governments taken over by the military as well as its tilt towards its rival Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in the past – has now learned its lessons and started pampering senior military officers by awarding them perks and privileges.

The Sheikh Hasina government is also accused of toeing Delhi’s line and behaving as its client instead of a sovereign state. A large number of people in Bangladesh harbour anti-India and anti-Modi sentiments due to the persecution of Muslims in India as well as the Citizenship Amendment Act that targets Bangladeshi-origin people living in Assam. That’s why some political groups in the country have announced demonstrations against the Indian PM on the occasion of his visit to Dhaka on March 26.

By silencing opposition and accepting the Indian tutelage, the Sheikh Hasina government focused on economic and social development in its bid to tell the world that it has tried to eradicate religious extremism and terrorism from the country. One needs to understand that as compared to Pakistan which faces two-pronged security threat on its eastern and western borders, Bangladesh, which is surrounded by India from three sides, has compromised on its geographical vulnerability by accepting Indian domination as a fait accompli. Its resources, unlike those of Pakistan, are not heavily spent on defence and counterterrorism measures. Since Bangladesh doesn’t consider India as an enemy state, its defence expenditures are only 1.9% of its GDP as compared to Pakistan’s 4%. Furthermore, unlike Pakistan, Bangladesh is a homogenous state and is not vulnerable to ethnic and lingual discords.

There are three major realities which Pakistan should keep in mind while understanding how and why Bangladesh is better off than Pakistan.

First, innovative and creative skills of the people of Bangladesh which are reflected in the growth of exports of garments, population control, improved literacy ratio, poverty alleviation and women empowerment. There are thousands of garment factories in Bangladesh, a country which does not grow cotton. But by importing cotton worth a couple of hundred million dollars, Bangladeshi garments factories are exporting it in the form of readymade garments worth $35 billion. On the contrary, Pakistan – despite being a cotton-growing country – has failed to increase its exports of garments and textile products beyond $10 billion. Even worse, Pakistan is now importing cotton. In fact, a lack of innovation and commitment on the part of the authorities in Pakistan because of its feudal and tribal structures, it is unable to make use of its agricultural resources, particularly cotton, to increase its exports of textiles and textile madeups.

Second, the focus of Bangladeshi government, despite a deep-running political polarisation in the country, is on the economy, governance, and social and human development. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, a couple of years ago, confidently asserted that the 50th anniversary of the independence of Bangladesh will be celebrated under the Awami League’s government. She also resolved that the League which spearheaded the Bangladesh movement will ensure that the country defeat Pakistan in terms of all economic, human and social development indicators. Sheikh Hasina’s prediction several years ago has now come true mainly because of criminalisation of politics, corruption and nepotism in Pakistan.

Third, it seems as if those wielding power in Pakistan are least mindful about contributing for the betterment of the country. As a result, Pakistan continues to suffer from economic degradation, political instability, bad governance and societal breakdown. Merely securing military capability is not enough for a country to be recognised as a successful state particularly when its performance in terms of economic, human and social development indicators is deteriorating.

Unfortunately, Pakistan, which was better off than many post-colonial states in terms of its economy, human development, infrastructure and industrialisation progress till mid-1980s, went downhill because of corrupt, incompetent and dishonest leadership. Hundreds and thousands of Bangladeshis migrated to Pakistan during the late 70s and 80s because of enough economic opportunities available in the country and also because of the Pakistani rupee fetching them twice as much as Bangladeshi taka. But, things started changing during the nineties and the noughts because of economic degeneration and a consequent weak currency. And then poor law and order and an energy crisis rather forced many Pakistani businessmen to shift to Bangladesh with their investment. What is lacking on the part of Pakistan is a leadership which can make use of the available opportunities and resources to put its house in order and transform it into a vibrant state.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 21st, 2021.

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