Towards a Trillion Dollar Economy | The Daily Star

By 2024, Bangladesh's economy is on solid footing. But what about the future? Will we continue to depend on the readymade garments (RMG) industry for employment and export earnings? This question arose in my mind as I watched millions of RMG workers return to their factories toiling in traffic jams, clogged roads, and dilapidated infrastructure, worried about their future employment prospects.

What about graduates who need help finding a job in their career of choice? Or those who took low-wage jobs at a temporary gig—my own son-in-law, an MBA-turned-accountant struggling to pay the bills with a minimum-wage job at a travel agency?

Bangladesh must embrace digital technology to modernize its economy and expand opportunities for people from all walks of life. We are already approaching a quarter of a century into the 21st century, but the economy is in trouble. It reminds me of the sculpture „The Struggle” based on painter Zainul Abedin's sculpture „Shangram”, where two bullocks with a driver try to pull a cart loaded with logs out of the mud when the wheels get stuck.

On April 2, The New York Times published a long story that praised Bangladesh's development model over the past half century. It credited the leaders for upliftment of millions of poor people and praised the success of converting farmers into textile workers. But the article also warned that changes in trade, supply chains and technology could make our journey over the next quarter century dangerous. I believe this caution applies to other countries as well. On April 1, in an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal, former World Bank president Robert B. Zoellick slammed the two presumptive candidates for the US presidency, Biden and Trump. He attacked them for not preparing America for the challenges of the 21st century and instead taking it into the 20th century, failing to see the writing on the walls.

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Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum (WEF) released its Future Framework for Growth, which advised that „with the urgent need to revive global economic growth, we must move towards innovative, inclusive, sustainable and resilient growth”.

So, what is the takeaway for Bangladesh from these warnings from different corners?

Manufacturing, which will still form the bedrock of our economy in the coming decades, must be more productive and require fewer workers to make clothing, leather goods, and IT products. We will depend on innovations in artificial intelligence, quantum computing and general-purpose technologies.

To compete in the world, we cannot rely on the two bread and butter sectors of our economy—the RMG sector for jobs and foreign exchange, and the external job market for employment and remittances. Notably, we have a highly educated young workforce to meet the challenges, but we must remove the obstacles they face: a stagnant service sector that is only worsened by nepotism, crony capitalism and short-term profit motives.

The question, now, is this: What will motivate the economy to reach the trillion-dollar target and reach middle-income status? The answer lies within us.

Susan Crawford, a law professor at Harvard University, wrote admiringly about Bangladesh's climate adaptation after visiting Bangladesh in an article on her substack titled „Visit the Future.” „They also live in a future that is still out of reach for everyone in America. Extreme heat, salt water, devastating sea-level rise and storms are all facts of life in Bangladesh,” he wrote. „The country in one of the most densely populated and lowest-elevation areas of the planet is one of the first to recognize the need to adapt to the climate changes already baked into our world.” In his opinion, the country is ahead of the United States on the climate curve, and he concluded very optimistically that „being there felt like visiting the future.”

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So how could this country and its leaders miss the mark on the world's economic future? We must marshal our resources and exploit the broader global economic trend. But we must also support the evolution of the economy from agriculture to manufacturing and now services to reflect changes in our growing domestic demand. Our exports must take advantage of economies of scale with a wide variety of manufacturing and services.

My friend, Professor Rahul Roy of Boston University School of Medicine, just returned from a trip to Kolkata. I was curious to know how West Bengal is doing amidst the „mess” of India. „Okay” he said. But West Bengal, like the rest of India, is moving towards rapid industrialization, he said. „Bangladesh needs to change direction to diversify and expand its domestic market,” he said. “As you know, the IT sector in India contributes only 15 per cent to the GDP [actually, it is only 13 percent]. So, you guys [Bangladesh] Artificial intelligence and above all, the industry needs to move away from over-reliance on apparel.”

Dhaka University's Professor Rashid Al Mahmoud Tidumir agrees. In a recent article in The Daily Star, he outlines the necessary conditions for our transition from the current stagnation to industrialisation, diversification, competitiveness and technological catch-up through structural change to improve the skills of our incredibly resilient workforce. Someday, a new leadership with the spirit to embrace science, technology, innovation and opportunity will seize this opportunity.

As I was finishing this article, I came across a message from Professor Rehman Soban: „We are taking development forward, but there are gaps and persistent weaknesses in our institutions. This is a very central component,” he said at the launch. He co-authored the book Fifty Years of Bangladesh: Economy, Politics, Society and Culture in Dhaka. I'm glad he and I see eye to eye on some things.

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Dr Abdullah Shibli An economist and works at Change Healthcare, Inc., an IT company. He also serves as a Senior Research Fellow at the US-based International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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