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OPINIONMarch 1, 2023

Defying the odds: Bangladesh’s journey of transformation and resilience

Bangladesh has lot to be proud of.

In December 1971, when Bangladesh gained independence, it was among the world's poorest countries.  A devastating war had shattered its economy and destroyed its infrastructure.

Fifty years later, the transformation of Bangladesh is remarkable. The country has reduced poverty in record time: between 2000 and 2016, extreme poverty dropped from 34 percent to 13 percent. Since 2000, it has remained among the fastest growing economies, and in 2015, it crossed the threshold to become a lower middle-income country. GNI per capita rose to over $2,500 in 2021, a 20-fold leap from its 1971 levels. Before 1971, per capita income had not risen for 20 years.

These transformations happened in difficult conditions. Last month, when I visited Bangladesh for the first time to celebrate 50 years of partnership between the country and World Bank, I was excited to see firsthand how Bangladesh could make development work.

The World Bank is proud to be part of this impressive journey that lifted millions of people out of poverty.

Bangladesh and the World Bank's relationship started even before the country became a member of the World Bank. Just about a month after the independence, Robert McNamara, the then World Bank president, flew to Bangladesh to meet with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. A spokesperson of the Prime Minister's secretariat described the meeting as 'very satisfactory,' as reported in newspapers.

While many development experts were skeptical given the scale of devastation caused by the war, the World Bank supported the young nation's recovery efforts with a $50 million Emergency Recovery Credit to help rebuild key transport, agriculture, communication, and industrial sectors.

Over the course of this 50-year partnership, what Bangladesh has been able to accomplish has vastly exceeded the initial World Bank assessments undertaken in the early 1970s.  Since this first emergency credit, the Bank has committed about $39 billion in financing from the International Development Association (IDA) in the form of grants, interest-free loans, and concessional credits to help the country develop its homegrown approaches to overcome its most pressing development challenges. With around $15 billion in ongoing programs, Bangladesh currently has the largest IDA program in the world. The World Bank is also Bangladesh's largest development partner.

Bangladesh has made remarkable progress in many areas, but three strategic development choices it has made over the decades have reaped great rewards: investing in people, empowering women, and disaster preparedness and adapting to climate change.

Bangladesh realized early on that investing in people is just as critical as investing in infrastructure. In 1972, life expectancy was below 50 years, while a newborn today is expected to live more than 70 years. Fertility rates have declined from 6.1 births in 1971 to just 2.1 births in 2018. Almost all children are going to school.

Bangladesh's poverty reduction strategy centered on women's empowerment. In 1991, Bangladesh had one of the lowest educational attainment levels for girls. A pioneering school stipend program for poor rural girls—later replicated in Mexico, Cambodia, and other countries—made Bangladesh among the first few developing countries to achieve gender parity in secondary school enrollment. Girls now account for more than half of lower secondary school enrollment – up from just 17 percent in 1970. Its vibrant ready-made garments industry created jobs for hundreds and thousands of rural women. Female labor force participation rates have increased from 21 percent in 1990 to 35 percent in 2021.

Bangladesh has risen to the challenges of being severely affected by natural disasters and climate change, turning into a leader in climate adaptation and disaster preparedness. A network of embankments, cyclone shelters that operate as primary schools in regular weather, early warning systems, and planting forests have reduced cyclone-related fatalities 100-fold since independence. The statistics tell the story: In 1970, Cyclone Bhola killed more than 300,000 people, while a similarly powerful Cyclone Sidr in 2007 left 3,363 dead while the death toll in the more recent 2017 Cyclone Mora was contained to 18.

And Bangladesh's development success has enabled it to help other countries and the international community more broadly. Bangladesh has shown great generosity in sheltering more than 1.1 million Rohingya who fled violence in Myanmar. With support of $590 million in grant financing from the World Bank, the government is providing health, education, and other basic services to meet the needs of the host community and the displaced Rohingya population until their safe and voluntary return to Myanmar.

Bangladesh still faces key challenges looking ahead. It is confronted with balance of payments challenges exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and a weak global recovery since the COVID-19 pandemic. To safeguard its growth and development, it is important that the country maintains stable macroeconomic conditions. It needs to continue strong investment in human capital to equip its youth for the opportunities of the next decades and to further develop its digital economy to realize its potential. This is all the more important as the country aspires to double its per capita income by 2031 as it aims to achieve upper middle-income country status. To do so, it will be important to implement reforms which stimulate competition, strengthen the financial system, and focus on fiscal revenue measures – as well as diversify exports and pursue digitalization.

A valuable part of this 50-year anniversary is that we can look at the megatrends that are clearly visible in Bangladesh. Sometimes we are caught up on the issues of the day and forget what has been achieved thanks to the hard work of the Bangladeshi people.  It is impressive to see how this country has transformed itself from the devastation of war and natural disasters at the beginning of independence to become a middle-income country today and aspiring to even greater prosperity for all of its people. For the World Bank, it has been a pleasure to accompany Bangladesh on this development journey and we remain committed to supporting the country's development aspirations in the decades to come.

Once considered a test case for development, Bangladesh now offers invaluable development experience for other countries.


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