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Spreading the message of economic growth

Interview - May 12, 2015

United World sits down with the Hon. Minister of Information Mr. Hasanul Haq Inu to discuss the progress made in the last six years with regards to Vision 2021 and Millennium Development Goals.


As the Minister of Information you have the responsibility of disseminating information with regards to economic growth. What is the main message in terms of growth in Bangladesh?

Over the past six years there has been a clear departure from the days of the military rule in terms of economic policy. The current government has an economic policy that is socially linked. We are integrating social need with market forces and entrepreneurship. In the past social needs were overlooked, we are now addressing questions, important questions. Should we invest in primary and secondary schools? Should the government invest to equip all the secondary schools of the country, almost 31,000 secondary schools, with computer labs? Should we invest in the development of an information and communication centre? Should we invest in developing community health clinics, around 13,000 at the grass root level, for primary health care such as vaccinations and maternal health? We are answering those questions now.

Bangladesh has made a concerted effort to diversify its economy beyond RMG, how is Bangladesh progressing with regards to this?

In the past economic development has revolved around agriculture, specifically rice production. However now we are diversifying and Bangladesh is now in the top six fish producing nations of the world. Over the past five years banks have financed 39,231 female entrepreneurs in small-scale industries. Now there has been greater diversification of the economy. We have a domestic market of 160 million people; the strength is that if you take care of the 160 million people, many industries will be able to grow. Over the past five years, the ship building industry has developed, the pharmaceutical industry has developed, production of leather goods has increased and the jute industry has been revived after a 20 year decline. The government has started charting out a path for the diversification of the economy; for the arrival of the poultry industry, the fish industry, and sea fishing. Diversification of the economy is very important, and we have to o what is best for the nation, for example many advised us against subsidies, many said no, but our Prime Minister said yes, we subsidise and that is why we now have 350 million tonnes of rice production.

The Bangladesh government has been very active in terms of social investment or social spending, would you say that Bangladesh is a good example of a present government that is intervening and investing the future of its people against the orthodox theory that a government should not intervene and that it should be left to a free market.

In a developing economy we inherit a social divide, we inherit the economic past and we think that investment in the social sector by the government is essential in reducing the social divide. By investing in health care, education, micro credit development, small and medium enterprises and the housing sector, we think we are investing in the future. Of the 8 parameters of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Bangladesh has almost fulfilled seven. Bangladesh has already achieved the goal of reducing the maternal mortality rate, it has achieved another goal by reducing the child mortality rate, the goal of gender balance in primary schools of 50-50 male/female has been achieved up to secondary level but there is still an imbalance in years 11 and 12, girls make up 40% of the class and boys 60%. Poverty has been reduced down and we have achieved the target set by the United Nations. The goal of providing safe drinking water across of the country is about to be achieved and the target to provide safe and proper sanitation across the country has almost been achieved. Bangladesh has been cited internationally as being the first country to have crossed the target before 2015. Bangladesh is now looking post MDG and helping to formulate a post MDG agenda at an international level.

Ban Ki-moon has applauded your prime minister and has said that Bangladesh is a model to follow for other developing nations; do you think that the international community understands what Bangladesh is all about or that there are misconceptions about the country?

In spite of the global economic climate, natural disasters and a volatile political situation, Bangladesh has had a growth rate of beyond 6% in the last few years. Demographics are very important, as 60% of the population of Bangladesh is 30 years old or younger. Youth is the strength of Bangladesh. Bangladesh is investing in the youth by educating them and giving them skills so they can take care of the domestic market. We also have an expatriate working community in the world of almost 10 million, so we are now concentrating on the domestic economy. We have rediscovered the role of the government in the specific ideals of policy interventions and financial interventions where the social need is to be incorporated into the planning process. So the Bangladesh government in its 5 and 10 year plans is discussing the social need and how to incorporate it.

There are public universities and colleges but the majority of the 21,000 secondary schools are private. There are around 20 teachers in each secondary school and they all get a salary from the government, and the government is also building infrastructure, case by case, which are free of cost. Of the 80,000 primary schools there are more than 100,000 teachers who have been enlisted into the government salary over the past three years. More than 26,000 primary schools have been selected and those teachers get salary from the government also. Many of the primary schools are run by the private sector although they use the same curriculum, so when students are preparing for exams there is equality. There are certain universities, which are privately run, and they have their own curriculum and their own examinations. But at the primary level and secondary level they are following a government curriculum. 310 million books have been dispatched to students which is one of the greatest achievements by the present government, school tuition and books are free up to the 10th grade. A policy change by this government, has confirmed that the government has decided to enlist change in the social sector, human resource development sector, the health sector. The social sector has been developed and we are giving money to widows and every expectant mother is given financial support so they can have better nutrition, those who are very poor are given rice packets. These huge changes in the social sector have been occurring over the past 6 years. These changes have helped people to graduate from poverty. A majority, 95%, of microcredit receivers are women, more than 10 million. These women work have to work often because they are widows and they do not own land so they are given microcredit. We find that the women mostly invest this money in small business, small productive things and the results are very good and this is how you reduce the poverty.

So now we are researching what other ways will be effective in reducing poverty, there are poor people whose condition is neither declining nor improving so there is a government organisation which has come out with a program called microcredit plus. The people receive little bit more money, and they profit more from it; they can return the profit, reinvest and save more. The government has also come up with a program; one house, one farm they are given a cow and some money that they are expected to save. In obosella sub district almost 5,000 families are getting this allowance, and they are also getting advice on how to invest properly, which is encouraged and monitored by the government. We are now forcing government banks to invest in the microcredit programs; the government is intervening and taking note of the social need. The government has also been looking at different ways to diversify the economy and the government is investing in fisheries and poultry and subsequently Bangladesh is listed fourth in the world in terms of fish production.

During the global recession of 2008, many believed that the economy would be ruined, but it survived. The reason that the country did not do badly economically is because Europeans and Americans still needed to import. One of the biggest industries of Bangladesh is clothing and although America and Europe did not buy as much, they still bought. Food, pharmaceuticals and textiles are the three primary industries of the world. During the recession period, we diversified and started exporting not only to Europe and America but to other countries even other developing economies such as India, China, Brazil and Africa. So diversification of exports was important and we entered an open market and started producing for other nations such as pharmaceuticals for the UK.

So much progress has been made in the last 6 years, but 2021 is fast approaching. Is vision 2021 achievable?

If you look at the recent parameters and the investment trend we have achieved the vision 2021 goal. What is the vision 2021? Firstly in 2021 poverty should be eradicated, I think that by 2021 we can achieve that one, it’s almost achievable. It has been almost 6 years, the current level is 25% and I think we could drastically reduce it so it will be at 10%.

Another component is Digital Bangladesh, and this means that we can become a supplier for training in the ICT world market. We are now making a master plan, how to train boys and girls with ICT knowledge so they are able to work in an international market. Our connectivity in terms of transport is also improving, we have decided to build a deep-sea port, and the first phase will be completed before 2021. Then the big ships will be docking here, this will be the second largest deep-sea port after Singapore in this region. This will increase connectivity in the region, as it will open up the landlocked area in the north with India, Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar and become the gateway for the region including Southern China. This port will be particularly important economically as it will mean that boats from beyond Singapore to Pakistan will be able dock at this new port. Bangladesh has also decided to build excellent universities on the North Eastern border of Bangladesh so that Dhaka will be the cultural and academic centre of the north Eastern part of India. A bridge on the Padma River will also be completed before 2021, which will increase connectivity in the south and north. These two bridges and a deep-sea port will have a very positive impact on developing infrastructure and the economy. Another port is also being redeveloped and will be expanded and will be the gateway to North Eastern India. By 2025 Bangladesh will be the 22nd largest economy in the world. Our strength is our people. In terms of tourism, we are trying to project Bangladesh as the heart of Bengali people and the Bengali culture. There are 350 million Bengali speaking people who live outside our borders, there are 160 million in Bangladesh, 100 million living in West Bengal and other states of India and others living across the world. My ministry is going to take care so that the 350 million people living outside of Bangladesh will feel welcome coming to Dhaka for the Bengali New Year, which is going to be the heart of tourism, a major tourist event like the Chinese New Year.