A recent poll conducted by the independent, U.S.-based International Republican Institute (IRI) spotlighted what many in Bangladesh already know: the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is immensely popular. Its approval rating in 2019 was 83 percent. Seventy-six percent of those polled said they believe the country is headed in the right direction.
The reason? Per capita income has nearly tripled. Extreme poverty has been cut in half. Educational opportunities abound, especially for women. The Asian Development Bank says Bangladesh has the fastest-growing economy in the Asia-Pacific region. Lately, Bangladesh’s Gross Domestic Product has been closing in on double-digit annual growth.
Since 2009, Bangladesh’s economy has grown 188 percent. Last year, Bangladesh posted record high GDP growth of 8.1 percent, up from 7.9 percent in 2018. By comparison, other South Asian countries suffered significant dips in GDP growth. HSBC Bank recently predicted that Bangladesh would be the 26th-largest economy in the world by 2030.
People from every walk of life have benefited from this success. Since 2009, 15.8 million people were lifted out of poverty. During that period, the poverty rate fell from 31.5 percent to 21.8 percent. Simultaneously, per capita income rose nearly threefold.
The boom has brought employment to millions, especially women, many of whom are receiving an education and earning salaries for the first time. Overall enrollment of girls in primary school rose from 57 percent in 2008 to 95.4 percent in 2017, and that trend continues. Women are now well represented in the classroom; the female-to-male high school enrollment ratio is now 53 percent to 47 percent, a dramatic increase from the 35 percent to 65 percent prior to 2009.
These extra educational opportunities allow both women and men to move on to increasingly remunerative professions when not long ago they were limited to a life of subsistence. Bangladesh’s educational system annually produces more than 500,000 university graduates. More than 65,000 people receive training in Information Technology Enabled Services, perhaps the fastest growing job category in Bangladesh.
Where once they were confined to a life in agriculture, young people are increasingly urban and digitally savvy. To facilitate this transition, Bangladesh has developed more than 8,500 digital centers across the country to help provide various digital services to citizens. The government has also expanded internet and mobile coverage. As a result, more than 110 million Bangladeshi’s have access to the internet.
The Awami League government is drawing the nation closer together through infrastructure projects. For example, the soon to be completed Padma Bridge will link the southwest of the country to the northern and eastern regions. The massive bridge will be the first fixed river crossing for road and train traffic. In addition, high pressure gas transmission lines and fiber optic communication links will be embedded in the bridge. By providing essential infrastructure and access to new markets for farmers, the bridge alone will likely boost Bangladesh’s already burgeoning GDP by an additional 1.2 percentage points.
International investors have taken note of Bangladesh’s rapidly growing economy, its young and skilled workforce and its dramatic digital improvements. Since 2018, net foreign direct investment has increased by 42.9 percent.
These facts, well known to those in Bangladesh, are probably news to western readers. Western media outlets report primarily on Bangladesh’s tragedies, including natural disasters and the world’s largest refugee crisis – the Rohingya expelled to Bangladesh from Myanmar. But the facts don’t lie. Bangladesh has turned a corner. Its progress continues to defy logic and expectations.
When Prime Minister Hasina came to power in 2009, she promised to reduce poverty, stimulate growth and propel Bangladesh into the digital age. She has done all that. Bangladesh has become a vibrant hub of South Asia. And, as IRI’s new poll shows, Bangladeshis know it, too.
Mohammad Ziauddin is Bangladesh’s ambassador to the U.S.