“If there is any roadblock to us [moving Bangladesh to a better future], it is not the economy.… It is the political structure and the political leadership,” Dr. Ali Riaz, a professor at Illinois State University said at a recent event hosted by The Heritage Foundation.
Bangladesh’s economic development, while imperfect, has succeeded in lifting millions from poverty, but political unrest threatens the country’s stability and future success.
In his opening remarks, Bangladesh’s ambassador to the United States, Akramul Qader, emphasized his country’s impressive economic growth. The number of Bangladeshis living in poverty has dropped by 26 percent in the past decade. The panelists noted that the ready-made garment (RMG) industry has fueled this growth, with Bangladesh second only to China as the world’s largest RMG exporter. This economic development has increased access to jobs for women and fueled social gains: improved literacy, longer life expectancy, and decreased infant mortality.
Certainly, Bangladesh could do much better by ensuring greater economic freedom for its people. It currently ranks only 132nd out of 177 countries examined in The Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal’s annual Index of Economic Freedom. Its performance is dismal in areas related to the rule of law, for instance.
As the tragedies at the Tazreen Garment Factory and Rana Plaza have shown, haphazard construction and poor regulation have led to dangerous working conditions. In response, the U.S. government recently suspended the Generalized System of Preferences for Bangladesh, but the ambassador said that this will hurt Bangladeshi workers more than it will help. Others on the panel had similar concerns.
A far more effective approach is the major initiative taken by North American retailers to adopt binding commitments to improve factory safety in Bangladesh.
The country’s political challenges are no less daunting. The ongoing International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) has been trying suspected war criminals from Bangladesh’s 1971 civil war. Allegations of political interference and protests have tainted the trials. The reactions to the most recent verdict highlight the divide in Bangladeshi society between Islamists and moderate Bangladeshis.
On one side, the moderate Shahbag protestors, according to Maneeza Hussein from the Hudson Institute, have “demanded more authority from the government” and called for harsher sentences. On the other hand, Dr. Riaz said that protestors from Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist political party, view the ICT as a politically motivated “trial of the Islamists.”
The upcoming elections—to be held on or before January 2014—will exacerbate these tensions. In the past, a nonpartisan caretaker government has operated during elections. Its presence has ensured consistent and peaceful governance, but the ruling Awami League eliminated the requirement for a caretaker government in 2011. The opposition Bangladeshi Nationalist Party (BNP) opposed this move, while the U.S. position remained neutral. Dr. Alyssa Ayres, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, said, “It is up to [the Bangladeshi government] to decide on a caretaker government.”
The economic and social gains that Bangladesh has made in the past few decades are impressive, but election-related violence threatens to reverse these gains. Unless the government and opposition recognize the importance of a credible election process and are willing to make political compromises now to ensure peaceful elections by January, Bangladesh will face an uncertain future.
Grace Pyo is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.