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A tribute to those who promise a new dawn in Bangladesh

January 05, 2013

DHAKA: “Never was so much owed by so many to so few” — those famous words of Winston Churchill's tribute to the air defenders of Great Britain in the Battle of London reverberate through vast distances on to our home-front.

That was in the backdrop of Hitler's invasion of Europe when Britain took the last stand under the oratorical flourish of the 65-year old Churchill.

Spiritedly, he would remind the House of Commons in his maiden speech as the British PM that he had officially reached pension age, but there he was leading the war effort with the power of his words. This was supremely aided by the superiority of British air power over Germany. In a masterly tactical stroke, Britain acquired the edge over Germany through a providential lull in Hitler's saturated bombings that had weakened his air power and forced him into a pause.

Now, in the context of Bangladesh, Churchill's words should find resonance with the economic battle waged by so few in our country to benefit so many, that too in spite of all the negative politics.

The three pillars for sustenance of the economy and enrichment of our growth potential are well-known but not plumbed deeply enough: remittances from overseas workers, the garment export earning and the farmers' unfailing productivity placing food security on the table or the mat as the case maybe.

Picture Bangladeshi women living and working in Middle East, suddenly air dropped into the sweltering and hostile clime earning valuable foreign exchange for the country. Huddled in a small room after a day's work, they nurture a small dream of sending money home keeping a bare minimum for themselves. A head-turner statistic — women working overseas send 72 per cent of the incomes to their families in Bangladesh compared with 40 per cent for men.

The tremendous sacrifice they are making for their families and the country is all the more moving when you think of countless others, mostly men, who have not had their status legalised. We hear of heart-wrenching stories of their fugitive uncertainty as they constantly look over the shoulders for any scowling eyes lest they are caught and handed to the police.

In deserts, on impounded boats, along remote frontiers, they surface almost anywhere. They would be found in jails or encamped in remote locations as their fate hangs in a precarious balance, that also incommunicado.

There is no knowing how much of the money is remitted to Bangladesh by workers with legal immigration status and how much indeed from “illegal” immigrants.

All the same, they send in a huge sum of money — give and take, US$12 billion plus per year (perhaps exceeding the total foreign currency reserve).

Remittance is net earning whilst earning from readymade garment export which grosses around $16-18 billion has an element of value addition-related deduction in terms of dependence on import. Apparels export, woven and knitting taken together, accounts for 35 per cent in real income to Bangladesh. In other words, it works out to approximately $6 billion in net earning.

This does not, however, reflect the true potential of apparel export. A huge untapped potentiality ranges before the eye when you think of Bangladesh shaping as the next garment export destination after China. In effect, we are looking at the prospect of our competitors thinking of relocating their industries to Bangladesh with all the investment and buy-back possibilities in the horizon. We could also expect the right proportion of backward and forward linkages to chalk up increased domestic value addition to overall export.

A recent spate of Western media publicity seems focused on Bangladesh as one of the second wave of countries — some Asian, some Latin American, some African — coming up fast from behind. “The West in gloom and the Bric starting to plateau, attention is turning towards these countries, many of which not long ago were dismissed as basket cases.”

The Guardian report is emphatic: “When growth rates for 2013 are chalked up, these are the countries that will dominate the top 20.”

What makes you sit up and take notice is this: lack of physical infrastructure is bypassed to boost productivity quickly through mobile telephony in some African countries. Bangladesh is already going through a mobile revolution as new hopes spring from the submarine cable connectivity and the next genre of mobiles.

Our highlighting the apparel exports and remittance earnings is directed towards egging the government and its agencies to organise the two sectors, which in a way admittedly, remain somewhat disorganised, to put in mildly. When you think about “centrality of women in development” which The Economist's intelligence unit has highlighted about Bangladesh, you at once direct your attention to the dire need for upgrading the status of workers with remunerative real wages and workplace safety guaranteed to them.

There is also a good deal of work to be done in the area of remittance earnings which keep fluctuating in terms of volume of manpower export with some conventional markets a bit on the shuttering down mode.

The way Bangladeshi workers on arrival at our international airport are being treated leaves ample room for improvement. We must go beyond a single immigration desk. Perhaps they should be entitled to a collective elevation of their status as commercially important figures. They would be only pleased if they feel cared for and welcome in the land of their birth for which they sacrifice so much at the expense of personal comfort.

Finally, attend to the concerns of a young and growing population which is potential demographic dividend waiting to be reaped.

By arrangement with The Daily Star/ANN