Bangladesh was listed, along with 30-odd other 'emerging economies', as a 'stand out' country in the 2017 Inclusive Growth and Development Report. Organised under the framework of the World Economic Forum System Initiative on Shaping the Future of Economic Progress, the Inclusive Development Index (IDI) seeks to bridge the aspiration-action gap, using three broad indictors: growth and development, with its four indices (GDP/capita, labour productivity, employment, and healthy life expectancy); inclusion, using four indicators (median household income, income Gini, poverty rate, and wealth Gini), and inter-generational equity and sustainability, also with four components (adjusted net savings, dependency ratio, public debt, and GDP carbon intensity). Building a matrix out of overall performance levels over a 5-year span, the IDI scores were plotted in four boxes: 'blind spots' and 'stand outs' for countries with a better score than the average of 3.76 for the 104-odd countries tabulated; as well as 'bright spots' and 'watch out' for countries with scores below 3.76.
Norway led the 'advanced economies' list with a 6.08 score. Of the 30 countries on this list, 25 represent Europe and North America, while the remaining five include Australia, Israel, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Korea, with the lowest score of 3.7 belonging to Greece.
Of 77 countries in the 'emerging economies' list, Bangladesh ranked 34th, with a 3.96 score. Lithuania led this list with its 4.86 tally, while Mozambique rounded off the list with a 2.47 score. African countries, in fact, occupy the last 12 slots, though just above them on the list's ground floor is India, with its 62nd ranking and a 3.09 score. Even with India at the base, South Asian countries do far better, scattered, as they are, right across the listing: from the floor up, Pakistan is 47th with its 3.55 score, Sri Lanka 40th with 3.79, and leader, Nepal, bags a 4.15 score with its 22nd ranking.
Considering India as the concurrent global gross domestic product (GDP) growth-rate leader (certainly among countries that matter), South Asian countries have not done too badly. On several social indicators, in fact, Bangladesh has been some sort of a South Asian pace-setter, especially over women empowerment. Its GDP growth-rate also ranks fairly high globally and consistently places it very enviably against India on this measurement. It also does relatively very well in South Asia over inter-personal trust, over which India again remains the laggard. For a country so bitterly divided politically, in this penultimate election year, Bangladesh bodes well. Yet, in and of itself, that observation cannot alone thwart any negative twist that comes inevitably every time voting season arrives in Bangladesh.
Nevertheless, that GDP-IDI combination clearly matters. One recalls how emergent terms in the 1950s/early-1960s like 'First World', 'Second World', and 'Third World' (representing capitalism, socialism/communism/ and non-aligned countries, respectively), reflected ideological and global political divisions, yet then when the 'fourth' and 'fifth' worlds were added in the late-1960s and 1970s, respectively, the thrust had shifted to economic measurements.
Countering that, sociologists like Morris David Morris, came up with an alternative indictor in the 1970s, called the Physical Quality of Life Index (PQLI), measuring such indicators as literacy, infant mortality, and life expectancy. Instead of continuing this tussle between the material-based and non-material-anchored measurements, the WEF IDI counterpart actually meshes both arenas. This is its strength in a neo-liberal age when materialism serves as the driver, with non-material concerns leading the attention-grabbing item.
If that enhances the WEF report's greater claim to reflect reality more accurately, its two key conclusions should not be underestimated: that "GDP growth cannot in and of itself be relied on to generate inclusive socio-economic progress and broad-based improvement in living standards"; yet "GDP growth is a necessary but not sufficient condition for achieving the broad-based programme in living standards on which polities ultimately judge their countries' economic issues."
Noting the widespread prevalence of "significant unexploited potential," the WEF IDI report recommends (a) reconfiguring structural economic reform systemically so as to invoke social reforms; and (b) projecting uplifted living-standards more broadly to capture bottom-line concerns.
Since the IDI report is both timely and relevant for a Bangladesh seeking to consolidate its newly-acquired middle-income status at the lower-end, while also aspiring to climb up that ladder into the higher ranks, the country could do well by heeding the above observations and tips.
Its priorities must include, the sooner the better, a widening social safety-net, including all the provisions 'advanced economies' have profited from across the 20th Century: job-protection, health care and standards, fallback cushions like unemployment relief, and pension, as well as social security in as many other areas as possible. Whispers along these lines have been heard in 2017, but clearly future elections will be shaped more by those considerations than what look like incessant political quibbles. The time for those quibbles to end cannot be far, and with a social safety-net instrument, that ending can be hastened positively. Adding to these, labour welfare would bring about the perfect combination on the ground of the hopes so loudly and frequently proposed in the media. Ranking among veteran middle-class countries ultimately demands overtaking Nepal on that list. Narrowing the gap with Nepal next year will tell us we are on track to fulfill our strategic goals.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.