Can Bangladesh become a knowledge economy?

Photo: Collected

As we say goodbye to the terrible year of 2020 and enter not just a new year in 2021 but a new decade to 2030, it is time to look ahead with some sense of optimism for our country over the coming decade.

Bangladesh has the opportunity and potential for becoming a significant knowledge-based economy by 2030 if we make the right decisions and investments going forward. Unfortunately, at the moment we are in a poor position, as was demonstrated by the publication of this year’s Global Knowledge Index by UNDP, in which Bangladesh ranked 112th out of 138 countries—we were the lowest ranked in South Asia, with India ranking highest in our region. We need to make a conscious decision to enhance our rank every year over the next 10 years and make the requisite investments to achieve that as a matter of high national priority.

What steps could be taken in this regard? The first point to make is that what I am advocating for will not cost any more money, so finance is not a significant constraint. Rather, the major decision we need to collectively take as a country is to acknowledge that we are not headed in the right direction, and hence, we need a major paradigm shift to change our direction of travel. This needs to be a collective decision not only by our political leaders but by every parent and young person who wants to be better educated, in a manner befitting the new paradigm rather than business-as-usual.

We need to start with the tertiary education system, where Bangladesh now has over a hundred universities, counting both public as well as private universities. While this is indeed a significant achievement in terms of quantity, most are very poor in terms of quality. Indeed, in global rankings of the world’s top most universities, even Bangladesh’s foremost University of Dhaka has been dropping down the ranking over the last few years.

Hence, we need to focus on changing the universities from being simple certificate-issuing factories to actual places of learning with an emphasis on teaching skills, and the ability to think and solve problems, rather than simply pass exams through rote memorisation of information and regurgitation.

This will need a major shift in giving incentives to our teachers, who have the ability to change if the reward system for them was changed. One way this could be done is for the university authorities to reward research and innovation from faculty, and also for the national government to provide rewards, including funding for research. For genuine knowledge generation, at least two or even three percent of the national budget should be allocated to supporting nationally useful research that addresses the problems and opportunities of Bangladesh. This will be a major indicator of whether we genuinely graduate out of Least Developed Country (LDC) status over the next few years. We cannot graduate as long as we remain dependent on international consultants to fly in and give us knowledge. We must generate our own knowledge or we will remain dependent forever.

The second major change in investment opportunities should be in making funding from the banking sector available for young entrepreneurs, with a focus on green business opportunities. While this has indeed started, it needs to be scaled up very rapidly as part of the global economy and not only confined to the Bangladesh economy alone. The Covid-19 pandemic has already led to many thousands of Bangladeshi labourers returning home while at the same time, the world economy and education has shifted online, so that we don’t have to travel to another country to engage in providing services globally. The biggest raw material for making the most of this opportunity is young people, both girls as well as boys, of which we have many millions. However, we can only gain the benefits if we invest in educating our bright and eager youth to learn the capacity to use the internet to connect to the global economy on a major scale.

The third major step we will need to take is to enable the Bangladesh economy to link more effectively and efficiently with the global economy, and one way this could be done would be to make the Bangladesh Taka into a freely convertible currency. The time has indeed come for Bangladesh to allow this step to be planned and implemented in the next few years. It will be a huge step forward for our economy.

Finally, we will have to change the pattern of our education, including more effective vocational training as well as better quality secondary education, and indeed even primary education, for our children. None of this will require new funding, but it will require us to change the way we do things and how we incentivise teachers at all levels. If these policy steps are taken and implemented sincerely, we could indeed change the face of our country by the end of the coming decade.

I believe that our single greatest national asset are our young girls and boys, and if we are able to invest in educating them better, we can indeed transition to a significant knowledge-based economy within a decade. However, it will require a national consensus for us to make the necessary paradigm shift needed.

Originally this article was published on December 30, 2020 at Daily Star. The author Prof. Saleemul Huq is the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).