By Nazmus Sadat Khan, doctoral student at the University of Muenster, Germany, and member of the St. Gallen Symposium's global Leaders of Tomorrow community.
What makes a country small? Bangladesh is a small country in terms of area, but very large in terms of population. Having roughly the same area as Greece, it has a bigger population than Russia (yes, you might be tempted to read this sentence again, but it is true!).
The outside world seems to know very little about this country. It is true that floods, poverty, garment factory collapses and political violence exist in Bangladesh, but fortunately this is not the full story. Its GDP has steadily grown at around 6% for the last decade. Since 1990, poverty has declined 25% and per capita income has increased threefold. Bangladesh has also achieved significant success in the health and education sector. According to the World Bank, in terms of life expectancy, proportion of underweight children, fertility rate, infant mortality and female participation in education, Bangladesh is doing better than most of its neighbouring countries including India - making it one of the most successful countries working towards its millennium development goals. In spite of the criticism of low wages and poor working conditions for workers, most garment factories successfully raised their working conditions. Bangladesh is now the second largest exporter of garments after China, employing millions of workers - mostly women. After its independence in 1971, Henry Kissinger famously dubbed Bangladesh as a 'basket case', but now Goldman Sachs considers it as one of the "Next Eleven".
For years, Bangladesh faced a large number of problems with limited resources. Which meant that the prioritisation of these problems was crucial. A big population was indeed a major problem and correctly received high priority in early years after independence. As a result, Bangladesh successfully reduced its fertility rate from 7 to 2.2 in three decades. Furthermore, education usually always received a high priority. As a result, the quantity of schools and the participation rate increased dramatically.
However, these nice statistical numbers often hide a harsh reality which is more visible to the youths of the country today and less to the policymakers. The decrease in the fertility rate did not turn the population into useful human capital and the rise in the quantity of educational institutions did not necessarily produce useful high quality education for everyone.
Social and income inequality is a global problem and education suffers from it in almost every country to different degrees. For developed countries, where school education still maintains a minimum standard for everyone, this problem has a lesser effect than in developing countries, where basic education is often unsatisfactory. This creates the problem of underutilized talents. Due to this low quality education, a huge number of students fail to realize their potential in spite of being talented and few can afford the extra training that makes them better prepared for future challenges. For a country like Bangladesh, where the population is large, this distortion is more visible. The current three-tier education system and commercialisation of education is not supporting a large segment of the population in helping itself. Clearly, to become a prosperous country, Bangladesh needs to make maximum use of its large pool of human capital. This is only possible by providing standard useful education to all and by making every child tap its full potential. Policymakers in Bangladesh often feel content with the nice statistics and fail to understand the magnitude of the talent that is being wasted. If the current trend of wasting talents continues, growth might not be hampered in the short run but the dream of standing strong as a developed and vibrant economy with a healthy living standard might take an awfully long time. A population that is truly educated and aware of its potential is better able to lift itself out of poverty. These human resources help to create a stronger democracy which in turn leads to stronger institutions which are necessary for sustainable growth. Unfortunately, the focus now is too much on growth with an expectation that this will create stronger institutions which in turn will remove poverty, a policy that is often supported by the west. Bangladesh needs to look at its policies differently before it is too late.
So to answer the question that I asked in the beginning, size does not make a country small. Failing to realize that it has the potential of making a big impact, makes a country small. For Bangladesh, it is high time to realize its bigger potentials and take steps accordingly. A healthy, well-educated and fully participatory population will probably make Bangladesh understand that it is actually not that small in terms of impact on the world stage.