A review on the book of Navigating New Waters: Unleashing Bangladesh’s Export Potential for Smooth LDC Graduation; edited by Dr. Mohammad Abdur Razzaque, BEI, The Daily Star, 26 August 2020
There is nothing to challenge the graduation of the country because it happened in reality as certified by the UN body. And it is also internationally recognised.
The UN Committee for Development Policy (UN CDP) is scheduled to review Bangladesh’s progress in graduation in 2021 and it is expected that the country will finally come out from the LDC bracket in 2024.
We are very proud of and happy over our country’s unimaginable and amazing success story.
Here, the success story is of course greatly supported by the export-oriented sectors over a journey of four decades.
It is like turning tragedy into strength, ashes to gold. The country boasts to be the second-largest apparel supplier worldwide.
Three important heroes must be credited for this achievement: the governments over the years, resilient entrepreneurs and our beloved workers.
Now, let us talk about the graduation to be a developing country.
So far, our economic trajectory has been well appreciated as we are performing well in international trade.
Here, local entrepreneurs who have been engaged in business are doing fine on the back of preferential trade benefits.
Bangladesh is one of the luckiest countries in the world and of course among the LDCs as it has been able to take advantage of nearly 70 per cent of the trade benefits given to the LDCs by the EU.
The country has been enjoying the generalised system of preferences (GSP) to the EU since 1973.
Probably this is the highest ever consumption of preferential trade benefits given for the LDCs by any trade bloc like the EU in history.
That’s because the EU is the largest export destination for Bangladesh as the local exporters send 58 per cent of their goods there.
Let us think about the cumulative impact preferential trade benefits given by the EU had in our exports, job creation and our whole economy.
In one word, it is almost unimaginable. Here it is not my purpose to highlight the great deeds of the EU for my country. It is just an example of how an economy can be turned into a robust one on the back of trade preferential benefits.
In fact, it is only trade that has been playing the main role in eliminating poverty and creating a level playing field at least in economics.
It is a proven fact in the history of humankind. Let us also think about the post-graduation scenario of the trade.
First, the country will face stiff competition in the same markets from peer countries, especially Vietnam, Cambodia and Pakistan.
It is estimated that the country will lose 5 per cent of its trade every year because of graduation.
It will also annually lose $2 billion in trade in international arenas.
So, it is a big loss for any country as it will put pressure on employment and the overall economy. So, we need to bolster the economy.
“Navigating New Waters” Unleashing Bangladesh’s Export Potential for Smooth LDC Graduation has vividly described these issues. It is like a guideline for our economy.
We can form regional trade blocs like Greater Seattle Partner. Here the northern side of the US signed agreements with Canadian companies despite having bilateral trade agreements.
We can also think of regional versus country-specific trade agreements to yield trade benefits.
Bangladesh will have to choose some stringent policy options once the country graduates.
Firstly, the country will have to sign free trade agreements (FTA) with potential trading partners or comprehensive economic partnership agreements for the continuation of preferential trading systems.
Until now, Bangladesh could not sign any FTA with any country in the world although perhaps a few million US dollars have been spent for lobbying purposes and travel expenses by bureaucrats over the last four decades.
Secondly, if the country fails to sign the FTAs, it will have to try to obtain the GSP Plus status to gain the trading benefits.
In this case, Bangladesh will have to improve dramatically in four important areas: environment, good governance, labour rights and human rights.
So, the country will also have to ratify 27 important conventions of the UN.
In this case, if Bangladesh fails to satisfy the EU with the improvements, the latter might not grant the GSP Plus status.
The EU suspended the GSP Plus status to Sri Lanka because the South Asian country failed to improve the conditions stipulated by the bloc.
Thirdly, Bangladesh needs to diversify markets and products by improving the quality of goods to compete with other countries under a new trade regime without any preferential treatment.
In this case, Asian countries like Japan, India and China might be better options apart from the existing export destinations.
The other inside options are to strongly develop the private sector by providing them with a lot of opportunities like policy support and other incentives such that they can cope up with the international competing countries and can sustain their businesses.
Fortunately or unfortunately, economic growth of the Asian economies is largely export-led.
Bangladesh is not an exception.
The export-led economic growth has a lot of vulnerability because of externalities, which have manifested in different occasions over more than a decade.
Moreover, the domestic economy can also affect export-led growth. This is why Bangladesh needs to strengthen the domestic economy as well.
Some countries like Malaysia and Vietnam were at the level of Bangladesh in the race of economic development.
These two countries are glowing examples of success stories. Their exports contributed to their employment and economic development.
The right policy support and implementation of planning aided their economic growth sustainability. Bangladesh has many things to learn from these two countries.
The reform programme of Vietnam Doi Moi is very much remarkable as it showed the steps taken by the Vietnamese governments for developing a war-ravaged country within a short period.
In most of the cases, the Bangladesh government’s plan of action for boosting exports was not correctly implemented.
As a result, the same work had to be done repeatedly consuming valuable time and money.
Such kind of bureaucratic red tape and unskilled or lethargic thinking only enhance exporters’ dependency on government cash incentives.
In Bangladesh, export is highly incentivised although the potential sectors have been taking money from the government year after year.
But they are not becoming capable of showing their performance and only one apparel sector’s contribution to the national export has been increasing.
In fiscal 2018-19, the government paid $623 million in cash incentives against the export receipts of $36 billion.
So the question arises as to what the exporters are doing, whether they are doing business with their foreign trading partners or doing business with the government for receiving the cash incentives against the export receipts.
The highly spoon-fed exports-led development might not be sustainable for the country as the pandemic exposed this weakness. The sudden emergence of coronavirus exposed the country’s weaknesses in different sectors.
All the aforementioned issues of the country’s economic progress over the years, how the country came to a new global economic position now after a four-decade-long journey in export and what the country needs to do after the graduation have been nicely written and presented in the book “Navigating New Waters” Unleashing Bangladesh’s Export Potential for Smooth LDC Graduation.
The book has been edited by Mohammad Abdur Razzaque, a former head of International Trade Policy at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London.
In it, he nicely presented the contribution of different sectors for graduation and also suggested what needs to be done afterwards.
In September 2017, Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI), a local think-tank working closely with the private sector, requested Abdur Razzaque to lead a research project to provide a fresh perspective on the issues of export competitiveness and diversification to prepare practical recommendations for the policymakers.
In the process and over the next two years or so, several papers and analysis were undertaken.
As Bangladesh’s graduation from the group of LDCs became a critical issue, Razzaque and his co-authors utilised the research undertaken to develop this comprehensive volume on LDC graduation.
Along with the statistical analysis, the preparation of the book involved extensive consultations with relevant stakeholders.