On 30 December 2018, national elections in Bangladesh ended in a landslide victory for Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League party. While many pointed out that the election was far from free or fair, and the results remain in question, Sheikh Hasina has officially been sworn in for a third consecutive term.
Bangladesh is aiming to leave 'least developed country' status by 2024, but challenges such as corruption, child labour, gender parity in education and the Rohingya refugee crisis remain.
Over the past decade, disappearances, arrests, abuse and imprisonment of critics of Sheikh Hasina’s administration have been an open secret in Bangladesh. In the lead-up to the election, efforts to silence critical views peaked. As Sheikh Hasina begins her latest term, it is crucial that she reconsiders the implications of taking the country down a slippery slope towards authoritarianism.
Politically, there is a danger that, once the power of her ruling Awami League becomes too entrenched in the system, a peaceful transition of power to other parties will become more difficult. In light of the new 2018 Digital Security Act enabling the government to track and jail its critics, increasing restrictions on freedom of expression will fuel resentment and possibly lead to violence.
Economically, mismanagement and corruption are having a direct impact on infrastructure projects. Bangladesh spends five to six times more on road construction than neighbouring India and China, which the World Bank’s lead economist in Bangladesh attributes – at least in part – to corruption. Similarly, the Padma bridge mega-project – a large multipurpose bridge across the Padma river – has nearly trebled in cost.
Internationally, while Sheikh Hasina has leveraged the country’s provision of cheap labour to international clothing buyers to limit discussion of human rights violations, since the election the European Union and United States have publicly criticised the country and questioned the elections in unusually strong language.
If Sheikh Hasina continues to clamp down on her critics so aggressively the international pressure might eventually damage exports, stall economic growth and ultimately jeopardise her plan to bring Bangladesh out of 'least developed country' status.
While Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League used the elections to further consolidate the power in the short term, ordinary Bangladeshis might have to pay a high price for her victory in the long term: shrinking political freedoms and increased economic uncertainty.
In the lead-up to the election, Sheikh Hasina faced mounting pressure from various stakeholders in Bangladesh to send its more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar. Having now secured her fourth presidential term, it is time for her government, along with national and international actors, to rethink their response to Rohingya refugees.
17 months into this latest exodus, the government must accept that the prevailing short-term emergency response and focus on repatriation is inadequate for what is highly likely to be a protracted displacement.
Given that the refugee crisis is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, one option may be to forge a multi-year agreement to support Bangladesh in hosting refugees, based on the lessons emerging from the Jordan Compact.
Such an agreement stands to help refugees, host communities and the development of Bangladesh. Existing evidence highlights the range of ways refugees can benefit their host communities, including by participating in the local labour market and starting their own businesses.
Rather than assume what is best for refugees in the medium term, it is important to understand and base policies around their lived realities, perspectives and aspirations. Without this, even policy interventions that stand to have a positive impact – such as the Jordan Compact – may not benefit refugees or governments as much as they could.
By moving away from a short-term approach to the Rohingya crisis, Sheikh Hasina has an opportunity to help promote inclusive growth and improve the lives of everyone in Bangladesh – not only her own citizens, but also the refugees the country is hosting.
As she enters her fourth term, Sheikh Hasina faces a stiff challenge if Bangladesh is to meet the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and achieve 'developing country' status by 2024.
New World Bank evidence indicates that Bangladesh is one of five countries accounting for the world’s largest absolute numbers of people living in poverty. It is also facing an unprecedented youth bulge, with nearly 50% of the population below the age of 24, and high youth unemployment.
Adolescent girls in particular are vulnerable to the effects of poverty. Bangladesh has made impressive strides towards gender parity in education, with girls more likely to enrol in primary and secondary school, but boys are more likely to complete secondary school.
As the real and opportunity costs of education increase with age, the country’s conservative norms mean that parents tend to prioritise their sons’ schooling; adolescent girls receive fewer financial resources and are compelled to undertake more chores and caring roles, often to the detriment of their education.
To make matters worse, once girls reach mid-adolescence they are at increasing risk of child marriage. Indeed, a shocking 59% of Bangladeshi girls are married by 18. 58% have begun childbearing by 19, without adequate nutritional support or skilled delivery or postnatal care.
There is an opportunity for Sheikh Hasina’s government to help break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Evidence highlights that investing in adolescents, especially in education, health and gender equality, can help offset childhood disadvantage and capitalise on the demographic dividend that a youthful population offers.
By prioritising individuals aged 10–19 years, also known as the ‘second decade’, Sheikh Hasina can tackle damaging gender norms and support adolescents’ full capabilities as they transition into early adulthood. This is crucial if Bangladesh is to fulfil its middle-income country potential, and ensure that adolescent girls and boys become the skilled workforce and empowered citizens of the future.
Bangladesh has grown fast under Sheikh Hasina’s government. Economic growth – averaging 6.7% of GDP a year – has gone hand-in-hand with the concentration of economic opportunities in cities (pdf) and urbanisation. The urban population is projected to reach 46% in 2030, a rise of 11 percentage points over 15.
Rapid urbanisation has yet to translate into better living conditions for all residents. Most urban population growth has been in the slums of major cities like Dhaka and Chittagong, where households suffer from overcrowding and poor public services, including inadequate waste management and a lack of safe drinking water and sanitation facilities.
Compared to children in other urban areas, children in slums are especially vulnerable to extreme poverty, poor health, malnutrition and stunting. They are also more likely to miss out on school. A 2016 survey of 28 slums across Dhaka highlighted how poverty, the need to supplement family income and unaffordable school costs led to rampant child labour in the capital’s informal settlements. Around 15% of children aged 6–14 living in Dhaka’s slums were working, almost all in hazardous labour.
Across the country, child labour remains a daunting barrier to universal primary education, and to the achievement of the 2030 SDG goal of universal secondary schooling. Investing in good-quality education (at an affordable cost) for all children means building strong human capital today for future socio-economic growth.
To accelerate progress towards ending child labour in Bangladesh, the government should improve the quality of schooling, reduce costs of school fees and materials, and implement measures to offset the consequences of household poverty in informal settlements.
If Sheikh Hasina genuinely wants to ensure that her country attains ‘developing country’ status by 2024, she must acknowledge and act on the endemic issue of child labour in the slums of Dhaka and other cities.