Development figures vs reality

I asked Shah Jahan bhai what made these job-seekers so desperate to board the boats despite the dangers and when the country was witnessing remarkable progress, as reflected in the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI). He smiled back at me and said “It’s all about stomach – whether it’s full, half full or empty.”

Bangladesh ranked 142th in the 2014 HDI, an index which measures a country’s achievement in three key areas – health, income and knowledge. The 2014 Human Development Report (HDR) had a quite catchy theme, Sustaining Human Progress: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Building Resilience. Bangladesh made progress at a time when most South Asian countries’ status remained unchanged in the HDI.

Interestingly, no other South Asians apart from Bangladesh and Myanmar citizens have so far been found in these boats or in the Thai jungle. Since 1980, Bangladesh has always scored better in HDI – 0.554 in 2013 from 0.336 in 1980 where 0 being the lowest and 1 being the highest. The gross domestic product (GDP) per capita more or less witnessed increase from US$220 in 1980 to US$958 in 2013. The gross national income (GNI) per capita also rose from to US$1,314 in 2015 from US$1,190 in 2014.

Now back to Shah Jahan. Though royalty by name, he had no choice but to land in a Saudi jail after he refused to accept salary much less than was committed to him as a driver. He was later deported to Bangladesh for illegal entry into the kingdom where he took the job of a driver without any legal work permit. He flew to Saudi Arabia with the help of a local middleman of Daudkandi in Comilla.

On my way to office, I was telling him about the horrific stories from The Daily Star online that first reported the mass grave in the Thailand jungle. He immediately prayed to the Almighty for being lucky enough to return safely to Bangladesh and also prayed for their safe return. Before deportation he managed to remit some money to his family. Shah Jahan is just a lone example of Bangladesh’s expatriate workforce living subhuman lives around the globe. The most recent examples were revealed on 2 May by the national and international media on trans-boundary human trafficking by sea route, of Bangladeshi and Myanmar Rohingya people.

Our government has said little after the international and regional media were flooded with news reports on that black day of May when the Thai authorities discovered about 32 mass graves believed to be of Bangladeshi and Myanmar Rohingya Muslim migrants. The discovery at Thailand’s southern Songkhla province also found two persons alive – one believed to be a Bangladeshi. The immediate reaction of the government was that they were trying to verify the identity of the rescued worker.

Hundreds of shocking stories have emerged since then, resulting in nothing. “I work only with legal labour and have got nothing to do with the illegal ones, but I am in contact with the foreign ministry,” said the expatriate welfare minister. Worried relatives and dear ones with tears witnessed nothing but the issues making rounds for days between three ministries – expatriate welfare, the home affairs and the foreign affairs.

The focus of this article is the key development indicators from the human development index point of view. The HDI 2014

A photo from the Bangladesh Coast Guard shows what it said were suspected human-trafficking victims crammed on a Thai trawler, who were rescued in June. REUTERS
A photo from the Bangladesh Coast Guard shows what it said were suspected human-trafficking victims crammed on a Thai trawler, who were rescued in June. REUTERS

also depicts some other interesting figures. For instances, Gallup (2013) says 74% people are satisfied with the standard of living, 80% satisfied with their jobs, 64% satisfied with freedom of choice and 71% trusted the national government. When HDR was released last year, the government claimed huge credit and our media widely covered achievements in comparison with other South Asian countries.
Only 35% answered that local labour market was good for them. Who are these 65% who are perhaps unhappy with the local labour market? A question can genuinely be raised “Do these figures support the state of the thousands of Bangladeshis floating in the sea?”

Perhaps nothing is wrong with these figures as the source of these data is government and its functionaries. International agencies that produce reports like HDI entirely depend on government data. It gives us a wrong message when they are misinterpreted by the government and bureaucrats. The rise in GDP and GNI per capita is perhaps the contribution of the rich who in general belong to this 35%. This indicates strong existence of income inequality in the country – an issue that has a key discussion agenda for successive governments. The rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer.

These boat people undoubtedly belong to the remaining 65% who even after knowing all the dangers are left with no choice but to board these boats in search of happiness. Many are arguing that as the legal provision of labour migration came to a halt, people are left with no choice but to try their luck in cheap but deadly ways.
The government in this backdrop may consider conducting comprehensive research on different aspects of illegal migration including but not limited to its cause, nature, demography, state of local labour market and adopt strict measures not only to stop illegal migration but also create a conducive labour market within the country.

This was originally published in on 13 June  2015

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: