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Game ChangersInterview

Sustainable Growth Hinges on Effective Development Strategy

Visions are essential for development, but can only be translated into reality through an effective and pragmatic development strategy. This is the simple mantra that kept Dr. Shamsul Alam ticking throughout his professional career. Currently serving as the State Minister for Planning, Dr. Alam had also served as the Member of the Bangladesh Planning Commission for the longest period of time in the history of the commission. Reticent and focused, unassuming and a man of letters, Dr. Alam had played a significant role in leading and steering key national strategy plans including Perspective Plan of Bangladesh 2010-21, National Social Security Strategy, Sixth Five Year Plan, Seventh Five Year Plan, Eighth Five Year Plan, Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 and Perspective Plan of Bangladesh 2021-2041. Plans outlined to the finest of details allow systems to be run smoothly. Advisory Editor Ziaul Karim and Assistant Editor Arka Dev Biswas of COLORS Business spoke to Dr. Shamsul Alam on how following a planned growth path can trigger rapid transformation for Bangladesh.

Dr. Shamsul Alam, one of the architects of Bangladesh’s core planning. Photographer: Kazi Mukul.

How Planning used to be

Dr. Shamsul Alam has served the Planning Commission for over a decade. His contributions to the Ministry are widely regarded as of immense and impactful to the degree that he is now at the helm of the Ministry as the State Minister for Planning. His role is to ensure that projects undertaken are completed within the stipulated timeline. “This is something that projects we had struggled with. Projects are to be done in three years, and they end up taking more than that, to the degree that it costs us more than it yields in terms of returns.” This is a cycle that Dr. Alam wants to break through ensuring projects undertaken meet projected deadlines of completion are planned and executed effectively and efficiently. The five-year plans are a blueprint of how projects are pieced together. “When you look at the budget, the reality is, 40% goes into planning and execution of projects, whereas the rest 60% goes behind the costs associated with workers building the project.” The goal is to make projects transparent and accountable and not made simply for the sake of development. Projects have a ripple effect on the economy, and when projects are structurally sound, it has greater benefits.

Project Priorities

Given the rapid number of projects being completed, Dr. Alam wants to shift the priorities away from solely building more infrastructures. “We must look towards more soft projects over hard projects. Hard projects such as bridges, buildings, schools, anything related to infrastructural establishment. These are being made more. However, we should prioritize soft projects more now. All these infrastructure developments must be maintained and kept in good condition. Maintaining roads, connectivity, quality of education, training, food security, human resource development, etc. these forms of soft projects would eventually allow maintaining the quality, longevity, and sustainability of projects undertaken.”

The other concern for Dr. Alam is Bangladesh’s graduation from being a middle-income country and its implications. “We must try to avoid the middle-income trap, stemming from the inability to transition from low-value industries to high-value ones.” Multiple countries that ought to transition from middle income to upper middle income, became stuck as a middle-income nation due to lack of high value-added industries. Bangladesh can only avoid this trap if it increases its high-value products.

Plans framed in fives

Dr. Alam’s biggest asset is his understanding of the caveats of creating intricate strategies that outline actions using various indicators. The five-year plans are an expression of how policies and actions converge to create tangible results. “The 7th five-year (FYP) plan has a Development Result Framework consisting of indicators with specific targets. Total revenue is to be raised from 10.7% to 16.1% by 2020 and government expenditure to be increased to 21.1% of GDP by the same year. Other major targets include a trade-GDP ratio of 50%, exports increasing to at least $55 billion, manufacturing contributing 21.5% of GDP, energy coverage, and environmental improvement. Even the 8th five-year plan carries forward targets from the 7th FYP. GDP is projected at 8.51% by 2025, GNI per capita to reach at least $3059 while keeping the inflation rate at 4.8%. The private investment to GDP ratio is aimed to be 27.35, with FDI targeted to be 3%of GDP. Healthcare spending is to increase from 0.7% to 2% of GDP and education spending to be increased to 3%. All these ambitions within 2025 and turning these into realities is what Dr. Alam is working towards. These specific goals and visions have resulted in a paradigm shift in terms of plans as the goals are more specific rather than being vague and ambiguous. Furthermore, the goals are moldable where policies are to be adjusted as per results. “Policies are supposed to have intermediate changes as per evaluation and reevaluation of results. This would allow policies to be comprehensive, encompassing, and effective.” To accelerate growth, create jobs, and reduce poverty, policies are needed to be as it goes along with time. 

Dr. Shamsul Alam designs his plans to the smallest of details

Investment in Human Capital 

A highlight of the plans is the importance given to education. “The quality of education has not been up to international standards. We should emphasize more on technical education. There has to be a matchup between skills the labor possesses versus what the market demands.” The dynamic nature of the market forces labor to be skilled as per the necessity of the market. Therefore, Dr. Alam wants that form of reforms in the education sector. 

The export industry must create resources through increased export. This means more interaction with the market, utilization of human resources, and making Bangladesh more competitive in the long run. “When Bangladesh transitions from a lower middle-income country to an upper-middle-income country, a lot of the prior benefits would be going away, opening up Bangladesh to a more competitive market. Given that, Bangladesh needs to be efficient, and improve its negotiation with the World Trade Organization. Forming Preferential Trade Agreements (PTAs), Free Trade Agreements (FTA) and forming connections with bigger markets using PTAs and FTAs.” Given Bangladesh wants to diversify its export basket, it needs to rationalize tariff rates to make exports more competitive and exporters more willing to enter the market. Only then the plans and visions can be implemented in a forceful manner.

Lastly, the Bangladesh Delta Plan of 2100. This is the most ambitious plan created by Dr. Shamsul Alam. The entire plan layout is in the form of 3 higher-level national goals and 6 specific goals that catalyze to achieve the higher-level goals. 

The higher-level goals consist of

  1. Elimination of extreme poverty by 2030
  2. Achieving upper-middle-income status by 2031
  3. Becoming a prosperous country beyond 2041

To catalyze these higher-level goals, the six specific goals include

  1. Ensuring safety from flood and climate change disasters
  2. Enhancing water security and increase efficiency of water usages
  3. Ensuring sustainable and integrated river systems and estuaries management
  4. Preserving and conserving wetlands and ecosystems, and promoting sustainable use of these
  5. Development of effective institutions and equitable governance for in-country and transboundary water resource management
  6. Achieving optimal and integrated use of water and land resources

These goals are further sub-categorized into national and hotspot levels, along with cross-cutting issues being integrated into the framework. “The final goal from these plans is to combat climate change. Strategic and investment plans are placed to ensure the current trend of river erosion, flooding is mitigated over time.”

Dr. Alam embodies the ideals of an individual that wants to take Bangladesh to places. Not solely through the narratives of old, but beliefs that Bangladesh has a lot to offer in the future through the right planning. The right steps, policies, and strategies are going to put Bangladesh in the center position to be the next Asian Tiger that individuals like Dr. Alam dreams of it becoming soon.

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