Sheikh Hasina is integral to narratives covering Bangladesh. As the country’s premier, she has spearheaded, what is known as, its “politics of development” agenda. She is also the face of the progressive politics-policy coalition. Hasina has led the country for about 20 years, and, for another 20 years, she has been the main political opposition holding the power-holders answerable to people’s demands. In other words, for 40 years (out of 50 years of Bangladesh’s existence), Hasina has surely been the most well-known figure in Bangladesh’s political economy. Even her sternest of critics do not deny her contribution to making Bangladesh one of the most vibrant economies in the world today.
Hasina’s role in Bangladesh’s polity is a rigorous one. Over her long tenure, she has followed a grounded policy approach, always taking lessons from across the world. She is known for picking brains from experts and grassroots people alike. She is always open to trial-and-error, and policy recalibration. She has a rare quality of honestly communicating with the public, at times even admitting to mistakes, even when it is politically disadvantageous to convey certain controversial messages.
She has thus overcome most of the deeply trenched problems to set the country on a growth trajectory in the last decade and a half. Observers often credit her deft policy-making for Bangladesh’s long-sustaining macroeconomic stability. Her ambition for Bangladesh remains lofty – to be an advanced economy by 2041.
Here are 10 key approaches which have guided Hasina’s policymaking agenda:
1. Progress was firmly linked to infrastructure and connectivity development. The goal Hasina set was to accelerate economic activities, increase production, create employment and raise the living standard through infrastructure development. What followed was massive foreign and local investments in infrastructure—mainly in roads and bridges that helped to connect the formerly fragmented spatial economy. Her administration adopted a ‘100% road connectivity’ strategy. Once an infrastructure deficit country has suddenly witnessed a massive infrastructure boom. The country saw proliferation of signature mega-infrastructures in a short time-span. Some of the signature projects well-known to Bangladesh-observers are Padma Bridge, Bangabandhu Tunnel, Dhaka Metro, Elevated Expressway and Payra Port.
2. Industrialization was footed through investment inflow. The smart investment model Hasina promoted led to an efficient restructuring of the economy, with the industry sector now accounting for the lion’s share of the GDP. The policy priority was essential to transform an agro-based economy into an industrializing one. Her administration has set out fresh policies to facilitate FDI and remove the barriers to investment. She has reiterated the policy of safeguarding the interest of the investors, especially the foreign ones. She has also adopted a ‘100 Special Economic Zones’ policy, which once implemented would enhance the investment ecosystem.
3. Adopted an “open to business” agenda. A lot of facilities and policy support for the businesses – like expedited licensing processes, removal of procedural complexities that cause delays in certification, payment of taxes and standardized regulations – have been introduced by Hasina administration. A new one-stop-shop, the Bangladesh Investment Development Authority (BIDA), was set up to make new reforms to improve the business climate. BIDA has already introduced an interoperable service platform. Removing red tape is now the top regulatory reform agenda in government agencies.
4. Fast-tracked agriculture for food security. Hasina administration invested in agriculture research, especially in publicly-funded research institutes. Parallelly, she has continued to subsidize agriculture, while subsidies were fading out from other sectors. The country has achieved near self-sufficiency in food production for its 170 million population. Food grain, fish, poultry, egg and meat production, all saw manifold increases in the past decade. This transformation widely contributed to poverty reduction, improved nutritional standards, and food security.
5. Set export as a driver of economic progress. Hasina saw export sectors holistically, for earning foreign exchange, generating employment, and empowering women. She adopted a long-term export policy instead of one-year policy to attain sustainable export growth. Also provided cash incentives and allowed duty-free import of machinery. Under her watch, Bangladesh became world’s second-largest exporter of garments after China. The country is emerging as a software and digital product exporter. She has time and again put emphasis on improving the quality and standard of existing export items and finding new markets for the country’s export items. Her foreign policy has recently inculcated economic diplomacy as a priority. Her administration has now adopted a ‘free trade regime’ policy.
6. Human resources development was embedded into the development strategy. Time-befitting policies of the Hasina administration contribute to attaining the skills upgradation. Education, particularly women’s education, and employment for women were enhanced due to the government steps. In 2021, the enrollment rate in technical education was 15.8%. In that continuity, various initiatives have been taken to improve enrollment in technical education to up to 30% by 2030.
7. Financial inclusion became a strategic tool for long-term development goals. Hasina noticed that an informalized economy cannot keep the progress momentum for a long time. Her new drive gained traction with the government stepping in with steering initiatives to improve financial access to all. In particular, the central bank and government agencies have adopted a policy to expand financial services to bring as many people as possible into the financial system and ensure financial benefits for them. Later, mobile financial services (MFS) became a pillar of the financial inclusion policy. The MFSs are reshaping the banking landscape, successfully reaching out to previously unbanked poor populations. As of April 2023, 198 million account-users were registered with MFS providers.
8. Prioritized energy security and energy source diversification. Hasina’s policy led to massive infrastructure development initiatives and increased power generation since 2009, culminating in the achievement of the milestone of full electrification in 2022. Power sector megaprojects have been given priority since 2016, to meet the long-term energy needs. More recently, her administration has shifted its priority to clean energy. The country is now generating nearly 1000 MW of electricity (3% of the total) from renewable sources.
9. A “Digital Bangladesh” scheme was launched in 2009, to ease and reduce costs in public services. Hasina administration created a master plan to implement an across-the-board digitalization agenda. By 2020, her administration digitized most public services and touched people’s lives with digital tools, especially in hard-to-reach rural areas. Digital services like Smart National ID, the biometric database of unique IDs, fingerprints and iris scans have been successful in making citizen services smoother. A few other examples of digital services are: registration for admission to academic institutions, publication of results of examinations, registration for jobs abroad, registration of pilgrimage, collection of official forms, online submission of tax returns, and online tendering.
10. Connected good life with telecommunication sector. Hasina prioritized the telecommunication sector as a lifeline for improving living standards, and thereby introduced several policies to reduced cost in the sector. Number of internet users has crossed 100 million (which is nearly all adult population), and teledensity has reached nearly 100%. The bandwidth consumption has increased significantly over the last few years. Bangladesh is going to be connected with a third submarine cable to meet the rapidly growing demand for internet bandwidth and ensure uninterrupted broadband internet services. Mobile internet has proved to be a gamechanger as it is driving internet-dependent services, such as e-commerce, e-agriculture, and e-education, ridesharing, and other on-demand services, even in rural areas.