Withdrawal of LDC status of Bangladesh and Facing off upcoming challenges -Kazi Asszad Hossan

National

It is heartening that Bangladesh is set to graduate from LDC status. What’s more ,this unique achievement is coincided with the golden jubilee of Bangladesh and the Mujib Year .While there are much exuberance concerning this graduation, an analysis will prove that the promising future that is being painted by Government concerning LDC graduation contradicts the looming herculean challenges that will ensue and this blissful ignorance about challenges may undermine the preparation to surmount the hard time that lies ahead. Bangladesh was under the LDC category since 1975. In 2018, after the fulfillment of the criteria to graduate from LDC, Bangladesh acquired eligibility for the graduation. The eligibility is measured based on three indices namely-GNI per capita income, Human Asset Index (HAI) and Economic Vulnerability Index (EVI).

Second Triennial review was set to be held in 2021.As per stipulated time, CDP (Committee for Development Policy) has given another nod to the ultimate graduation of Bangladesh. It is to be mentioned that following a solicitation by Bangladesh to prolong the period for LDC graduation on the ground of ill-effects of COVID-19, authorities had shifted the time to 2026 from earlier stipulated 2024. The benefits that will accrue to Bangladesh after graduating is dwarfed by cost that will be incurred. Admittedly, Bangladesh’s image will be projected as a developing country and a consequent confidence-boost in the potential investors. Perhaps, the most paramount among the benefits is the fact that Bangladesh’s credit rating will upgrade and Bangladesh will decidedly see a high flow if FDI and it will also open the opportunity of external finance.

However, the adverse effects or challenges that will be posed is rather strenuous for a country like Bangladesh. According to UNCTD (United Nations Conference for Trade and Development), Bangladesh will see 7.5 percent decline in its export while Center for Policy Studies (CPD) forecasts a 8.7 percent drop in export earnings. It is important to understand that the graduation from LDC status has many colloraries. First, Bangladesh will no longer be able to access WTO waiver which exempts the country from Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights [TRIPs] with obvious impact on country’s pharmaceutical industries. Second, Bangladesh will also fall out of favor of WTO flexibilities regarding subsidies with repercussions for country’s agriculture. Third, Bangladesh will lose MFN(Most Favored Nations) and GSP(Generalized Systems of Preferences) provided by various regional blocks and trade partners with fallout for RMG sector.

WTO accords special treatment to LDC countries including enhanced market opportunities, policy flexibilities and preference. Besides, as stated earlier, LDCs are exempted from intellectual property hurdles as exacted by an arrangement called TRIPs. While other developed countries had to count an exorbitant sum of money owing to patent and intellectual property related conditions, Bangladesh was exempted owing to its LDC status. This exemption came as a windfall for pharmaceutical industries of Bangladesh and stimulated its rise as a major industry of Bangladesh as well as major contributor to country’s GDP. However, this unique privilege will cease after Bangladesh graduate from LDC with repercussions for pharmaceutical industries in particular and whole economy in general.

Besides, Bangladesh as an LDC country enjoys zero-duty tariff, preferential trade and regional trade benefit to 38 countries worldwide, 28 of which are within EU. European Union is one of the major export destinations for Bangladeshi RMG and other goods through its GSP facility, a privilege which will cease after LDC graduation. However, Bangladesh can avail GSP+ facility which comes with a constellation of conditions. Among others, GSP facility requires ratification of 27 international conventions relating to Human Rights, ILO and environment protection and good governance. However, it is to be mentioned that GSP and GSP-plus cover only two-thirds of tariff lines meaning that some products that Bangladesh enjoyed tariff reduction under the purview of EBA initiative will cease to exist. A confluence of factors make this battle uphill. Rising protectionism in the international trade, shrinking world economy which is in a free fall since 2008 Global Financial Crisis, the nascent competitors of Bangladesh and not least Covid-19.
Bangladesh R.M.G sector, since its inception, was beneficiary of comparative advantage emanating from cheap labor. However, this industry is now facing strains. One of the significant challenges confronting this industry is the rise of new competitors. Vietnam pose a threat to Bangladesh’s erstwhile unrivalled position and competitiveness in the global market. With the current trend continue unabated, Vietnam is poised to dethrone Bangladesh’s longstanding 2nd position. With diversified market, increased productivity, decreased lead time, Vietnam had managed unique combination to excel in the industry. What’s more, Vietnam has recently inked an FTA with European Union which entails 99% elimination of tariff. This is sharply contrasted by Bangladesh’s feeble economic diplomacy. Far from harnessing this potential of free trade agreements, Bangladesh are now in jeopardy given the cessation of GSP being on the horizon. To better combat this cessation, Bangladesh has to utilize economic diplomacy and negotiate with regional trade blocks and trade partners for concessions. In a global business environment marked by stiff competitiveness, failing to cope up with this competition will spell a devastating blow to the country’s main driver of growth-RMG.
Besides RMG, Bangladesh need to focus on other industry. Bulk of the Bangladesh export earning hinges unevenly on RMG. Any external shocks, therefore, will be cataclysmic to the whole economy. Bangladesh should emphasize developing other sectors e.g. such as medicine, leather, glass, ceramics, cement, ships, light engineering products, microchips, smartphones, computer, and IT-related products. If Bangladesh can diversify its export basket, it will reduce the vulnerability from external shocks. Beside diversifying industry, Bangladesh should also diversify product that RMG sector offer. While Vietnam is known for its high-end apparel products and diversified exports, Bangladesh till now is confined to only 4-5 items and low-end cheap products. Besides, Bangladesh lacks a robust a back-ward linkage industry which had largely facilitated Vietnam’s growth. Besides, the global image of Bangladesh as a business destination is abysmally dismal. According to the World Bank (WB) Ease of Doing Business 2020 index, Bangladesh ranked 168 which pale in comparison with its competitors. Vietnam, for one, enjoys a greater credibility in international market and investors are attracted owing to conducive business milieu. Bangladesh should remove its legal and infrastructural bottlenecks that dissuade foreign investment and should offer much benefits to the prospective investors.

Despite all of this development, the impact of this growth isn’t even. While a section of the country’s population had accumulated vast wealth, bulk of the country’s population hadn’t reap the benefits of development. The Gini Co-efficient measured on a scale of 0 to 1; the closer it is to 1, the higher the inequality rate. A rate of 0.5 point to a very dismal inequality prevailing in the country. While the Gini Coefficient was 0.29 in 2014,it rose steeply and stood at 0.36 in 2020.This rise is illustrative of ominous state of economic inequality.Besides,Covid-19 had accentuated existing throes of inequality. What’s more worrisome is the rampant corruption which is eating into vitals of our economy. Government should, therefore, take resolved measures in order to make this new-found recognition sustainable and geared its efforts towards attaining much greater progress in the future.

To better coordinate these efforts, Government should craft a transition strategy which may contain various goals aimed at realizing future milestones. To gain uninterrupted international support in form of aid and other facilities should be the cornerstone of this strategy paper. This strategy paper should as well entail coping up strategies in the event of halt of the prevailing facilities. Striking free trade deals and other form of economic diplomacy should top the agenda of the strategy paper. Besides, the strategy paper should be in line with the existing development plans of Bangladesh and should be harmonized with 8th Five Years Plan.

Rather than relishing in fleeting success, Bangladesh government should mobilize all its efforts in order to better cope up with the challenges that will be posed by this transition. Economic diplomacy needs to be underscored and increasing involvement with various regional trade blocks need be sought. If only Bangladesh can combat these emerging grueling challenges with aplomb, then this transition will herald new dawn for country’s economy and as our honorable prime minister mentioned, Bangladesh will reach its dream to become a developed country by 2041.

Kazi Asszad Hossan is studying at the University of Dhaka