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Development holy grail: Spend more on education, health


Dec 31, 2010
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Development holy grail: Spend more on education, health


Titu Datta Gupta & Shakhawat Liton
19 May, 2023, 10:30 pm
Last modified: 19 May, 2023, 11:24 pm


It took 20 years for Bangladesh to rise from the group of low performers to the level of medium performers in the human development index (HDI) of the United Nations Development Programme. Now, with a target set for 2041 to become a developed nation, the country needs to gain more in its human development scores to reach the level of Vietnam which is at the bottom of the High Human Development group, and much more to catch up with Thailand, the last name in Very High Human Development scores.

This is not going to be an easy task. Take GNI – gross national income – as an example which is a catalyst to improve overall human capital score. As is being seen, countries with higher GNI are at the top of the list. It is so because improvement in overall human development requires investment in education and health sectors, and countries which have the money can make this happen. And this investment returns in a bigger way adding further to their wealth.


Vietnam and Thailand, placed at the bottom of medium and high performers respectively in UNDP's 2021 HDI, have per capita GNI of $7,867 and $17,030 respectively. Bangladesh, which lags far behind in HDI, has its GNI growth to $5,472 at the purchasing power parity.
It means Bangladesh needs to have more money to pour into human resources development, which in return, will ensure supply of required human skills to productive sectors and thus contribute to national income growth.

In the UNDP's Human Development Index 2022, Bangladesh stands in the medium group and ranks 129th among 191 countries and territories. It means there are 128 countries, including Bhutan, which have higher scores in human capital with better education, health and per capita income. However, Bangladesh marks a steady growth over the decades in HDI riding over its South Asian peers India and Pakistan.

Bangladesh's innovative schemes like free education for girls, students' stipend, free textbooks have raised school enrolment and reduced dropouts, while building healthcare infrastructures and network down to the grassroots level, offering minimum primary health care at the lowest possible cost at government facilities, nationwide vaccination drive, wider access to safe water and sanitation – all contributed to the improvement in overall human development scores.

But the next ride looks to be a bumpy one, because it is now the question of quality, where Bangladesh stands much lower. The Covid-19 pandemic laid bare the fragility of the country's public healthcare system and pushed education quality further down as Bangladesh had the world's longest school closures, while developed nations took the maximum risk to keep educational institutions open as many days as possible. While our full efforts were to keep factories open to help the economy run and people earn a living, the developed nations left no stone unturned to continue educating their children, either in classrooms or online, despite repeated surge in coronavirus cases.

This is what makes the difference in approaches and priorities depending on development visions of countries and resources available.

Quality matters

Experts have been sounding the alarm since the school closure induced by the Covid-19 outbreak that long absence from classes and generous evaluation in public examinations caused a deep erosion in the already poor-quality education with far-reaching impacts for generations.

A similar question of quality also arose in the health sector, as low doctor-patient ratio and even lower ratio of patients with nurses and health technicians, unreliable healthcare services at much higher cost – all leading to high out-of-pocket expenditure for patients forced many families to slip into poverty.

Demands for higher allocation for education and health get louder ahead of the budget every fiscal year but it does not get the desired attention. Despite a rise in annual allocations, Bangladesh's investment in health and education remains one of the lowest in terms of GDP ratio.
The government also acknowledges the declining quality of education. This was why Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal announced in his 2019 budget speech that if required, teachers will be hired from abroad to help improve education quality. Quality of education further deteriorated during the Covid-induced long suspension of classes, but no initiative for hiring foreign teachers has been seen so far.


Bangladesh's model of community clinics has recently been recognised as an innovative community-based public health care system in a UN resolution. Since 1998, about 14,000 such clinics are providing primary healthcare to rural communities across the country. But these facilities need to be better equipped.

In regards to cost burden, the country has not advanced much towards introducing universal health insurance to reduce cost burden for treatment of major non-communicable diseases.

The upcoming budget, now being prepared as Bangladesh economy faces unprecedented strains in decades, already appears to be as usual one as media reports suggest – without outlining measures for big push to health and education required for bringing sweeping qualitative changes as per the need of the economy reeling from the twin shocks of the pandemic and then the war.

High inflationary pressure has worsened the living standard of a large number of lower and lower-middle class people which may reverse past achievements in human development too.

Running short of skills

To move higher on human development, Bangladesh cannot afford to ignore the calls for more resources in the education and health sectors. With infrastructures, skilled human resources are required in both the sectors to ensure quality services.

There are plenty of examples of how countries are moving forward with all their might to improve their health and education sectors.

India, which stands lower than Bangladesh in human development scores, has taken up massive plans to strengthen their human capital. Different states have their own programmes to improve human resources, which they consider as key to future investment and growth. The private sector has also joined hand with employers offering incentives to workers for relearning and retraining to improve skills and stay relevant to jobs.

In addition, 26 states of India are now competing among each other to produce a skilled workforce and easing the rules for businesses to attract foreign investments of billions of dollars to create new employment.

A recent survey by Pearson Skills Outlook reveals that 75% of Indian workers surveyed say their employers offer skilling as a benefit. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, data processing and coding are the top skills encouraged by the employers for workers.

The survey also highlights that soft human skills such as decision-making and problem-solving are currently most required for career advancement.

Similar finding was also revealed by a study in Bangladesh.

Most important skills that employers expect to see from job seekers are, communication skills (61%), problem-solving skills (46%), and teamwork and leadership skills (37%), according to a 2021 study done by Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) jointly with a German organisation.

Forty percent of employers responded that their employees may need new skills due to advancing technology.

Around 46% private employers in the country find difficulties in filling job vacancies, as most applicants do not possess the skills required, it said.

The research finds that the employers considered three most important factors while making a hiring decision – soft skills (83% employers), hard skills (65%) and work experience (51%).

The most important soft skills, according to employers, include communication, time management, problem-solving, teamwork and leadership, critical thinking, professional networking skills and creativity.

Most important hard skills according to employers are computer skills, technical skills and subject-specific knowledge, English language skills, operational skills, business skills, numeracy and mathematical skills, general knowledge and awareness about current affairs.

"Factories do not have skilled mid-level management," said Syed Nasim Manzur, managing director, Apex Footwear Ltd, highlighting the need for more hard skills.

"There is a gap between the market demands and supply of graduates," said Dr Fahmida Khatun, executive director, CPD, launching the findings.

"The governments' 8th 5-year plan sets a target to create around 11.3 million jobs, but are our graduates ready to get the jobs?" she asked, stressing the need for sufficient numbers of vocational centres to produce new skills needed by the private sector.

Here comes the issue of investment in the education sector since skill training requires more money than traditional schooling where the private sector needs to partner with universities to get required skills.

"A linkage needs to be created between our education system and the economy," said Nasim Manzur.

Trade association leader Barrister Nihad Kabir said, "Our education system is faulty. Students do not get sector-based education and everyone wants to get a government job."

AKM Fahim Mashroor, chief executive officer of job tracking firm bdjobs.com held a similar view. Our graduates are more inclined to get a government job since the national pay scale 2015 was declared, he pointed out.

"So, most graduates are preparing for the BCS exam, not for the private sector," he added.

Human abilities such as decision-making and problem-solving are also seen as top talents needed globally.

Secrets to success

Singapore's transformation from a small fishing village to a modern and prosperous city-state is an incredible story of rags to riches. Being separated from Malaysia in 1965, it was a question of survival for Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew who started "a journey along an unmarked road to an unknown destination."

As the small state has no natural resources, he took the policy of nurturing the "best and brightest" putting educational development in the core.

Singapore invested heavily in education to enhance the skills and to attract the "best and brightest" in the public bureaucracy with competitive salaries. Singapore's intensive investment in education and training during the past 57 years is giving dividend; Singapore students are among the top global scorers in mathematics, reading and science.

The second secret of Singapore's success is its effective public bureaucracy. The city state is quite consistent with the World Bank's definition of an effective governance system that requires quality bureaucracy and public service, competent civil servants and a civil service independent of political pressures.

Keeping corruption at bay is a policy that Singapore truly practises. It also is open to experiences of other countries and modify those for solving their problems. This is how Singapore improved performance in public bureaucracy and developed human skills through technology transfer from big multinationals.

Like Singapore, another Asian's tiger, South Korea followed the same secrets to become a rich country faster than many other advanced economies in the West. Investing heavily in education and health care alongside implementation of other economic policies have transformed the country devastated by the Korean War into another Asian miracle.

Before Singapore and South Korea, Japan devastated by World War II followed the same magic: investing in human capital to become rich.

Japanese economy was significant boosted by 'Income Doubling Plan of 1960' for all. This plan reaffirmed the Japan government's responsibility for social welfare, vocational training, and education.

Finland has one of the world's best education systems which values the best talents for teaching jobs. Teachers are the highest paid and most revered, so the best talents are attracted to this profession. In Bangladesh, teachers are low-paid and this is why best talents are not willing to be teachers, particularly in secondary and tertiary levels.

So students are deprived of talented teaching and overall quality of education has been on the decline.

Apart from raising allocation for education, Bangladesh needs to change its national attitude towards teachers if it is to generate skills for the government and the private sector to lead the country towards the next level of development.

Bangladesh was a low performer (score 0.397) in UN agency's HDI in 1991 and moved to medium level in 2010. With a slow but steady gain, its score rose to 0.661 points in 2021.

Given the trend of the last three decades – average 0.0089 points rise per year, Bangladesh will need 5 years to reach the level of Vietnam and 15 years for Thailand. By the time Bangladesh rises to the high and very high performer's thresholds, these two countries will move further upward and other countries may also emerge with better scores.

So, it needs to double down on the efforts to develop human capital matching the standard required for public service and private sector activities when Bangladesh will be an advanced economy as dreamed – an upper middle income country by 2031 and high-income country by 2041.

Time is running out. Bangladesh cannot reap fully the demographic dividend the country is going through because of a low-skill workforce. Take the example of the migrant workers. Workers Bangladesh sends abroad do menial jobs in most of the countries due to the lack of skills and earn less than skilled workers sent by other countries. Thus the country is wasting its once-in-a-lifetime window of demographic dividend which is expected to end by 2045 due to low fertility and mortality rates. After two decades, the number of ageing populations will increase, putting an additional burden on the economy.

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