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Dhaka Sunday,  May 29, 2022

Growth debate: In the labyrinth of stats

Khawaza Main Uddin

It looks like a quiz contest of multiple choices. What is the rate of growth Bangladesh will attain at the end of the current fiscal year? (A) 7.3 percent as targeted, (B) 5.6 percent as the World Bank has projected, (C) 6.5 percent as the planning minister has forecast; or (D) close to 7 percent as the finance minister has expressed his hope?

The answers could also be multiple, interestingly, proving the questionnaire flawed and creating more confusions in public mind about the highbrow of technical issue.

Already, many of us pretend that we understand complicated calculations of economics quite well. I heard some talk-show people saying inflation has eaten into growth, without trying to know how GDP is calculated. There are as well analysts who are unwilling to accept a fraction of deviation from their projection as if this is everything to measure life and living.

Perhaps the easiest way to come up with a prediction is to become a soothsayer, who is not accountable to voters, and offer a rate, be it right or wrong after so many ifs and buts.

No, let me be serious. The opponents to those who claim all credit for higher growth, may continue to reject the official growth forecast, terming it rubbish, since it will not require any study.

The protagonists of the Awami League government could feel happy with any positive growth, whatsoever, describing it as their victory and failure of the BNP leadership to cause any harm to the national economy during the past three months of movement.

The fourth opinion holders may doubt all growth projections, negating the methodology of defining economic development, prosperity and the change in the people’s well-being only by numbers and statistics.

Economists have developed a good methodology of measuring the state of economy in growth, especially in economies where statistics on various other issues, too, are maintained professionally.

Still, a ‘light’ question has perturbed me as a curious citizen for many days – what is the practical value of growth statistics in a country where relevant data are not available and if generated, they seriously lack accuracy?

A rickshawpuller has no scope to keep an eye on growth or even on the rate of inflation which rather affects his purchasing power. But witnessing the upward price trend, he raises fare immediately through bargaining, not with the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics but with the middle class passengers.

The lack of employment growth, mostly as a result of sluggish investment and loss of business confidence, has left hundreds of thousands of educated youths waiting for the job market to rebound. The rise in the so-called disguised unemployment in rural areas, thanks also to shrinkage in overseas jobs for them, is not properly reflected in the growth literature.

A young businessman of Uttara who supplies garment accessories does not find any consolation in the growth debate when he faces scarcity of orders. An IT service provider at IDB Bhaban complained that he made loss while keeping the outlet open, for the first time in 16 years.

The political turmoil over the past two years, and more so during the first three months of 2015, has caused a nosedive in sales for those who run small businesses and for many of the Bangladesh farmers who produce perishable items.

The growth stories do not have a human touch, rather than presenting a dry rosy picture for those who live on calculating either statistics or cash.

It is a major headache of big businesses who counted no less than a Taka 2,000 crore (Taka 20 billion) loss every day during the blockade and hartal recently.

If we believe them, Bangladesh should have lost approximately Taka 200,000 crore (Taka 2 trillion) since early January. The prime minister, too, told parliament on 25 February that the recent political demonstrations caused a loss of Taka 120,000 crore (Taka 1.2 trillion) of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) till then. In that case, the GDP growth is supposed to be negative.

The CPD estimated the loss at Taka 49 billion, equivalent to 0.55 percent of GDP and the WB gave the figure at US$2.2 billion ($1= about Taka 78) or 1.1 percent of GDP.

Whom is to be considered right and relied on now, given ‘many men, many minds’ on a matter which does not show so wide margin of error elsewhere?

The variation in growth projections in our case in recent times has raised questions about not only their accuracy and authenticity but also the motive of those who need dividends from the paper-based high rate of growth.

In Bangladesh, we often forget, the rise in growth has been the fruit of the elected system of governance, where the people could ventilate and grow. Hardly anyone, obsessed with a one-party ideology, could anticipate the recent drivers of growth – export-oriented industries, remittances, services, microcredit and

the human resources, particularly half-literate men and poor women, and small and medium entrepreneurs.

Then, projection of higher growth in budgetary documents has turned into political ‘gimmick’, no matter if it works as a magic or not. During the initial part of the recent turmoil, it was assumed that the greater the GDP loss, at least on paper, the longer the political millage at the cost of damage to the rivals. And once signs of normalcy are there, the powerful people came back to their senses and joined the opposite race – to prove their own projections wrong.

Shall we not have the political courage to uphold professionalism in measuring the people’s and the nation’s economic status? Will we ever see a human face of growth?

Khawaza Main Uddin is Consultant at Prothom Alo English.

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