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Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Padma Bridge is a symbol of our political independence and it will stand for many, many years

An In-Depth Interview With Dr. Shamsul Alam State Minister For Planning

Dr. Shamsul Alam, an Ekushey Padak-winning economist served as a member of the Bangladesh Planning Commission as Senior Secretary (2014-2021) in General Economics Division. He is a syndicate member of Sylhet Agricultural University. On 18 July 2021, he takes oath as the Minister of State of Planning in took the Government of Bangladesh.

Alam was born in Matlab Uttar upazila of Chandpur district. He graduated in 1972 from the Bangladesh Agricultural University with a degree in agricultural economics and received his post-graduate degree in 1973. In 1983, he received a post-graduate degree in economics (M. A. Economics) from Thammasat University, Bangkok and obtained his PhD in the same subject from Newcastle upon Tyne University, England in 1991.

During his career, Alam taught at Bangladesh Agricultural University, Mymensingh from 1974 to 2009. He worked as a Bangladeshi Consultant in the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) from 2002 to December 2005. In 2008, he was a visiting professor at Humboldt University in Germany, Ghent University in Belgium as Erasmas Mundus Scholar and Researcher at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Besides, he also served as an adjunct faculty member in the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Agricultural University.

During his tenure in the Planning Commission, Alam formulated ‘Bangladesh’s First Perspective Plan’ (2010-2021) and ‘Sixth Five Year Plan’ (2011-2015). He played an important role in formulating the policies of ‘National Sustainable Development Strategy’ (2011-2021) and ‘National Social Security Strategy Paper’ (2015-2025). He directly supervised and edited a number of reports, studies and research books on achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in Bangladesh.

Alam authored 16 books on economics, including research and textbooks. He also edited 38 books and published 56 research papers in various journals.

Alam has been awarded several prizes. In 2018 the South Asian Network for Economic Modeling awarded him the Economist of Influence Award. He also was awarded the Bangladesh Agricultural Economists Association Gold Medal and the ‘Nazrul Islam Memorial Medal’ by the Bangladesh Education Observatory Society in the same year. In 2020, the government of Bangladesh awarded him the Ekushey Padak, the second highest civilian award in the country, for his special contribution to the economy.

Dr. Shamsul Alam, in the midst of his busy schedule, gave us a chance to discuss his experiences, his works, plans and experiences, some of which are given here for our readers.

Fintech: You have been Secretary in the Ministry of Planning for 12 long years (2009-2021). How was the experience?

SA: I got my position as Member (Secretary) in the Ministry of Planning back in the July of 2009. The Ministry didn’t have any plan from 2002 to 2010. However, at that time, Bangladesh was working with the World Bank’s Development Agenda PRSP. Our Honorable Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina had declared that there was only one year left for that agenda which was 2009-2010. And a scope/vision had to be created in light of that agenda. The very first step included a planning that where we want to reach by the year 2021. There was World Bank Agenda ‘Unlocking the potential’ as PRSP which we had changed to ‘DIN BODOLER PODOKHHEP’ for one year (2009-10).

As a long-term plan, the first long term plan we worked on was ‘Perspective Plan 2020-2021’. Through this planning, our achievements were: Achieving gender equality in primary and secondary education; within 2015, all the objectives of 6FYP had been accomplished. The reason why we succeeded in these plans is because the plans were realistic and each of us went ahead according to the plan.  

In 2009, our preparations for the sixth five-year plan got started. We wrote down all the strategies, targets and tasks that are to be attaining. In addition to this, the United Nations had given us a Development Agenda, MDGs (Millennium Development Goals, 2010-15).  

WE ARE HOPING TO REACH UP TO 7.25% BY THE END OF 2022. BANGLADESH HAS ACHIEVED AN INCREASING GROWTH RATE FOR ALMOST 13 YEARS FROM 2009 TO 2021.

Our Prime Minister herself signed the Millennium Declaration and we came up with 5 budgets as per our plan. For instance, the rate of Inflation, employment, amount of yearly export-import, assisting the Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) and so on. When the Sixth plan started to get implemented, our economic growth started to improve from 5% to 7%.

Then I took on the task of implementing the Seventh Five-Year Plan from 2016 to 2020. This was our second plan where we started to work attaining the targets set in Vision 2021. In this stage, I specified how much importance should be given to which sector and set the priorities.

In addition to this, the United Nations Development agenda SDGs came forth. Using the resources together, the implementation work started from 2016 to 2020 using the five budgets following each step precisely as per the Seventh Plan.

By implementing the Sixth and Seventh Five Year Plan, we took the growth rate to 7% which later increased to 8.15% percent growth from 2018 to 2019 which was the highest growth rate in the history of Bangladesh. But unfortunately, from 2019 to 2021, we couldn’t keep up with our targets because of the onslaught of COVID-19 pandemic. And so our growth rate dropped to a 3.50%.  

Again from 2021 to 2022, we started to pick up the pace again and achieved a growth rate of 5.50%. We are hoping to reach up to 7.25% by the end of 2022. Bangladesh has achieved an increasing growth rate for almost 13 years from 2009 to 2021. Not only that, we can observe significant developments in many sectors. For instance; literacy rate has increased, maternal mortality rate has decreased, life expectancy has increased, number of students in schools, colleges and universities has increased and so on. Each of these created a milestone for our country.

Dr. Shamsul Alam. State Minister For Planning
Dr. Shamsul Alam | Photography-Arif Mahmud Riad

The game changer factors behind this are:  well-constructed plans and determined vision. In 2014, our Honorable Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina elevated me as a Senior Secretary with the President’s 10% quota. I remained in that post until June of 2021.  In these 12 years, I made two visionary documents from the General Economics Division.

I worked with 3 Five Year plans starting from 2011 to 2015, 2016 to 2020 and 2021 to 2025 as a Member of GED. I worked as the editor of about 124 publications which were based on economic analysis, economic survey and produced by MDGs/SDGs progress reports. I worked as the Lead Author for many of them.

I got another notable work which is a 100-year plan and it includes ‘Climate Planning’. There is no long-term plan to deal with its adverse effects. On the other hand, the other topics include how to control the temperature rise, ensure water supply in all areas, how to deal with floods, how it is possible to keep the life of the rivers alive, restoring the canals and dredging the canals and ponds to retain water etc.

We formulated these plans based on the farsightedness of our Honorable Prime Minister because of which, these documents have gained a lot of reputation in the country and in the international arena. However, these plans have been obstructed by the tide of COVID-19 pandemic. On top of that, the Russia-Ukraine war created more obstacles. But even so, we have taken the budget of 2022-2023 as a challenge and it is expected that the growth and development of Bangladesh will remain accelerating.

From 2009 to June 2022, it is not only the economic growth, but also education, massive progress in women empowerment, re-activating the rivers, canals and initiated many more development projects. And the ever-memorable Padma Bridge with a length of 6.15 km on 25 June, which was inaugurated by our Hon’ble Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina. It is not just a bridge; it is a symbol of our determination. It is a symbol of the courage and independent spirit of our Prime Minister. It is a symbol of our political independence, our individuality, our nationality, our economic potential, and it will stand for many, many years to come. We have built the bridge with our own funds which has cost about 30 thousand crore taka.

By the prudence of our Prime Minister, we are working on many other mega projects by big budget. For example, Metro rail (Line 6) will be launched for the first time in our country in next December. Then there is the Karnafuli Tunnel, also known as the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Tunnel also to be opened in next December. In Rooppur, there is a nuclear power under construction. And even with these huge projects at hand, there isn’t any negative impact on our economy.  

Fintech: Could you tell us a little about how Bangladesh has dealt with the challenges of COVID-19 pandemic?

SA: It’s not just something we are saying but even the internationally recognized Nikkei Institute addressed Bangladesh as one of the 5 countries in the world to have dealt with Covid-19 through highly self-sufficient management and our mortality rate was also one of the lowest. Even at the time of such a disastrous pandemic, our economy turned around in just 2 years. Our successes are thriving accordingly as per our 8th five-year plan.

And when 120 countries failed to get the vaccine, we successfully handed over the vaccine to everyone, so I would say, this success is unforgettable, and we have dealt the situation with strength.

And this year too, our export-import combined will surpass a $100 billion for the first time in history after the independence of Bangladesh. Progress in export-import indicates our economic progress. We expect a foreign investment around $9 billion annually till 2030.

120 COUNTRIES FAILED TO GET THE VACCINE, WE SUCCESSFULLY HANDED THE VACCINE TO EVERYONE, SO I WOULD SAY, THIS SUCCESS IS UNFORGETTABLE AND WE HAVE DEALT THIS SITUATION WITH STRENGTH.

Fintech: As we are expecting a $9 billion investment within 2030, what are the things we should do as general citizens? And what preparations are being taken by the government because of it?

SA: We have already planned a few things that are necessary for the investments and we are taking the required steps to ensure success in it. We have created many Special Economic Zones and handed over dedicated territories to big countries like India, Japan and China. We are aspiring to create about a 100 more economic zones as mentioned. 16 projects among them are already under effective construction. This has been done to give opportunities to the private sectors in increasing investment opportunities and to improve the power and road system for the foreign investments we are looking for.

We are creating a suitable environment for foreign trade and commerce. Through this, producers will be able to put their products forward to both national and international markets. We have diversification in exports. We are still moving forward with it. We are exporting TVs to India, tiles, electronic products, bicycles to different countries. On the other hand, 95% demand of mobile electronics in our country are met by our country’s own mobile companies. This is a huge success for us! You can’t find a single house in the country now where there isn’t a domestic electronic product like Walton.  

Dr. Shamsul Alam. State Minister For Planning
Dr. Shamsul Alam | Photography-Arif Mahmud Riad

We are going with industrialization fast. Our industrial growth this year was 12 percent! Our market size is increasing, and we are exporting to more than 61 countries! This year, imports have increased by 45 percent and exports by around 35 percent, and despite the Russia-Ukraine war, this is a great achievement! If we can bring the amount of dollar of Bangladeshi remittances through Proper channel and if we can keep the pace of success going, then our 8th Five-Year Plan will be a tremendous success.

It is to be ensured that Bangladesh does not fall into recession, unemployment does not increase, and inflation stays right! Our unemployment has not increased. For example, rural wage workers are not available recently because people’s income is increasing. 40% of the people are engaged in agricultural work yet the number of farmers is declining! On the other hand, take garments for example. It’s a sector on its own, a manufacturing industry. 80% of the workers at garments are in fact, females. People are taking innovative steps now. For example, friends are running food shops together, some are running dairy farms, some are providing supplies in the office, some are doing tuition in coaching centers. In other words, you will find very few unemployed youths in Bangladesh. For this reason, I think unemployment is not a problem in Bangladesh now.

Fintech: After the LDC Graduation of 2026, you have some challenges to face. Would you please say a few words on that?

SA: There are challenges, but we have to keep in mind that this is going to be based on our capacity, so we are working on three conditions. First one is the per capita income. In 2018, our per capita income was more than the UN requirement. That is an astounding achievement for us. Bangladesh is less fragile in terms of economic fragility in the world. The second one is the Human Development Index. Even there, we’ve managed to remain at the top as of 2021.

Fintech: Sir tell us something about your teacher life and bureaucratic life.

SA: I have enjoyed my teaching life very much. My hundreds of students are spread across different sectors of Bangladesh, especially in administration. I was a successful and popular teacher. Then I came to the bureaucracy, and I was a little scared whether I would be able to coordinate my responsibilities and would be able to get the government’s demanded services properly. I studied in foreign countries, I have visited three foreign universities as a Visiting Fellow and so I had international experience.

All in all, when I worked in the Ministry of Planning, I became a senior secretary. I have enjoyed and been happy here too, because the successes I have achieved have been appreciated by all. And I have been given the opportunity to talk openly. My planning documents have been praised by all. The bureaucratic activity of my life is valuable because everyone will remember the plans for the next 100 years! I am grateful to bureaucracy. I am grateful to the Honorable Prime Minister. Everyone in the PM office has helped me a lot.

Fintech: Technology has affected many of our businesses UBER. These changes are coming. Is there anything you would like to say about your plans on it?

SA: We are now in the fourth industrial age. In order to implement our plans and cope with the developing world, techno-skills and human resources are very much needed and are also being provided to the people. We have reviewed all the requirements for education, training, administration, governance and social system so that we can enter the fifth industrial age.

People are really afraid of new technology thinking that they may be replaced from their jobs by it. But in truth, technology has evolved from the very beginning. It has rather created jobs for people instead of snatching it. There is nothing to be afraid of in new technology. Because somehow people become accustomed to it. For example, in the past, people could not even send SMS properly, but now people are using Facebook, WhatsApp, knowing a lot of information using internet, increasing use of smartphones and so on. Technology should always be welcomed and you have to keep up with technology in order to match and carry on. And besides of that, we also have to create new technologies. For example, new types of mobile phones are being invented every day. This invention has to be carried on. We must embrace Technology in life.

Fintech: What is your advice for our readers?

SA: It is vital to adopt digital innovations that can help you to achieve your objectives and stay ahead of your competitors. Don’t get left behind. The time to embrace digital technology is now.

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