EAST OVERTAKES WEST
BANGLADESH’S GDP PER PERSON IS NOW HIGHER THAN PAKISTAN’S
WHEN Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan in 1971, it was much poorer than the country it left. Industry accounted for only 6-7% of its GDP, compared with over 20% in Pakistan. The battle for independence had killed or displaced millions, damaged roads and railways, and severed ties with Pakistan’s bankers and industrialists (including the owner of one of the world’s biggest jute mills). Even before the war, Bangladesh had been trampled by another apocalyptic horseman: a cyclone killed hundreds of thousands in 1970. The country’s independence leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, complained that West Pakistan had not promptly shared its bumper wheat crop or “given a yard of cloth for our shrouds”.
Last month revealed a remarkable turnaround. Bangladesh’s GDP per person is now higher than Pakistan’s. Converted into dollars at market exchange rates, it was $1,538 in the past fiscal year (which ended on June 30th). Pakistan’s was about $1,470.
Strange as it may sound, Bangladesh jumped ahead because of an advance in Pakistan. On August 25th Pakistan released the results of its census, updating earlier population estimates. They showed that the country has 207.8m people, more than 9m more than previously thought. It may now have the fifth biggest population in the world, surpassing Brazil’s. But the new count also lopped 4-5% off Pakistan’s GDP per person, the arithmetic consequence of revealing so many more people.
A caveat should be noted. A dollar stretches further in Pakistan than in Bangladesh because prices in the former tend to be lower. So Pakistan’s $1,470 per person actually has more purchasing power than Bangladesh’s $1,538.
This is nonetheless a good moment to celebrate Bangladesh’s economic progress. Its annual growth has averaged more than 6% over the past ten years and has run above 7% over the past two. Industry accounts for 29% of its GDP. A country that once lacked cloth for shrouds now exports more ready-made garments than India and Pakistan combined. Working conditions are still far worse than they should be. They are also far better than they once were.
Bangladesh’s GDP per person received a boost from another source. Its last census, in 2011, led to a large revision of the country’s population, larger even than Pakistan’s. But in Bangladesh’s case, the revision was downwards.
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “East overtakes west”
SEPTEMBER 27, 2017