Since its first iteration in 2015, the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies or BIDS Almanac held every winter has emerged as a particularly stimulating event on the calendar for taking stock of Bangladesh's growth and development. It is more than just a highlights package of the year's activities engaged in by the researchers attached to what is supposed to be the country's premier institute of research. The focus on 'development' allows for a broad range of issues that crop up in the discussion driven by the event. In order to realize its full worth, research must ultimately always inform policy. And to its credit, BIDS has demonstrated over the last 5 years how despite being incorporated under the Ministry of Planning, quality research that strives to remain ahead of the curve, so to speak, as opposed to blowing with the wind, can avoid the poison well of politics and wield a positive influence on policy.
To be sure, the Almanac as a dissemination-driven event has played a role in that. For a long time since its inception, BIDS, which started life in 1957 as PIDE, or the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, enjoyed a reputation for solid, academically sound work, that was nevertheless destined for obscurity. Its flagship journal, the Bangladesh Development Studies, would find its place in the shelves of most practitioners in the field (coming from the country that was born as "the test case for development"), but whether they would be occasioned to reach for it too often is questionable. In organising the Almanac, BIDS under the leadership of Dr K.A.S. Murshid, the highly accomplished agriculture and food economist, has taken the initiative to insert itself in the conversation, and the national discourse has been all the better for it.
During this period corresponding with Dr Murshid at the helm, BIDS researchers have published important work advocating higher wages in the garment sector, showcasing the growth potential of mobile financial services, warning of the dangerous levels of air pollution in the capital and sounded a note of caution on the strategy of flooding the country with Special Economic Zones (SEZs). Additionally their work has consistently informed debates surrounding growing inequality in the country, and acted as a vanguard for the agriculture sector and farmers. If you happened to be following the BIDS Almanac, you would've heard some of these things that are fairly well-established by now, for the first time certainly in credible, published form.
This year's edition was held this past week, and once again the 15 papers presented didn't fail to stimulate. The issues tackled were both current and part of the big picture. In this week's briefing, we run through some of the most important and interesting things we learned, in terms of their potential to impact the lives of Bangladeshis. Owing to its incorporation, BIDS can never avert its obligation to serve the people of Bangladesh. Research that foregoes academic independence is not worth the paper it is written on, but that independence cannot accommodate self-indulgence. As such, whenever we assess the work of BIDS, its relevance to Bangladesh must enjoy a premium. Below are the 5 most important insights we gained from the BIDS Almanac 2019:
A bit of education is a good thing. But can you have too much of a good thing?
Among the more interesting studies presented on the first day that managed to generate a lot of discussion on the late night talk-shows and got prominent coverage in the next day's newspapers, was one that highlighted the phenomenon of 'educated youth unemployment'. It's a subject one encounters often enough in Bangladesh, whether in reality or television drama, but few studies actually exist that delve deeply into the matter. Youths armed with formidable degrees, but no job prospects. It may sound a bit anecdotal, but as the paper titled 'Employment and Unemployment amongst Educated Youth in Bangladesh' (KAS Murshid, Tanveer Mahmood and Nahian Azad Shashi) reveals, it is actually very real.
The headline number that most people ran with was that the unemployment rate among educated youth is 33.2 percent, and even higher among the graduates and post-graduates. At this point we should be clear that for the purpose of this study, 'educated' has been taken to mean the holder of any degree starting from SSC onwards. That means 1 in 3 degrees (SSC and higher) count for nothing! Even more counter-intuitively, the study would seem to suggest that the higher your degree, the lower your prospects of holding down a job: the unemployment rate is lowest among SSC holders (26.8 percent), followed by HSC (28 percent), and jumps up for undergraduates (33.6 percent) and post-graduates (34.3 percent).
But the full paper's scope and objectives do thankfully go beyond mere vindication of the actor Apurbo's character in countless telefilms/dramas: the listless youth who put in the hours to earn a degree, but is then let down by a society that can't find a corner of the economy to accommodate him. We all know how it goes. Now we know it is all too real as well.
While presenting the findings himself, Dr Murshid noted that an earlier World Bank study based on the Labour Force Survey 2016 also found youth unemployment at a very similar level ("one-third"), while another study conducted under the Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project (HEQEP) of the Ministry of Education put the number at 38 percent, with the average duration of unemployment being 10 months.
The BIDS director general did also note some important caveats: "Findings are generally in the direction of our expectations but explanations often require nuanced discussion - e.g. SSC/HSC holders contribute relatively less to unemployment but report much less salaried work. BA, and MA holders are concentrated in the top paying jobs. Education matters," he said.
So we should note that a lot of the work that SSC/HSC holders find tends to be part-time, or even unsalaried. The paper states quite categorically: "The rate of full-time, salaried employment among graduates and post- graduates, however, is much higher than SSC and HSC passed youth."
Moreover, within that more educated segment (Bachelor's/Master's degree holders) that tends to have better jobs, even grades start entering the fray. "Better grades show lower unemployment and higher full-time salaried employment," the authors state. So if you were just about to ditch those books reading the first part of this report, better think again!
As indicated earlier, the authors deserve credit for a more wide-ranging piece of work than the media coverage gave it credit for. As you get deeper into it, some more interesting findings that possibly merit more focus in future studies start to emerge. For example, in trying to find the link between employment and the type of institute one attended (whether private or state/publicly funded), the report states: "We see that at each and every level of education, the employment outcomes are better for those who studied in private institutions versus those who were in public/government institutions." This is quite significant, and may even have policy implications.
Another interesting finding it notes, almost as an aside, is that the survey conducted by the authors for the purpose of this study turned up very little evidence for the existence of a 'gender pay gap' in Bangladesh. Other studies may be more appropriately-designed and better-suited to making such a pronouncement.
Big Pharma in Bangladesh is Big on Marketing
Another important study showcased on the first day concerned the pharmaceutical industry of Bangladesh, that is looked upon generally as one of the potentially most lucrative industries in the country, with some firms even starting to export generic drugs to the US market. This particular study led by Dr Nazneen Ahmed, senior research fellow at BIDS, contained some important revelations about their mostly local practices.
The one that probably garnered the most attention was that pharmaceutical companies spend 29.4 percent of their annual turnover on marketing, which tends to be a contentious issue for the industry due to the nature of their product. The money they spend on marketing has also been identified as one of the top five determinants of the price they sell their medicines at, or pricing determinants (PDs).
The value of imported raw materials came out as the top PD, followed by government policy, product quality, and domestic market competition ahead of marketing.
According to the study, the price of drugs in the country is inflated because pharmaceutical companies pay money or gifts to corrupt doctors who in turn prescribe the drugs produced by these companies to their patients. The gifts may include paid-for vacations for the doctors along with their whole family, or trips abroad ostensibly to attend seminars.
More than 60 percent of the workforce of the pharmaceutical companies consist of sales staff and medical representatives, the study found. The work done by medical representatives is actually marketing by any other name.
"The drug prices go up in the domestic market when the medicine manufacturing companies convert the gifts into the cost of production," Dr Nazneen explained. Sometimes, the price of drugs belonging to the same generic group but manufactured by different companies may vary significantly just because of doctors' prescription, she said.
The patients, as ever, are at their mercy.
The costs of compliance outweigh the benefits
The country's apparel sector has not yet witnessed any positive outcome from the improvement of compliance - as recommended by Accord, Alliance and the National Initiative - despite spending big for the purpose. The observation came from a paper titled "Impact of Compliance on RMG Industry of Bangladesh" (Monzur Hossain and Tehreen Tehrima) which was presented on the first day of the 2019 BIDS Almanac.
"We did not find any significant impact of compliance on labour productivity, total output, market access of firms and on crisis [labour unrest, accidents and injuries] faced by firms after remediation during 2013-2018," said Monzur Hossain, senior research fellow of BIDS, in presenting the findings. Investing more on fire safety cost - proportion of expenses used in ensuring fire safety to total cost of firm - has a negative impact on labour productivity and total output, he also said.
The study did however find that growth in output during the 2013-2018 period was significantly higher for compliant firms compared to that of their non-compliant counterparts. Additionally, a supplementary survey conducted for the study found that compliance or remediation measures have a positive effect on workers' perceptions of workplace safety. Some 1500 workers working in 500 factories were interviewed for the survey.
The future is solar for farmers
A study presented as part of the fifth technical session on Renewable Energy, and Climate Change Adaptation ("Does renewable energy increase farmers' well-being? Evidence from solar irrigation interventions in Bangladesh" by Monzur Hossain and Azreen Karim ) foundthat farmers can save up to 28 percent of their costs for each bigha of land if they use solar-powered pumps in place of diesel-run ones to irrigate croplands.
The conventional irrigation system costs Tk 4,129 for each bigha of boro paddy field, which comes down to Tk 2,946 if solar pumps are used, according to the authors. The solar irrigation system also costs less than the diesel-run method during aman season. Solar pumps can cover wider areas, said Monzur Hossain, senior research fellow at BIDS, while presenting the findings. He said a majority of farmers opined that solar pumps brought them more water than diesel pumps did.
However, the position taken by BIDS, as was clarified during the session, is that the solar irrigation system needs to be made "more cost-effective". Researchers surveyed 1,000 farm households strewed across five divisions but mainly from Khulna and Rangpur. Of the sample surveyed, half the farming families irrigate their fields through solar pumps.
Azreen Karim, research fellow at BIDS and co-author of the study, said adoption of solar irrigation pumps is largely driven by sponsor initiatives, village meetings and peer effects.
It's official: the village is preferable to Dhaka
About 57 percent of the residents of Dhaka City would leave the capital and go live in a village, if only they didn't have to forego the employment opportunities and basic civic facilities like schools and hospitals, revealed a study by Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS). That was simply the most damning revelation from the paper titled "A glimpse into life in Dhaka City" (S.M. Zulfiqar Ali, Abdur Razzaque Sarker, Maruf Ahmed and S.M. Zahedul Islam Chowdhury), that was presented on the closing day of this year's Almanac.
"Faced with various problems, over 44 percent of nearly one crore residents of the capital's city corporation area suffer from depression, anxiety and mental illness," said Zulfiqar Ali, one of the authors, while presenting the findings.
According to the study, the top five problems identified by city dwellers are traffic jam, air pollution, lack of safe drinking water, bad road conditions and waterlogging.
A total of 3,100 households (12,000 people), randomly chosen from 31 wards of Dhaka north and south city corporation areas, took part in the study. Over 95 percent of them identified traffic as the most serious problem in the city. Air pollution was identified as the second most serious problem by 66 percent respondents to the study, followed by lack of pure drinking water by 61 percent, bad road condition by 48 percent and waterlogging by 45 percent respondents.
That all apart, there are also wide disparities in wealth, or income inequality, among the city's residents. Of the total income generated in the capital each month, the bottom 10 percent of the dwellers earns merely one percent, bottom 50 percent earns 18 percent while the top 10 percent earns 41 percent, he said. It also identified that per capita monthly medical expenditure in the city was Tk 7,417, on top of an income loss of Tk 4,300 due to various acute and chronic diseases.
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