Bangladesh Next

Bangladesh should have a long-term view of what would happen and what measures should the government take if for any reason the export-oriented physical-labour-intensive industries like those of readymade garments, fish processing, leather goods manufacturing, manpower in labour-intensive jobs, etc fail for the industries’ natural shift to other regions for cost efficiency, writes Maswood Alam Khan

THE president of the SME Foundation, Aftab ul Islam said on October 2: ‘Those who perform manual labour are known as blue-collar workers and those educated who work at desks or in fields as salaried professionals are white-collar workers. But in today’s world of information technology one who does his job from the comfort of a swivel chair sitting before a computer mounted atop a desk or ensconced on his lap or palm from any corner of the world is a golden-collar worker in his virtual office—fixed or mobile. Youths in Bangladesh are on the threshold of a golden opportunity to join the new golden-collar workforce en masse.’
He was speaking as a special guest in a function arranged by the Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services at Media Bazaar, BICC, at Agargaon in Dhaka where a new brand ‘Bangladesh NEXT’ was launched to project the country as the next destination for outsourcing IT solutions. The commerce minister, Muhammad Faruk Khan, attended the function as chief guest.

Chaired by the BASIS president, Mahboob Zaman, the brand launching ceremony was attended, among other distinguished guests, by the Danish ambassador in Dhaka, Svend Olling, the Export Promotion Bureau CEO, Jalal Ahmed, and the Dhaka Chamber director, Nurul Kabir. Representatives of various IT companies who are BASIS members, senior IT professionals, IT teachers of different universities and representatives of World Bank and other local and international organisations participated in the function.

The most attractive power-point presentation in the function was made by Ifty Islam, the managing partner of Asian Tigers, who tried to look at the bright future of Bangladesh through his eyes as an economist, telescoping the future regional businesses into an IT-enabled hub that could strategically be located in Bangladesh, a country he described as the heart of ‘Chindia — a location being sandwiched between two giants China and India—the way Switzerland is strategically located in the middle point of Europe and is often referred to as the heart of Europe. Ifty Islam thinks Bangladesh can earn one billion dollar through IT businesses in the next five to ten years.

Faruk Khan in his address assured the audience that by next year Bangladesh would overcome the energy crisis and the government would ensure establishment of proper infrastructures necessary for helping the IT industry flourish in our country. He described Bangladeshis as the most resilient people who did face numerous challenges posed by nature for ages in the past and who are capable of performing any daunting task if only they are given opportunities or put to face any challenge. He said: ‘Bangladesh is a nation experienced in facing natural calamities. Bangladeshis have transformed natural calamities like cyclones and floods into opportunities and many countries are now utilising Bangladesh’s experiences in managing natural disasters.’ Faruk Khan termed the brand ‘Bangladesh NEXT’ as the most appropriate and timely.

Software outsourcing has of late been an increasingly competitive industry with countries such as Malaysia and India having substantial infrastructural advantages over other developing countries. The most promising opportunity, however, for newer entrants like Bangladesh or Vietnam may be with lighter computer-related rote jobs such as data entry and other intellectually less demanding jobs like those of graphics and web designing and web-based businesses that typically employ greater number of people before more sophisticated jobs like software development are undertaken.

Blessed with a large demographic base of low-cost labour force, a huge domestic market of about 160 million people and a regional market of about 3 billion people living in the emerging countries in Asia where Bangladesh has easy access to, more than 10 million Bangladeshi diasporas (7 per cent of total Bangladesh population and the 4th highest in the world) working in different countries in the Occident and in the Orient, a good number of Bangladeshi youths working abroad as IT professionals Bangladesh can be an ideal location for outsourcing knowledge-based business for the western countries in Europe and America provided Bangladesh government facilitates the vital ‘growth enablers’ such as ‘overcoming the present power crisis and transport bottlenecks’, skill development of the youths in IT knowledge, reforms in public sectors, improved governance and healthy growth of capital markets.

Outsourcing being cost-effective, efficient, productive and strategic is very common in the present-day global business that has an impact on every part of business from manufacturing through to design, software development, financial control, logistics management, customer supports and sales. Outsourcing incentives are so huge that in some cases it can lead to fall in service costs to a degree of 50 to 60 percent.

With labour costs going high in China, Malaysia and also in India Bangladesh can ideally be the next destination for outsourcing booms for cheap labour cost and can be turned into a workshop of the world for manufacturing and processing industrial and consumer essentials the way China has become perhaps the only warehouse from where more than 50 per cent global demands for goods and services are met.

China is now seeing 100 per cent salary inflation at top end and India is not far behind with acute shortage of experienced business leadership. Some western companies are now thinking of moving their operations to countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Vietnam where the cost of outsourcing may be 50 per cent lower and where hundreds of technicians, engineering graduates and IT professionals are looking for work. Changes are happening very quickly in the scenario of outsourcing. Bangladesh may miss the bus if a country like Vietnam, Cambodia or Myanmar steals the show by offering the outsourcers better infrastructures and more cost efficient workforce under good governance.

There was once a strategy big corporations in the world had drawn in the name of ‘China+One’ for their outsourcing business in the nineties considering ever increasing labour cost in China when Malaysia and India grabbed the position of ‘+one’ by offering their cheaper labour cost with efficient management and good governance in the public sectors. Now that in Malaysia and India too labour cost is getting higher and there is an acute shortage of skilled workforce in those countries a new strategy named ‘China+Malaysia+India+One’ has emerged with fierce competitions among Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar to occupy the new position of ‘+One’.

What today is most needed in Bangladesh in our bid to occupy the coveted position of ‘+One’ is creation of skilled workforce in both hardware and software engineering. If necessary, thousands of our students may be sent to India and Malaysia with government scholarships on urgent basis for their earning the latest computer-based technical know-how as our local institutions providing technical education are too few to cater to the burgeoning demands of both intellectually and physically skilled manpower.

India produces every year more than 880,000 new IT graduates and more than one million engineering graduates, plus 17 million others with engineering diplomas. India is also leading the way in new areas of pharmaceuticals, biotech, electrical and mechanical engineering. If we like to mimic India to make our country an attractive hub for outsourcing we should have a great number of educational institutions having enough teachers and trainers who are academically compatible with the latest technology.

Bangladesh should have a long-term view of what would happen and what measures should the government take if for any reason the export-oriented physical-labour-intensive industries like those of readymade garments, fish processing, leather goods manufacturing, manpower in labour-intensive jobs, etc fail for the industries’ natural shift to other regions for cost efficiency or due to introduction of technological innovations like robotics that may obviate the necessity of human hands in cutting clothes or sewing apparels or doing any other jobs by physical labour. There is, therefore, an urgent need for our young generations to reallocate their focus from the skill-based physical-labour-intensive jobs to knowledge-based intellectual-labour-intensive jobs.

We must also draw a long-term strategy on primary and secondary educations with emphasis on learning English and mathematics, the two vital subjects that equip students with knowledge-based skills tuneable to information technology. English is lingua franca and mathematics is the language of logic.

Without proficiency in English knowledge a student cannot really make any breakthrough in building his/her career in this age of hyper competition. Proficiency in English is essential for garnering know-how from IT-based repositories of knowledge and information. Similarly, a student has to gain knowledge of mathematics to learn the ‘language of logic’, the elementary tool to learn how a computer works.

Lessons of mathematics enable human brains to grasp ‘invisible concepts’. Our brains have the ability to think logically in day-to-day mundane situations. But in order to move beyond ‘basic logical thinking’ on to a more advanced level of logical thinking we need to learn the steps based on mathematics.

But tragically, students in our country are alarmingly shying away from learning mathematics and English language primarily due to shortage of qualified teachers in primary and secondary schools and also due to lack of enthusiasm among school-going students for learning these two subjects. Our students during their childhood are not properly guided to learn English and Mathematics. Most of our teachers don’t know how to stimulate a student’s interests in the applicability and creativity of English and mathematics.

Bangladesh is a puzzling paradox to global think tanks. In spite of lack of natural resources Bangladesh beset with corruptions in both public and private sectors, self-destructive political infighting and natural calamities is marching ahead persistently maintaining a growth rate of about 5 per cent which is well above the average in many developing countries. Bangladesh has overtaken India on several social indicators as to, to cite a few, infant mortality rate and the rate of enrolment in primary schools. Bangladesh’s perennial dependence on foreign aid has fallen from 6 per cent to about 1 per cent.

The answer to the puzzle of Bangladesh paradox lies in the triumph of private sectors and non-governmental organisations over institutional failings in the public sectors.

Bangladesh can easily join the ranks of middle-income countries within a few years if there is lesser intervention by public sectors in private sector initiatives and if entrepreneurs are allowed wider latitude to do their business with better infrastructures provided by the public sectors. Privatising some public sector organisations may also facilitate Bangladesh earn the status of a middle-income country if inbuilt inefficiency in the concerned public offices is proven to be too hard to be corrected.

Echoing the sentiment of the vast majority of our people like many I like to say: ‘If we are truly sincere to see a Digital Bangladesh in the foreseeable future, if we are really concerned about welfare of our future generations, if we have to fight in the neck-breaking global competition for our existence and if we really mean that “Youths in Bangladesh are on the threshold of a golden opportunity to join the new golden-collar workforce en masse” we cannot afford the luxury of wasting time in creating a friendly technology environment based on an appropriate education system where our youths can equip themselves with essential tools for a better life, for a prosperous livelihood and for a sunnier future of Bangladesh.’

Maswood Alam Khan writes from Maryland, US.

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