The World Bank and Bangladesh have seen it all.

In January 1972, the president of what was then the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, today's World Bank, made a quick stopover in Dhaka - till even just six weeks or so ago the main population centre in what was East Pakistan, yet on that day as Robert McNamara flew in, the freshly liberated capital of a new claimant on the world map: Bangladesh.

McNamara would hold a 45-minute meeting with the country's undisputed leader, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Although based in Washington, DC and led by the United States as its most equitable board member, under McNamara, a former US defence secretary, the IBRD had started to emerge as a more proactive institute, beholden to its mandate of poverty reduction and international development, broadly.

That day he would urge the Bangladeshi prime minister to initiate the process to become a member of the IBRD and IMF, so that his teams can get started on working in the country at the earliest. Before leaving, he even shared his plan to extend technical and financial support to the war-ravaged Bangladesh. A spokesperson of the prime minister's secretariat describes the meeting as 'very satisfactory'.

That brief meeting would mark the start of the partnership, that over the course of the next 50 years, would witness more peaks and troughs than Mujib and McNamara could have contemplated that day. Some, or in fact just one occasion on which they failed to meet eye-to-eye, becomes inevitably inflated as somehow representative of the working relationship. Yet the truth is that despite that one occasion where they took different forks on the road ahead, Bangladesh and the World Bank have never stopped working together. Not since January '72, you could say.

That journey came full circle in Washington, DC this past week, as Bangladesh's current prime minister, the daughter of the man who happened to receive Namara that day, made good on an invitation to celebrate the partnership, that is bigger than any single leader or personality.

Sheikh Hasina and outgoing World Bank president David Malpass jointly inaugurated a photo exhibition marking the 50-year partnership between Bangladesh and the WB. The exhibition at the Atrium of the World Bank headquarters kicked off a daylong celebration of the partnership between the country. The PM went around the show and also witnessed a dance performance. A video presentation on "Bangladesh-World Bank 50 Years of Partnership" was screened at the function.

Earlier, on her arrival in the WB headquarters in Washington DC, Sheikh Hasina was welcomed by WB Country Director for Bangladesh Abdoulaye Seck and its SAR VP Martin Raiser. Talking at the programme after inaugurating it, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that the Photo Exhibition was a reflection of value-driven partnership with the World Bank over the last five decades.

"It is a representation of a transformed and vibrant Bangladesh. It is a tribute to our hard working people who have made it possible for our nation to live up to its dreams," she said.

She also extended her greetings to working people in Bangladesh and around the world on the occasion of May Day. Sheikh Hasina mentioned that the photo exhibition shows that the development story in Bangladesh is about those lagging behind.

"I thank the World Bank and other development partners for sharing our vision of inclusive growth. Our common enemies are poverty and hunger, and we must not rest our case till we have won over them," she said. She also said that the exhibition is also about the importance of making the right political choices.

"It shows the kind of smile that our Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman wished to see among our distressed people. It speaks of our government's determination to turn Bangladesh into a resilient and prosperous land."

She hoped the World Bank will continue to remain with Bangladesh on its exciting journey ahead to build a 'Smart Bangladesh'. "Let us work together in a spirit of shared trust for a brighter future!"

All's well that ends well

Hasina blamed 'external pressure' for the cancellation of the USD1.2 billion credit the World Bank had committed to financing the iconic Padma Bridge, that Bangladesh finally constructed with its own money.

"I regret that the World Bank moved away from financing this most important project owing to external pressure," she said. The premier said this while addressing an informal interaction with the Board of Executive Directors of the World Bank at the Shihata Conference room of its headquarters here.

Hasina, however, wished to look into the future of the partnership: "We now wish to look into the future of our partnership," she said.

The PM was in Washington DC on a week-long official visit to the US centred around a celebration of the 50 years of partnership between Bangladesh and the World Bank. It also marked pretty much the final official engagement at the multilateral lender for outgoing president David Malpass

After the bank's approved loan was scrapped in 2012 on charges of a 'conspiracy of corruption', other multilateral donors such as the IDB and ADB also pulled out, and for a brief period the fate of the country's most important development/infrastructure project hung in the balance. Eventually a decision was made to proceed with Bangladesh's 'own funds'. A Chinese loan was arranged at commercial interest rates, and the Prime Minister's Office assumed oversight responsibilities.

By the time it was inaugurated to great fanfare on June 25 last year, the total layout on the country's flagship development project had run to thrice its original estimate - over Tk 30,000 crore, and it had been 10 years since the spat played out in public. Most observers couldn't foresee any winners emerging from the standoff. Then they underestimated the masterful political operator in Hasina, who was prepared to bide her time, as she gradually set about the task of turning what could have been a scandal that scuttled her premiership, into something that probably secures her legacy for years to come.

The prime minister said that the present situation gives an indication of Bangladesh economy's growth opportunities and absorptive capacity.

"Bangladesh has never defaulted on its debt repayment, or fallen into a so-called 'debt trap'," she stated.

She mentioned that the World Bank is now committed to 53 different projects in Bangladesh, involving USD 15 billion. This is part of the grants and loans of USD 39 billion so far offered by the Washington-based multilateral lender over the length of the 50 years.

In this regard, she said that the strong performance of Bangladesh in human capital formation is matched by "our investment in infrastructure mega-projects."

"The construction of the 6.1 km Padma Multipurpose Bridge with our own financial and technical resources is a sign of our economic maturity," she proudly said. That Hasina wasn't feeling shy, and in fact was feeling triumphant would become abundantly clear in the following moments, as she would pull out a painting of the completed bridge, and hand it to the bemused-looking Malpass, who did remain a good sport throughout, it has to be said.

Hasina said that the World Bank is actively engaged in digital transformation of Bangladesh as the government has kept its words to the people by building together a 'Digital Bangladesh' by 2021.

She mentioned that the government has set its next target to become a knowledge-based 'Smart Bangladesh' by 2041.

"I call upon our development partners like the World Bank to continue investing in our digital and physical infrastructure. We also seek international support for trade diversification, investment promotion and domestic resource generation," she said.

She mentioned that the World Bank has extended grant support for the 1.2 million forcibly displaced Rohingya from Myanmar in Bangladesh while their prolonged presence is becoming a huge challenge for the country.

"We have created excellent facilities for one hundred thousand of them in the Bhashan Char island. Pending their return to Myanmar, we hope the World Bank will continue to support their humanitarian needs," she said. The world must not forget these hapless people yet again, she reiterated.

'We deliver on commitments'

"I am confident that our young people will take our nation forward in the right political environment. We wish to further expand our role as a responsible and contributing member of the comity of nations."

She said that Bangladesh shall continue to pursue its economic diplomacy based on its foreign policy principle of "Friendship to All, Malice towards None".

"I hope that our international partners will stay focused on the positive aspects of our march forward and join us in a promising development journey ahead," she said

Hasina asked the World Bank to make itself ready for the future as the world is witnessing some major shifts in geo-economics this year which have implications for Bangladesh as an economy in transition.

She said that Bangladesh is the world's largest active delta situated on the world's largest Bay - the Bay of Bengal. This is a location at the heart of what is termed as Indo-Pacific.

"We are now the world's 35th largest economy with a GDP of USD 460 billion. In South Asia, we are the second biggest economy and an emerging growth engine. We are graduating from the UN Least Developed Country (LDC) status, having qualified in all three criteria."

She mentioned that in 2022, the headcount poverty came down to 18.7 percent, with a sharp decline in extreme poverty to 5.6 percent.

"All this has happened despite the multi-dimensional challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Europe, and the deepening climate crisis."

She mentioned that the biggest asset of Bangladesh is its resilience. In 1971, it achieved the independence following a genocide, and with an economy in ruins.

"Our Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman called upon the international community to stand by our people. The World Bank also responded and thus started our partnership," she noted.

She recalled that the development journey has been far from smooth. Bangladesh experienced repeated military takeovers, extremist threats, and deadly natural disasters. In the last one and a half decade, the nation finally started turning around by tackling these challenges, and ensuring political and economic stability.

"During this time, we remained true to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib's call for people's emancipation. Our state policy embraces democracy, human rights and nationalism as a basis of unity, and envisions a just society defined by socialism and secularism."

These ensure equal treatment without discrimination based on religion, race or gender. The people's representatives responsible for governance are subject to different layers of accountability, she added.

Bangladesh has made impressive gains in food security, free and affordable housing, community healthcare, compulsory primary education, women's empowerment, financial inclusion, access to electricity, and disaster preparedness.

"We wish to achieve our targets on universal health coverage, quality education, child welfare, skills promotion, urban development, sustainable industrialization, environmental protection and effective institution building."

She put emphasis on the need for the World Bank to scale up its concessional financing for developing countries to allow us to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

"I look forward to the World Bank sharing its concrete ideas on this at the UN SDG Summit in New York in September. The World Bank must invest further in building state capabilities and knowledge for sustainable development."

She also said that It is encouraging that the World Bank is giving added emphasis on climate financing. For a climate vulnerable country like Bangladesh, it needs adequate financing for both mitigation and adaptation.

In this regard she said that since 2009, Bangladesh has financed 800 projects from its own Trust Fund.

"We are launching a Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan to fast-forward our green transition in key sectors. We shall need USD 230 billion by 2050 only for adaptation. The Climate Financing Summit in Paris in June will be an opportunity for the World Bank to give us some meaningful assurance on these."

Pandemic pain

Hasina urged the World Bank and other development partners to find out viable alternatives to help economies like Bangladesh cope better with the stress, caused by the pandemic, armed conflicts and climate emergency.

"The ongoing global multiple crises, caused by the pandemic, armed conflicts and climate emergency, have put most developing economies under serious stress. Some of our development partners have chosen to increase their lending costs and interest rates, which detract from their core mandate," she said

She made the suggestion with other fours while addressing the Plenary Session of the 50 Years Partnership between Bangladesh and the World Bank at the Preston Auditorium of World Bank Headquarters with its president David Malpass in the chair.

In the second suggestion, Hasina said that Bangladesh is preparing for smooth and sustainable graduation from the UN LDC status in 2026. In this regard, she requested the World Bank to support Bangladesh's human capital and institutional capacity development programmes for a smooth transition. "The critical IDA window needs to be preserved and continued," she said.

In the third suggestion, she mentioned that Bangladesh has aligned UN SDGs with its national aspiration to become an upper middle-income country by 2031.

"There is an urgent expectation that the World Bank and other development partners deliver increased, concessional and innovative financing for SDG implementation," she said. The prime minister in her fourth suggestion said Bangladesh hopes that the World Bank's enhanced engagement in climate action would help address the wide gaps in financing under the Paris Agreement.

"We would stress the importance of equal distribution of financing between climate mitigation and adaptation," she added. In her final point, she said Bangladesh will continue to invest in infrastructure and logistics for realising its vision to become a high-income economy by 2041.

"I would expect the World Bank to engage in both our physical and social mega-projects in the coming years," she said. Hasina said that Bangladesh will continue to move forward undeterred.

Our success in the next two decades would depend on our collective ability and efforts to overcome the emerging challenges in a just and sustainable manner," she said. She also put emphasis on remaining united towards making millions of people still lagging behind live a happy life in Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib's 'Sonar Bangla'.

Promises kept, renewed

In 2009, she said that after assuming the office her government pledged to build a 'Digital Bangladesh' by 2021. "In the last one and a half decade, Bangladesh has gone through significant change, thanks to political stability and sound macroeconomic fundamentals."

She mentioned that In 2015, the World Bank classified Bangladesh as a lower-middle income country. In 2021, the UN declared it eligible for graduation from the LDC status for the second time.

"We successfully managed the COVID-19 pandemic through an economic stimulus package worth USD 26.9 billion, and free-of-cost mass vaccination."

The PM said that the completion of the Padma Multipurpose Bridge with the country's own resources and its inauguration last year is perhaps the best example of Bangladesh's resilience and achievement.

She said that Bangladesh has today emerged as the world's 35th largest economy, with a nominal GDP of USD 460 billion while its economy has been growing at an average rate of 6 percent in the last one decade. It reached up to 8.15 percent just before the pandemic. This has led to notable increase in per capita income to the tune of USD 2,824 in 2022. She also mentioned that the overall poverty rate has reduced to 18.7 percent in 2022 from 41.5 percent in 2006.

"During this time, we have increased our budget allocation for social protection by 40 times, constituting 2.5 percent of our GDP."

She mentioned that under her flagship Ashrayan project, the government has provided free-of-cost homes to nearly five million people along with income-generating skills and support. She said, 99.7 percent of households have come under electricity coverage, while the power generation capacity has increased eight-times to over 25,000 MW between 2006 and 2022.

She said that she has made affordable and quality healthcare a priority by setting up 18,000 community-level health facilities across the country. Sheikh Hasina said that Bangladesh has emerged as a global role-model in disaster management and preparedness.

"We invested heavily in early warning systems, disaster-resilient infrastructure, and community-based interventions. Bangladesh is also a living laboratory of climate adaptation, featuring a number of nature-based and technological solutions."

She also invited the World Bank and other development partners to join hands in implementing the projects under our Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100.

"Our government attaches importance to developing Bangladesh as a regional connectivity, aviation and logistics hub," she said.

She thanked the World Bank for joining Bangladesh's humanitarian endeavour and for the USD 590 million grant for the Rohingya and their impacted communities.

Additional reporting by Fahad Ferdous

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