Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released the second of two major reports detailing findings from a global public opinion survey on economic issues conducted last spring in forty-four countries. Read together, the two reports reveal something you might not have guessed: Bangladesh is among the countries most supportive of the free market, and certainly the most free-market, trade-oriented country surveyed in South Asia. At least as far as public opinion is concerned, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh is a capitalist haven.
First, the data. The spring 2014 survey asked a variety of questions about the benefits or losses from trade, beliefs about inequality, optimism or pessimism about the future, and support for a free market. A report released last month focused on beliefs about trade, and this month’s looked at inequality as well as beliefs about capitalism and the market.
Across all forty-four countries surveyed, Bangladesh emerged as the world’s second most supportive of a free market economy. Eighty percent of those surveyed expressed support. Vietnam was the only country with higher levels of support, with 95 percent of respondents supportive. The next three countries most supportive of the free market were South Korea, China, and Ghana.
In addition, in comparison to the two other South Asian countries included in the survey—India and Pakistan—Bangladesh once again exhibited higher levels of approval for trade and foreign investment. Public opinion in Bangladesh greatly favors open trade, believes trade creates jobs and leads to better wages, and sees foreign investment as a net positive. We hear much more about India’s post-reforms tiger economy, but Bangladeshis are eight percentage points more supportive of the free market than India (72 percent) and eighteen percentage points more supportive than Pakistan (62 percent). When asked for views on growing trade, 91 percent of Bangladeshis surveyed responded that it was either “very good” or “somewhat good,” compared to 76 percent of Indians answering in the same way.
Bangladeshi public opinion also much more broadly believes trade creates jobs and leads to higher wages in comparison with public opinion in India and Pakistan. The question on which Indian responses exceeded Bangladeshi responses focused on optimism for a better life at home, with 78 percent of Indians surveyed stating that they would recommend staying in India (instead of going abroad for work) for a better life, and 71 percent of Bangladeshis surveyed recommending the same.
For those who follow South Asia these findings make sense. The Bangladeshi economy has benefited greatly over the last two decades from an export-oriented push at the entry level of the manufacturing space—garments. Bangladesh is now the world’s number two garment exporter, just after China. As I have written previously, despite known problems with workplace safety and labor rights in this sector, its more than 5,000 factories employ some four million Bangladeshis, mainly women, and the sector has significantly boosted Bangladesh’s economy. The garment sector is export-oriented, supplying some $20 billion in exports to the world. That Bangladeshis see trade and the free market system in a very positive light, despite the “People’s Republic” of the country’s official name, makes a great deal of sense given the positive impact Bangladesh has seen from trade and the free market. It’s a good news story about globalization that the world often misses.
Alyssa Ayres : Senior Fellow in CFR for India, Pakistan, and South Asia, Forbes contributor