Pakistan-Bangladesh, Russia-Australia – observing, watching

Friday, 8 September 2017

Yogi Berra, that famous source of folk wisdom (I think he played baseball as well), noted that ‘You can observe a lot by just watching.’ You certainly can, I felt that over and over again on my Silk Road trip from Bangkok to London earlier this year. None of the Central Asian ‘stans were what I expected from reading about them; observing, watching, seeing upset all sorts of preconceptions.

I’ve been to China enough times in recent years not to be surprised by the speed of change, the energy, the enthusiasm, even while the bad side of China – censorship as a big one – looms over the picture. Nevertheless there’s so much about China which you can ‘observe … just by watching.’

▲ Go into a coffee bar in Shanghai and your immediate thought is ‘wow, this is somewhere in the affluent first world.’ But it’s a local coffee bar, catering to a local clientele, not something created for rich foreign visitors.

▲ Or drive for km after km in the far west of China, the road constantly flanked by row after row of wind turbines and you don’t need to read the statistics and figures that emphasize that the Chinese are putting an awful lot of energy into alternative energy.

But then you read simple straightforward numbers and they tell you a story that just might upset your preconceptions. In this week’s Economist I learnt that Bangladesh’ s per capita Gross Domestic Product (at US$1538) had overtaken Pakistan’s (US$1470). I’ve visited both countries in recent years and that figure still surprised me. When Bangladesh separated from Pakistan in 1971 it was far poorer. Politically there may be many problems, but in recent years Bangladesh has done many things right, from micro-finance to clothes production (despite the often terrible working conditions) to improvements in women’s place in society. In fact many observers point to Bangladeshi women as a leading component of the country’s improved economic situation.

A month or so earlier, at a dinner in London, one of the group commented that Australia’s GDP was as large as Russia’s. What, I thought! Yes per capita I would definitely expect Australia to be ahead, I live in Australia, I’ve been a visitor to Russia, I’d expect the Australian per capita GDP to be ahead of Russia’s. But there are only 24 million Australians, against 144 million Russians, surely Australia’s per capita GDP can’t be six times the Russian figure? It’s almost true, World Bank figures for 2016 are Russia US$1.283 trillion, Australia US$1.205 trillion.

Incidentally on the World Bank figures Australia’s per capita GDP (at PPP – Purchasing Power Parity) is about US$50,000 while China is about US$15,000. The figures from the IMF (International Monetary Fund) or the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) are similar. They’re about three times as high as The Economist figures for Pakistan and Bangladesh.