Nepali Times
From basket case to bread basket


UPWARDLY MOBILE NATION: Dhaka's glittering new highrises are symbolic of this country's soaring ambition to break out of it image of a poverty-stricken country.

Ever since Henry Kissinger described it as a "basket case" and Joan Baez sang her sombre ballad about a million dead, Bangladesh has suffered an image problem. But, largely unnoticed by the outside world and even in its South Asian neighbourhood, the country has in recent years taken dramatic strides to raise the living standards of its 162 million people.
Bangladesh has gone from an aid-dependent to a trade-dependent country--ten years ago, foreign aid made up 10 per cent of Bangaldesh's GDP, now it is a mere 2 per cent. Exports of textile and garments, and now ship-building and pharmaceuticals bring in $25 billion a year.

At independence in 1971, 80 per cent of Bangladeshis lived below the poverty line, it is now down to 32 per cent. The country feeds itself even though population has nearly doubled in the past 40 years. Bangladesh may still lag in GDP per capita, but it is much further ahead in terms of human development indicators than India and the country it was once a part of, Pakistan.

"It is to the huge credit of Bangladesh that despite the adversity of low income it has been able to do so much so quickly," says economist Amartya Sen, who adds that this is because of the work of non-profits like Grameen, BRAC and Proshika and committed public policies of successive governments.

The lesson for Nepal is that Bangladeshi politics until recently was also hopelessly stuck because of the "battle of the begums", but this instability was not allowed to affect economic and trade policies. Investment in education, health and basic services continued despite post-1990 party politics being as short-sighted as ours.

However, Bangladeshi democracy remains feckless, and proof of that is the way the Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of Grameen Bank, Mohammad Yunus, is being hounded by the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Yunus has been forced out of the micro-credit bank he set up and vilified in a government orchestrated campaign, all because he nearly set up his own political party.

Bangladesh's enviable achievements in education, health and agriculture present strong models for us. Nepal's prime minister hasn't been able to complete his cabinet in three months and it has only one woman, Bangladesh's prime minister, finance minister, agriculture minister, home minister and leader of the opposition are all women. The government's policies dove-tail with the work of Grameen and other NGOs in reducing poverty.

"We still have poverty, but the nature of poverty has changed," explains Shaheen Anam of the non-profit Manushi Janno, "people don't die of hunger anymore but there is a malnutrition problem. There is high enrolment but the dropout rate is still high. Our family planning was a success but we took our eyes off the ball, population is re-emerging with a vengeance because of premature policy changes."

From UNICEF State of the World's Children 2009

Geo-politically, Bangladeshi strategists seem to have decided that it is better to engage with India than to bait the giant neighbour. In early 2010, newly-elected Sheikh Hasina signed an agreement with Manmohan Singh under which Bangladesh will allow transit through its territory to the Indian northeast and India will open up its huge market for Bangladeshi exports.

"There are political parties in South Asia that define themselves by their relations with India, they make their livelihood by being anti-Indian," says economist Rehman Sobhan, "we need to move on from treating big brother like step brother to a fairy god-brother."

Dhaka's glittering new highrises are symbolic of this country's soaring ambition to break out of its image of a poverty-stricken country. Businessmen are upbeat, and there is optimism here about the future. Much more than in Kathmandu, you get a sense here that everyone is pulling in the same direction.

Debopriyo Bhattacharya of the Centre for Policy Dialogue in Dhaka says Bangladesh is like a jumbo jet that is revving up its engines. He says: "All we need now is a runway."

Read also:
Hydrocratic dreams, RATNA SANSAR SHRESTHA

1. armugam
When will our "gadhaasss" get the message?

2. reb
If high rises were sign of development then what do you have to say about N. Korea or the Soviet Union before the economic and political meltdown!!  No doubt it is a sign but not very crucial one, I think.
Ass might venture to opine that we have "high-size" anetas.

As for the lack of a runway for the B'desh jumbo jet taking off, the appropriate analogy in case of our Desh would be that we have a runway, the tarmac is spic and span, we even have a jet idling about.  What we lack is a visionary and able pilot, mature steward/stewardess's, and well behaved passengers.   

The present elected and selected netas are all idling about the tarmac (built on 15,000 dead souls), cannot agree on which jet to take, let alone agree on who is the best pilot or the stewards.  It seems they are happy taking the bail-gada with the janata as the bail.   Key garney? More thappads on those rosey rasilo cheeks maybe the only option for the bails to deliver.  Each thappad is worth about 20 laks (3 years at about 50+ thousand a month) and

3. kamal kishor
Bangladesh has a higher input of social engineering into development paradigm; from a dictatorial regime to a governance through grassroots mobilization and decision making.

Nepal saw the derailment of democracy through the Maoist armed conflict which nearly crippled the industrial and social networking system built after 1990. They created havoc in social transition from a working democracy to a dictatorial local development where the Maoists were the decision makers at every stage. Their drive for power through extortion, violence, and coercion has shaken our social engineering so much that in many areas they were replaced by other such groups and thus perpetuated a near havoc to local development. The participation of locals have been reduced to zero and local developmental efforts have reduced to those funded by NGOs, and Kathmandu Government.

It will take yrs to go the way Bangladesh transformed itself.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)