The Struggle Forward
Political unrest, poverty and lack of good governance are in stark contrast to the dogged determination of the people in their quest for a better life.
Morning breaks over the capital city of Dhaka and an amazing sight meets the eye. In a country supposedly threatened by Islamic militancy, the roads are teeming with women, chatting, laughing and marching to their workplaces in the readymade garment industry. This industry is symbolic of the socio-economic changes Bangladesh has undergone over the past few decades.
Bangladesh has come a long way since its birth in 1971. U.S. Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger had disparagingly called Bangladesh a “bottomless basket” and by the looks of things at the time, it seemed as if his barb was likely to stick. The country had been afflicted with famine, lawlessness and continuous political upheavals. But now, forty years since, the country has seen miracles. However, there is still a long way to go and the impediments are many.
Despite still being afflicted by poverty, political unrest and a host of other impediments to development, Bangladesh has innumerable sectors of which it can be proud.
As mentioned at the outset, Bangladesh’s readymade garment industry is booming. This export-oriented industry is the biggest foreign exchange puller in the country and even the global recession has not put any significant dent in the sector’s revenue. It is the only multi-billion dollar industry of the country. Not only has this been an economic boost to the country as a whole, a tool of poverty alleviation, but it has also been a vehicle of social change. It has brought women out of their homes, their economic independence giving them a say in decisionmaking. It has been a gender bender. Exploitation and sexual harassment are still there, but the women are well on their way.
Then there is the NGO sector. Bangladesh can be cited as a role model in this respect, being the home of the largest NGO in the world, BRAC. The NGO network has spread from the center to the remotest villages of the country and has brought tangible change to the matrix of Bangladesh. The NGOS place much stress on women’s development, whether they are dealing with micro-finance, health, social awareness or education. As a result, even in the most neglected villages of the country, it is not unusual to see women in group meetings dis- cussing matters such as birth control, dowry, sexual abuse and other sensitive issues, hitherto hush-hush topics to be swept under the carpet.
Micro-credit is perhaps one of the biggest success stories of the country, with the founder of Grameen Bank, Prof. Dr. Muhammed Yunus, having won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for this initiative. Micro-credit too has revolutionized the face of Bangladesh, giving the poor, again with emphasis on women, access to credit and creating micro-entrepreneurs all over.
Education indicators have also been impressive as compared to many other countries of the South Asian region. The successive governments in Bangladesh have introduced concrete policies when it comes to girls’ education, ensuring free education for girls up to the secondary level. Dropout rates have fallen and enrollment rates are high. UNICEF reports that the youth literacy rate for boys has been 73% and 76% for girls. Primary school enrollment ratio has also been impressive, with girls outnumbering boys.
Bangladesh has succeeded in various areas of technology, the national mantra at the moment being “Digital Bangladesh.” The financial sector has
also seen strides and the country is listed among the Next Eleven Economies. In 2011, The Indian Nobel laureate economist, Amartya Sen said, “Bangladesh is now doing better on almost every one of these social indicators than India is doing.”
Given the resilience of the people, the fertility of the land and the upward spiral of the development sector, hypothetically speaking Bangladesh should have shrugged off its LDC (Less Developed Country) status to become a MIC (Middle Income Country) by now. Unfortunately, that is far from reality. Despite all the impressive figures shown in the charts and tables of the Bangladesh Bureau and Statistics, as well as of the international big guns like the World Bank and United Nations, people are stuck in a quagmire of poverty. There has been instability, unrest and a host of other factors that have impeded development. Just what are these impediments and how can they be addressed?
The most obvious factor is the sheer enormity of the population. An area of approximately 144,000 sq km has a burgeoning population of 142 million. During the eighties and nineties, Bangladesh had an excellent population control policy but focus on family planning has been on the wane in recent years. Sociologists and economists alike see the potential of turning this population into a valuable asset of human resources and over the years, Bangladeshi immigrant workers have made major contributions to the country’s foreign exchange exchequer. However, this is an unskilled labor force. The World Bank Resident Representative in Bangladesh, Ellen Goldstein, recently pointed out the pressing need for skills development in order to transform this population from being a liability to an asset. This calls for the development of vocational education and training in the IT sector, to meet present-day global requirements.
All this, and any progress and development to be made in the country, calls for good governance, an area in which Bangladesh is sadly lacking. Politics have been confrontational, reeking with vengeance, corruption and dismal incompetence. Policies have been tailored to favor the narrow interests of whichever clique is in power at any given time. Even Nobel Laureate Prof. Dr. Yunus, has been castigated by the top political leadership as a “usurious money lender,” perhaps because he overshadows the powers that be and is seen as the “darling” of the West. Visionary leaders have been few and far in between.
Pre-independence, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had the vision of an independent Bangladesh. In the late-seventies, President Ziaur Rahman had a vision of a self-reliant Bangladesh. Both these leaders were assassinated in cold blood. President Ershad’s visionary stance had been overridden by his corruption. The less said of the other leaders, the better.
Much attention has been drawn to the growing Islamic militancy in Bangladesh but the ground reality is that most of this is media hype, particularly of the outside press. The people of Bangladesh pride themselves on religious harmony and pluralism. Even when the Babri Mosque was demolished in India or when the Gujarat massacre saw Muslims slaughtered mercilessly, there were little or no repercussions against the Hindu population in Bangladesh, as had been feared. However, paid scribes supported by vested quarters, do come up with unsubstantiated stories from time to time, of the rising Islamic militancy in Bangladesh. There is, of course, no room for complacency, because there have been scattered incidents of terrorism around the country. The madrassas in the remote poverty-stricken areas of the country are ripe grounds for recruitment. Successive governments, however, have been quite ef- fectively addressing the problem, by modernizing the madrassa curriculum so that graduates from these institutes can be better equipped to join the mainstream workforce.
Endemic corruption is another serious problem of the country. It has simply eaten away the country’s economy, depriving the people of infrastructure, power and basic essentials. A country replete with natural resources of gas, possibly oil, forestry, marine resources and more, is being held back simply due to the corruption of a handful -and the chasm between the rich and the poor grows by the day. Finally, a bureaucratic structure, a relic of the British Raj, does little to help.
In face of all the odds, people still survive on hope.
Analysts realize that cooperation is the key and regional cooperation is of essence. SAARC, the brainchild of Bangladesh, would have been an excellent tool to take the country ahead, with all the other countries of the region, but this association has been ineffective due to the mindset of certain quarters. Recently there has been talk of taking China on board the SAARC train, though India, as expected, has thoroughly opposed this. Whatever the case may be, regional leaders need to put their heads, and hearts, together, and work for a more sustainable development.
In the meantime, the people continue in their endeavors for economic progress and development. The woman who yesterday hid behind her shroud of purdah, today is the chairperson of her union. The servile farmer in the field, today stands up for his rights. Can people’s power prevail? It must, that is the only hope for Bangladesh.