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.

Southasia - - Contents - By Aye­sha Kabir

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.

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