Bangladesh on the rise
DHAKA — I first heard about Bangladesh when I was in elementary school in the late 1990s and my father, an environmental scientist, worked there on a development project. He loved the country and spoke highly of the people, but he also recounted the sights of urban poverty: of severely malnourished children and homeless people sleeping on the streets.
Two decades later, I am here in Dhaka to see Bangladesh for myself, and I am pleasantly surprised to see a country quite different from the one my father had described. “A lot has changed over the past 10 years,” Goutam, a tech entrepreneur, tells me and my Equity Initiative colleagues over coffee in Gulshan, one of the city’s genteel neighborhoods. “There’s stability. We’re not as dependent on textiles and foreign remittances.”
His observations are backed by the numbers: Bangladesh’s GDP has grown by an astounding 188 percent over the past decade, spurred by exports and industrial growth. For a country which, from the 1970-’80s, was caught in a painful War of Independence from Pakistan and an ensuing period of military coups and dictatorship, Bangladesh is certainly one of Asia’s remarkable—if underrated — success stories.
Still, the country is faced with myriad challenges. Greater Dhaka may have grown prosperous, but the metropolitan area of over 18 million is beset with transport and quality-of-life issues. Like Manileños, the first thing its residents complain about is the traffic, and judging from the week that I’ve been here, I can only agree.
Income inequality, moreover, has worsened, with the Gini coefficient rising from 0.432 in 1996 to 0.482 in 2016. On a field visit to Korail, the largest slum in the city, I met people struggling to get by with informal and low-paying jobs (e.g. rickshaw-pulling, garment work) amid miserable living conditions. Dhaka may be transforming — a metro rail system is scheduled to open in 2021 — but what of the urban poor?
Then there’s the Rohingya conundrum. As I wrote in my previous column, the country deserves credit for opening its doors to the refugees from neighboring Myanmar, but tensions are rising, the government’s attitude is changing, and unless the international community acts more forcefully on the crisis, it will remain a dilemma with no end in sight.
Finally, politics and governance remain fraught with problems. Now on her 10th year as prime minister, Sheikh Hasina—daughter of Sheikh Mujib, “Father of the Nation” — is credited with bringing a measure of stability to the country, but the “Iron Lady” has also been criticized for the country’s human rights record, including last year’s Duterte-style drug war. Corruption and bureaucratic red tape, moreover, continue to hold back progress.
Despite these challenges, I saw three things that give me reason to believe that Bangladesh’s rise will continue.
First, a vibrant civil society, with NGOs taking the lead in developing community-based programs and social enterprises. While the NGOs have also faced questions of accountability and a host of criticisms, they nonetheless deserve credit for driving innovation, bridging communities and serving as an implicit check and balance on the government.
Second, a strong sense of community volunteerism. We visited a rural community in Manikganj and saw how the Brac-supported shasthya shebika (community health volunteers) are at the forefront of delivering essential health services, facilitating programs like TB-DOTS by tapping into the community’s social capital. With high volunteer rates across the country (17.5 percent per one survey), I’m sure volunteerism will remain a force for social good in this country in the coming years.
Third, dynamism among the youth. Some of the students and young professionals I met in Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar see their future abroad, but others speak of a commitment to stay in their homeland, articulating a sense of pride in their literature, history and people.
“When you come back, I’m sure the country would have changed again — for the better,” Shaheed, an international relations graduate, tells me. Whether Bangladesh’s growth will be sustained, and to what extent it will be inclusive, remain open questions, but nations are built on the optimism of its young people.
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