Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once dismissed Bangladesh as a "basket case." After a second look now, he may want to take his words back.
Picture the scene: You’re in a town somewhere in the developing world when a rickshaw driver approaches you. He is skeletal and haggard, barefoot, with hollow eyes that betray the hunger he became accustomed to a long time ago. With all the effort he can muster, he pedals towards you – expectant, hopeful. When you hail him, it is you – not he – who decides the fee. He is in no position to turn down any offer. He takes you to your destination. Hours later, when you re-emerge, he is waiting for you. “I knew you had to appear sooner or later,” he explains, "and then you’d need a ride home.” It’s the only way he can guarantee some extra cash that day.
I was that passenger, and this was in Bangladesh. It was the mid-eighties and the scenario had, for me, become a powerful and disturbing representation of the hardship most Bangladeshis endured daily. The memory of that rickshaw driver has stayed with me to this day.
My earliest recollections of Bangladesh date back before this incident to the late seventies when, as a young child, I spent the best part of a year in the northeastern region of Sylhet. The world was a very different place back then. Even middle-class homes like my grandfather’s – where my mother, brothers and I stayed – lacked many basic items we all take for granted, such as a land-line phone, a television and even a fridge.
I recall how the only communication we had with my father – who had remained in the UK – would be through letters or, on rare occasions, he called the phone at a neighbour’s house. I remember how we would sprint across the yard before the line cut out, only to barely make out his muted voice through a grainy, distorted line.
In those days, life was limited in many ways – not least when it came to food. Most of the time we breakfasted on a slice of bread or some biscuits – milk was rarely available – and lunch and dinner consisted of a plate of rice with vegetables, lentils and a strictly-rationed piece of fish. Meat was only served on special occasions. And while sweets and treats were plentiful for those who could afford it, all mishtis or sweetmeats and savoury snacks such as samosas, parathas and channa choor were traditional and locally produced. Hardly any food goods were imported, and the international brands we're all familiar with were virtually unknown. So, there was little chance of munching on a Snickers bar, or a packet of Pringles or swigging from a bottle of Coca-Cola.
My maternal grandmother’s home, situated in a village 60 kilometres from Sylhet, was even more primitive. The outside toilet had no flush, and there was no running water or electricity. The roads leading up to the house were so bad that cars could not drive along them. So we had no choice but to complete the last two kilometres of our journey on foot, while local men trotted alongside us with our cases weighing down heavily onto their backs.
It sounds tough, but my family was among the more fortunate ones. We at least lived in proper houses and could afford some luxuries. For the vast majority of Bangladeshis, life was a hand-to-mouth existence. I still recall village men working from sunrise to sunset in fields, ploughing the land in the scorching heat for two bowls of rice a day.
On one occasion, an elderly man who spent his time weaving baskets on our veranda asked me if there was any way I could get him some medicine for a curable illness he had. I was a child back then and had no means of helping. I later heard he had died of the same illness.
In the city, I would often see people lying flat out on the pavements due to hunger. Diseases were rife. I first learnt the words "cholera" and "typhoid" while in Bangladesh. Every so often, adults would ominously whisper that someone had died of it. I didn’t really understand the causes, but I instinctively knew this was something synonymous with the land of my ancestors.
At the time, the country was still reeling from a devastating war against Pakistan. During the nine-month conflict in 1971 that led to Bangladesh’s independence, at least hundreds of thousands of people were killed by Pakistani forces – including many of the country’s top professionals and intellectuals – and more than 200,000 women were raped.
In the twenty years of military rule that followed, the country made such little progress that it was widely believed Bangladesh would never be able to lift itself out of its dire existence. Its worldwide standing was so abysmal that it was even dismissed as a "basket case" by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Fast forward thirty years and Bangladesh is beyond recognition. Its economy has grown consistently by more than 6 percent over the past decade – it’s only one of thirty countries to achieve this – and is expected to reach 7.8 percent this year. The World Bank has raised the country's status from a least developed country to a middle-income one, and there’s even talk that it could become the world’s 23rd largest economy by 2050.
Bangladesh has also made its mark on the international platform. Its ready-made garments industry is the second largest in the world after China, and it sells generic medicines to more than 140 countries. It also exports plastics, footwear, leather goods and fish all over the world. Added to this, more and more international businesses, attracted by low labour and operating costs, are moving their operations to Bangladesh.
But what’s behind this remarkable change of fortune? The reasons are complex and wide-ranging, but job creation is one of them. Bangladesh’s garments industry has enabled millions of women to earn a living, and sectors such as pharmaceuticals and IT have opened up opportunities to graduates across the country.
Non-Governmental Organisations, or NGOs, have also played a crucial role over the years by providing all manners of grassroots services, including education and primary healthcare and even financial services such as microcredit. All this has empowered millions of people, especially women, in rural areas.
In addition, the Bangladeshi government has been credited for its relatively open economic policies and has also invested in sectors such as IT and traditional artisan products. At the moment, it is offering tax-free incentives to foreign companies that are considering relocating to Bangladesh.
But it’s not all good news. For years, various governments have faced widespread and compelling accusations of political oppression and human rights abuses. Bangladesh is believed to be one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Its road and transport infrastructure is in urgent need of modernization. These are but a few of the many problems the country still faces.
With all these challenges, who exactly should take the credit for Bangladesh’s success? The answer became clear to me during a recent trip to the country. Wherever I went, what stood out most was just how hard working and resilient the people are. All around me they were busy laying down tarmac, sewing together pieces of clothing, writing software, preparing drug formulations, carrying bricks, performing medical operations, teaching, driving trucks and carrying out just about every other task imaginable.
I witnessed a resourcefulness, an infallible ability in the people to pick themselves up and carry on, time and time again, no matter what life threw at them. I discovered a nation that’s brimming with vision, profound intellect and endless discipline.
And it’s starting to pay off.
My grandmother’s house has had running water and electricity for years now. These days, the main road comes right up to her yard. It is lined with a string of shops that sell everything from mobile phones and instant noodles to diapers and top brand shampoos.
At my grandfather’s house, the dining table is usually heaving with a plethora of dishes every mealtime. If we decide to eat out, we are often spoilt for choice, so abundant and varied are the restaurants and eateries.
And for anyone trying to hail a rickshaw be warned: If your destination is not along the driver’s preferred route, he will loftily dismiss you and continue on his merry way. He no longer needs the cash that badly.
But Bangladesh still has a long way to go. It’s no Singapore or Malaysia, and chances are it won’t become so any time soon. Twenty-four percent of people still live below the poverty line and wages remain among the lowest in the world. But context is everything here. For a country that lost everything in a horrific war less than 50 years ago, its achievements are nothing short of remarkable. Right now, Bangladesh seems unstoppable. Henry Kissinger, take note.