Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Bangladesh: basket case or recipe for success?


OUT in the ravaged fields, days after cyclone Sidr hit Bangladesh last month, the devastation was everywhere. Houses, crops, trees, livestock were destroyed — and sadly, so were people. Yet even more evident was the resilient Bangladeshi spirit. Traders started selling rice again with little or no increase in price; villagers salvaged what they could and began rebuilding their fragile homes; children dried textbooks, unsure when classes would resume. There, before my eyes, was the intriguing Bangladesh: resilient and vulnerable, secure and insecure, developing and retrogressing, all at once.

The Bangladesh puzzle has two distinct dimensions. One goes back to a remark by Henry Kissinger in 1971, in response to an assertion that Bangladesh would be a "basket case." His reply that it would "not necessarily be our basket case" still sums up many people's views of the country and can be heard quite often in expatriate clubs in Dhaka and among policy circles in members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The recent macroeconomic trends of creeping inflation, rising inequality and a sluggish economy, topped by two neck-to-neck disasters (the November cyclone followed July's massive flooding) give these Cassandra-like voices more credence.

The other dimension has been provided in recent analysis, including that by economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen: Bangladesh has reduced social poverty better than some of the regional giants, such as neighbouring India. The 2005 UN Development Program Human Development Report moved the country from the low development group into the category with medium development indicators.

Partitions and disasters figure prominently in the past century of regional history. Cyclones, floods and famine have killed millions. In recent years, the incidence of serious disaster has increased. Near-famine situations in the north are a perennial problem. In 2004, almost 50 per cent of Bangladesh's surface area was submerged for more than two months.

The future may hold more of the same, with poorly planned construction and urbanization clogging the natural drainage systems and aggravating localized droughts in the north and the northwest — exacerbating existing problems and adding new ones, such as expected subsidence in Dhaka due to the lowering of the water table. Even without projected sea-level rises, which are predicted to displace 30 million people within the next 40 years, Bangladesh is slowly sinking into the sea as the Himalayas rise. The expected effects of climate change worsen all of the above, affecting the basic food security and hunger status of a country that has struggled hard to attain near-self-sufficiency in food production.

Bangladesh's troubles should be of concern for all of us. A country of almost 150 million people cannot be ignored. These problems will not simply disappear — they will present massive issues for Bangladesh's neighbours and could add another country to the list of failed states that worry the world so.

But wait. Bangladesh has weathered every storm, reduced poverty, improved life expectancy and living standards and is performing well on many of the Millennium Development Goals. The frequency of disaster is increasing, but the cost in lives is nowhere as high as it was. Disaster preparedness and early warnings have worked. Food security has improved. This cyclone has killed thousands, but if it had hit 30 years ago, it would have killed hundreds of thousands.

Indeed, far from being a basket case, Bangladesh should be held up as a model for poorer countries that could suffer from worsening global conditions. If this country can do it, with its massive poverty-stricken population, widespread corruption and a history of intermittent political instability, then surely any can.

However, Bangladesh is again standing at a crossroads and needs more friends — especially friends who will stay for the long term and help the country deal with the challenges of geography, climate change and human shortcoming.

The methods and practices for effective disaster preparedness and disaster risk reduction are known and in part put into great effect. But erratic commitment and present-day needs mean that it is always at the bottom of pressing priorities, such as importing food grains and fuel, supplying electricity or expanding education. That future needs to be secured through planned, external assistance.

Seeing the damage, I realize that we in the humanitarian community have a hard road ahead. At the World Food Program, we are well known for providing emergency food assistance in the aftermath of emergencies. What is less well known is that we are working to expand programs to help the population become less vulnerable to shocks and to start vital public works projects to secure both the short- and long-term prospects of these people as we have successfully done in the past.

But more is needed. Bangladesh has always had to improve on what existed before; it must swim quickly just to stay afloat. Like anything, this requires commitment and support. History shows that neither are squandered when given to Bangladesh — and that the benefits can spread across the region and the world as a whole. #

First published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto, Canada on December 18, 2007 Douglas Broderick is the Bangladesh representative for the United Nations World Food Program