Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Myth of the “International Basket Case”

A.B.M. NASIR

SOMETIMES MYTH lives on without any attempt of being rectified. One such myth lived and thrived over more than three and a half decades, concerns the infamous statement depicting an emerging country, Bangladesh, as the “International Basket Case.” For more than three decades this myth has been erroneously attributed to Henry Kissinger having given birth to it.

This effort to debunking the myth is not to defend Henry Kissinger’s shenanigans during late sixties through mid-seventies. Rather, the aim here is to present the facts. The question is if Mr. Kissinger did not then who made that statement?

This issue was brought up in a Washington Special Group Meeting held in Washington D.C. on December 6, 1971. As the minutes of that meeting indicate, ambassador U. Alexis Johnson initiated the statement when the issue of an impending famine was brought up by a participant of the meeting, Mr Maurice Williams. As conversation went on, Mr U. Alexis Johnson at one point quipped “They'll (referring to East Pakistan) be an international basket case.” Mr Kissinger responded by saying “But, not necessarily our basket case.” An excerpt of the conversion was also published in a Time magazine article on January 17, 1972.[i]
Here goes a few excerpts from the minutes of the meeting:
Dr. Kissinger: (to Mr. Williams) Will there be a massive famine in East Pakistan?
Mr. Williams: They have a huge crop just coming in.
Dr. Kissinger: How about next spring?
Mr. Williams: Yes, there will be famine by next spring unless they can pull themselves together by the end of March.
Dr. Kissinger: And we will be asked to bail out the Bangla Desh from famine next spring?
Mr. Williams: Yes.
Dr. Kissinger: Then we had better start thinking about what our policy will be.
Mr. Williams: By March the Bangla Desh will need all kinds of help.
Mr. Johnson: They'll be an international basket case.
Dr. Kissinger: But not necessarily our basket case.
Mr. Sisco: Wait until you hear the humanitarian bleats in this country.
Kissinger’s vitriol (at loosing East Pakistan) is reflected in his response to Ambassador Johnson’s insensitive statement. As being the Chair of the meeting, instead of admonishing him, Mr. Kissinger, paranoid with the fear of communist takeover, seemed to take pleasure out of that insensitive statement about a country, which, at that time, was being subjected to one of the worst mass-murders, rapes, and human sufferings in the history of the world.

Labeling a country with such an epithet reflects the psyche of a disgruntled foreign policy expert, whose administration did everything from condoning the genocide of 1971, famine of 1974, overthrowing of an elected government to the brutal murder of the father of the nation along with his family members.

A recently published article titled “Bangladesh, 'Basket Case' No More Pakistan could learn about economic growth and confronting terrorism from its former eastern province” in the Wall Street Journal on September 29, 2010, brought up the issue in the fore. While the article praises many achievements of Bangladesh, the title, nonetheless, reflects the author’s predisposition in the belief of something that never was true. The fact of the matter is that Bangladesh has never been an “international basket case.” Thus, implying so is not only erroneous, but also insulting to the people of a nation born out of the sacrifice of millions.
Despite the wishful desires of Mr. Kissinger and alike, Bangladesh continues to thrive amid many obstacles. Successes in some areas have been so profound that they outshine many aspects of the development successes of India, dubbed as the ‘Asian Tiger’ for her phenomenal economic performance.

In the socio-economic front, Bangladesh has succeeded in lifting millions out of poverty, cutting fertility rate by more than half, lowering infant mortality rate by 75% and mortality of children under the age of 5 by 46%, all achieved only in less than three decades. It has also achieved gender parity in primary and secondary education enrolments and been able to raise primary enrollment rate to impressive 92% with completion rate standing at 72%. Real GDP growth has reached at an impressive 6.5% rate in 2007 with gradual improvement in inflation rate, high investment rates, high growth in export and remarkable macroeconomic stability.

In the political front, the citizens’ and government’s commitment to democracy, freedom and justice are reflected in various polls, data and actions of the government. For instance, during 1991-09 the Polity and the Freedom House indicators rank Bangladesh third in the status of freedom and fourth in the status of democracy among the Muslim majority countries in the world. Growing voter participation rates in the four successive parliamentary elections during 1991-08 reflect the rising electorates’ confidence in the democratic process.[ii] A Gallup World poll conducted in May 2007 showed 93% of the respondents revealing their confidence on a democratically elected government.[iii] Most recently, the country’s Supreme Court has outlawed the infamous 5th amendment, thus restoring the secular spirit on which the country’s liberation war was fought. The country’s commitment towards justice can be seen in the setting up of the long-sought War-Crime Tribunal to try the perpetrators of the Genocide in 1971.

True, political instability and many forms of institutional rigidities have been holding the country hostage to the whim of many special interest groups. Despite the influence of the special interest groups and against all odds of frequent strokes of natural disasters, unfavorable international support, frequent military intervention, and resource scarcity, the country has been able to pull through.

The evidence from socio-economic success, Gallup poll, Polity and Freedom House indicators, voters turn-out in elections, the Supreme Court verdict and the commencement of the War-Crime tribunal shows the freedom loving psyche of the citizens of the country, which seems to be unknown to many international media as reflected either in their patronizing tones and/or in the negative portrayal of the country.

Instead, with the records of the achievements, Bangladesh can be dubbed as the ‘Basket of Hope.’ #
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[i] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976 Volume XI, South Asia Crisis, 1971, Document 235 (Minutes of Washington Special Actions Group Meeting1) 1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–115, WSAG Minutes, Originals, 1971. Top Secret; Sensitive; Codeword. No drafting information appears on the minutes. The meeting was held in the White House Situation Room. A briefer record of the meeting, prepared by James Noyes (OASD/ISA), is in the Washington National Records Center, OSD Files, FRC 330 76 0197, Box 74, Pakistan 381 (Dec) 1971. See also the link http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1969-76v11/d235. The link was visited on September 30, 2010.
[ii] Voter participation rates were 55.46%, 74.96%, and 75.59%, respectively, in 1991, 1996, and 2001 parliamentary elections (source: Bangladesh Election Commission website). In the most recent parliamentary election held in December 28, 2008, voter participation rate was 87%, showing strong enthusiasm among the citizens in the democratic process (Daily Star, January 1, 2009).
[iii] Lyons, Linda. Bangladeshis Positive, Despite Political Uncertainty: Citizens more likely to express confidence in their government and economy than a year ago. October 12, 2007. The document can be downloaded from the link http://www.gallup.com/poll/101869/Bangladeshis-Positive-Despite-Political-Uncertainty.aspx and was last viewed on February 27, 2010.


ABM Nasir, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Economics with School of Business, North Carolina Central University, USA