Tuesday, November 06, 2012
Bangladesh: From 'basket case' to model
Lessons from the achievements--yes, really, the achievements--of
might seem like a
special case. Because of its poverty, it has long been a recipient of vast
amounts of aid. With around 150 million people crammed into a silted delta
frequently swept by cyclones and devastating floods, it is the most densely
populated country on Earth outside city-states. Hardly any part is isolated by
distance, tradition or ethnicity, making it easier for antipoverty programs to
reach everyone. Unusually, it has a culture that is distinct from its religion:
although most Bangladeshis are Muslims, their culture and language are shared
with the non-Muslim Indian state of Bangladesh West Bengal.
Religious opposition to social change has been mild. Not many nationalities
have so unusual a collection of traits. also has benefited by
letting non-governmental organizations (NGOs) get on with what the state itself
has been too weak or corrupt to do: experiment with different programs and
scale up those that work. Much of its success is attributable to local NGOs
like Grameen and BRAC. Bangladesh has shown that
countries can transform the lives of the poorest without having to wait for
economic growth. But it does not show that growth is irrelevant. The country
surely would have done better still if its economy had expanded faster. Bangladesh
Photo Caption: In this Sept. 30, 2012 photo, Sathi Akhtar, a 29-year-old Bangladeshi woman known as Tattahakallayani or Info Lady shows a 15-minute video played in a laptop at one of their usual weekly meetings at Saghata, a remote impoverished farming village in Gaibandha district, 120 miles (192 kilometers) north of capital Dhaka, Bangladesh. Dozens of Info Ladies bike into remote Bangladeshi villages with laptops and Internet connections, helping tens of thousands of people - especially women - get everything from government services to chats with distant loved ones.
In 1976, five years after independence, a book appeared called "
The Test Case of Development." Bangladesh
It was a test, the authors claimed, because the country was such a disaster that if development could be made to work there, it could surely work anywhere. At the time, many people feared that
would not survive as an
independent state. Bangladesh
One famine, three military coups and four catastrophic floods later, the country that former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once dismissed as "a basket case" is still a test. But no longer in the sense of being the bare minimum that others should seek to surpass. Now,
become a standard for others to live up to. Bangladesh
In the past 20 years,
has made extraordinary
improvements in almost every indicator of human welfare. The average
Bangladeshi can now expect to live four years longer than the average Indian,
though Indians are twice as rich. Girls' education has soared, and the country
has hugely reduced the numbers of early deaths of infants, children and
Some of these changes are among the fastest social improvements ever seen. Remarkably, the country has achieved all this even though economic growth, until recently, has been sluggish and income has risen only modestly.
The female factor
That said, the most important of the country's achievements can serve as a model for others.
shows what happens if you take women seriously as agents of development. When
the country became independent, population-control policies were all the rage
(this was the period of Bangladesh China's
one-child policy and 's
forced sterilizations). Happily lacking the ability to impose such savage
restrictions, the government embarked instead upon a program of voluntary
family planning. It was stunningly successful. It not only halved the rate of
fertility within a generation, but also increased women's influence within
their own households. For the first time, wives controlled the size of
Later, the textile industry took off -- and four-fifths of its workers are female.
was also the home of microcredit, tiny loans for the poorest. By design, these
go to women. Thus, over the past two decades women have earned greater
influence in the home and more financial autonomy. Bangladesh
And, as experience from around the world shows, women spend their money differently from men: typically, on their children's food, health and education. Child welfare has been underpinned by a quiet revolution in the role of women.
That is not all there was to it. Thanks to remittances from abroad and to the Green Revolution,
has done better than
most at reducing persistent rural poverty. It has maintained a broad consensus
in favor of basic social spending despite military coups and a toxic politics
dominated by the bitter infighting of the "battling begums" (the
widow and daughter of former presidents, who lead the two main parties). Bangladesh
As people's education and expectations rise further, it will be all the more important to provide new jobs and opportunities for advancement.
This article was first published in THE ECONOMIST, November 5, 2012