Bangladesh is still a poor country, but no longer the poorest, and it’s definitely not a “basket case,” the offensive term Henry Kissinger used for it in the 1970s. It has become a development success story, well on its way to becoming an emerging economy, though it is now in an unplanned struggle to host a million Rohingya refugees driven from neighbouring Myanmar.
Canada has been an active partner in Bangladesh’s development from its birth. While it is now much less aid-dependent, Bangladesh is still the largest of the UN’s list of least developed countries (LDCs). More needs to be done by Bangladesh and its donors. Canada remains a natural donor partner to Bangladesh, although we have slipped back from our “top-tier” performance in the 1970s and 1980s, when we often contributed more than $100 million annually.
Bangladesh, a secular Islamic nation of 166 million people, emerged as an independent country in 1971 after a civil war within a once-unified Pakistan. It was born impoverished, with its infrastructure substantially destroyed.
Ecologically, it sits on the rich soils of the flood plain of one of the world’s largest rivers, the Brahmaputra, which, unfortunately, makes it likely to be an early victim of rising sea levels.
But things are now looking up for Bangladesh and its people.
Not least, it is now the world’s no. 2 exporter of ready-made garments (RMG), the source of many of the shirts and jeans that fill the racks of shops and boutiques in Canada and the rest of the West. Developmentally, RMG wages have transformed the lives of about 4 million women and their children. Many are from rural areas, all once poor. The country has overcome food-security challenges with agricultural productivity dramatically improved by the country’s green revolution. Women have been at the heart of the development success of rural microcredit organizations they have pioneered for the world and as leaders in community-level basic education and rural health.
Longer term, the national challenge is economic diversification and inclusive growth. There is a need to move beyond RMG to create quality jobs for an increasingly well-educated youth population. Over the coming years, the country needs to emulate the success of neighbours such as Thailand, Vietnam, and, longer term, South Korea, now a full member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). All these countries have attracted critical foreign investment by developing effective infrastructure, attractive economic policies and well-educated populations. Bangladesh is promising that development will benefit all segments of the population. But with fast growth it must also watch out for the so-called “middle income trap”!
Economic growth has recently been a very respectable 7.24 percent, ahead even of China. Bangladesh has made major advances in reducing its national poverty level to about 15 percent. Work in RMG has played a key role, but remittances, earnings sent home by Bangladeshis working overseas, many in the Gulf States, are equally important, contributing about 10 percent of GNP in recent years.
“A strong development performance has gained Bangladesh a lower middle-income country rating from the World Bank. This means that it will be one of the first of the least developed countries to graduate from this UN status.”
This strong development performance has already gained Bangladesh a lower middle-income country rating from the World Bank. It also means that Bangladesh will be one of the first to graduate from UN LDC status. Indeed, Bangladesh’s quiet fear is that it could lose vital access to the preferential tariffs that many developed countries, including Canada, provide for LDCs.
This development profile has also meant that Bangladesh has become a leadership voice for the LDCs in the UN.
However, the country now faces an unanticipated new challenge: Bangladesh is shouldering the burden of its generous response to the tragedy next door, in Myanmar, where the military, spurred on by Buddhist extremists, is accused of genocidal attacks on the minority Muslim Rohingya population. Villagers have been murdered in their huts, burned alive or shot. Women and girls have been raped.
Close to a million refugees, mainly women and children, most poorly educated and malnourished, have fled in terror across the border into Bangladesh.
A hospitable but poor Bangladesh cannot cope without massive international relief aid, including that from Canada’s government and ordinary Canadians. Bob Rae, appointed as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s special envoy, has just proposed an additional array of Canadian measures to meet this challenge, including accepting some Rohingyas as refugees.
Let’s hope the humanitarian responses to the Rohingyas will be funded in a way that does not divert long-term development aid needed by Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has been substantially shaped by its politics, born out of a civil war and deeply rooted in the struggle for freedom of a determined people. The country is now a well-established democracy, with election turnout regularly in the 80 percent range. It has a bold and varied media and many long-established civil society organizations.
The two competing national political parties, centred for decades around two leaders, one the daughter of the country’s assassinated first president and the other the widow of the assassinated second president, have alternated in power in a very personal feud, which included a recent electoral boycott by one of them. This political competition has, unfortunately, helped to open space for corruption. Optimists hope the next election, due in early 2019, will end the dysfunctional environment that has come from the continual, often violent, competition.
Yet, despite these political tussles, Bangladesh, shaped by a competent and broadly effective government, has emerged over the last decade or so as a strong economic and social performer, one with social indicators such as life expectancy and access to education that are often superior in per-capita terms to its mega-neighbour, India. It is an Islamic state, but one with a secular constitution, a society where the rights of women and needs of children are often judged to be better respected than in many other countries. It has been a traditionally nonradical country, though there are recent concerns about fundamentalist influences in politics and education.
For many years, especially through the 1970s and 1980s, CIDA — the Canadian International Development Agency — was consistently among Bangladesh’s top five bilateral donors, a policy response to the combination of its solid development performance and basic poverty. Long before the introduction of the Canada’s newFeminist International Assistance Policy, it was seen as a pacesetter with its programming on the rights and well-being of women. For example, in the 1980s CIDA financed the supply of contraceptives via UN organizations such as the United Nations Population Fund and UNICEF. Canada has also helped advance other feminist goals, which have contributed to Bangladesh’s demographic transition. The total fertility rate is now 2.2, close to zero population growth. This key success is very much due to the country’s own long-term population policies, via both government programs and the work of many NGOs at the community level in providing rural education.
Today’s streetscape in the capital, Dhaka, is increasingly one of high-rise apartments, upmarket stores and new cars. On a recent visit as a retired Bangladesh country director for CIDA and the World Bank, I saw much that points to an emerging buoyant middle class. However, this should not detract from the reality of a country that still confronts substantial inequalities, especially in rural areas, where key crops are highly vulnerable to floods and powerful storms.
Canada can plan to create a working partnership around aspects of the new Feminist International Assistance Policy as a solid starting point, but implementation will need to be attuned to the challenging policy and institutional context of a poor but determined developing country.
In the past, we have provided broad-based support for Bangladesh’s national railway, power systems, agricultural research and irrigation systems. More recently, we have become an active partner in multidonor programs for health and education. CIDA was an early innovator in directly supporting the country’s exceptionally strong and diverse NGO community in its work in social welfare, microfinance and countrywide basic education and health.
On the ground in Bangladesh, Canada has fallen somewhat behind other traditional donors, such as the multilaterals (World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the UN agencies), UK and Japan. Newcomers, notably China and Islamic donors, maybe more politicized, have also arrived on the scene. Canada’s private-sector investment presence remains modest, with only a few successful examples. We should hope for more, especially if Canada’s new Development Finance Institute proves effective in mobilizing wary Canadian entrepreneurs to invest in Bangladesh and other poorer developing countries.
Aid budgets in general have become tight in recent years as other needs, in Afghanistan and Haiti, for example, have taken priority. However, Bangladesh remains a priority for Canadian development cooperation. There is certainly scope for an enhanced Canadian development role. The country shares our new feminist-policy perspective. We have the opportunity to harness past goodwill through a strong partnership with greater predictability, a shared vision on the path forward.
However, Bangladesh, like many other LDCs, has matured. It knows its own mind on its optimal development path. Even though it is no longer seriously aid-dependent, it welcomes donors who are there to stay, with predictable financing and engaged policy-makers. Bangladesh’s many world-class civil society organizations, including the unique and global BRAC and grassroots Nijera Kori, plus think tanks like the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), offer a ready-made framework of old friends with whom to exchange ideas. The current Canadian focus on promoting a greater role for foreign private investment in the developing world could also contribute to Bangladesh’s development.
Bangladesh remains a natural partner for Canada as a donor. There is a long history of friendship and engagement with Canadians. Moreover, as Canada itself is starting slowly to see the countries of the emerging world, especially in Asia, as desirable partners for its own future global relations, political and commercial, a broader relationship with Bangladesh could be all the more important.
John Sinclair is an instructor and senior fellow, School of International Development and Global Studies, University of Ottawa. He worked for many years as a senior official with the Canadian International Development Agency and the World Bank. He is a graduate in economics from Cambridge University.