Bangladesh, “Basket Case” No More
Bangladesh, “Basket Case” No More
Not long ago, when you thought of a South Asian country ravaged by floods, governed by bumblers and apparently teetering on the brink of chaos, it wasn't Pakistan that came to mind. That distinction belonged to Bangladesh.
Henry Kissinger famously dubbed it a "basket case" at its birth in 1971, and Bangladesh appeared to work hard to live up to the appellation. For the outside world, much of the country's history can be summed up as a blur of political protests and natural disasters punctuated by outbursts of jihadist violence and the occasional military coup.
No longer. At a reception Friday for world leaders attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York, President Barack Obama congratulated Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed for receiving a prestigious U.N. award earlier in the week. Bangladesh was one of six countries in Asia and Africa feted for its progress toward achieving its Millennium Development Goals, a set of targets that seek to eradicate extreme poverty and boost health, education and the status of women world-wide by 2015.
Bangladesh has much to be proud of. Its economy has grown at nearly 6% a year over the past three years. The country exported $12.3 billion worth of garments last year, making it fourth in the world behind China, the EU and Turkey. Against the odds, Bangladesh has curbed population growth. Today the average Bangladeshi woman bears fewer than three children in her lifetime, down from more than six in the 1970s.
The country's leading NGOs – most famously the microcredit pioneer Grameen Bank – have earned a global reputation. Relations with India are on a high. In August, Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee signed off on a $1 billion soft loan for Bangladeshi infrastructure development, the largest such loan in India's history.
Perhaps most strikingly, Bangladesh – the world's third most populous Muslim-majority country after Indonesia and Pakistan – has shown a willingness to confront both terrorism and the radical Islamic ideology that underpins it. Since taking office in 2009, the Awami League-led government has arrested local members of the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, the al Qaeda affiliate Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami-Bangladesh, and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, a domestic outfit responsible for a wave of bombings in 2005.
In July, the Supreme Court struck down a 31-year-old constitutional amendment and restored Bangladesh to its founding status as a secular republic. The government has banned the writings of the radical Islamic ideologue Abul Ala Maududi (1903-79), founder of Jamaat-e-Islami, the subcontinent's most influential Islamist organization. Maududi regarded warfare for the faith as an exalted form of piety and encouraged the subjugation of women and non-Muslims. A long-awaited war crimes tribunal will try senior Jamaat-e-Islami figures implicated in mass murder during Bangladesh's bloody secession from Pakistan.
Of course, it will take more than a burst of entrepreneurial energy and political purpose before Bangladesh turns the corner for good. The long-running feud between Prime Minister Wazed and her main rival, Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader Khaleda Zia, makes that of the Hatfields and McCoys look benign by comparison. The war of ideas against the country's plethora of Islamist groups requires the kind of sustained pressure that Dhaka has been unable to apply in the past. And garment exports notwithstanding, the economy remains shallow.
Despite these caveats, Bangladesh ought to be held up as a role model, especially for the subcontinent's other Muslim-majority state. Arguably no two countries in the region share as much in common as Pakistan and Bangladesh, two wings of the same country between 1947 and 1971. With 171 million people and 164 million people, respectively, they are the world's sixth and seventh most populous countries. Both have alternated between civilian and military rule. In terms of culture, both layer Islam over an older Indic base.
Yet when it comes to government policies and national identity, the two countries diverge sharply. As a percentage of gross domestic product, Islamabad spends more on its soldiers than on its school teachers; Dhaka does the opposite. In foreign policy, Pakistan seeks to subdue Afghanistan and wrest control of Indian Kashmir. Bangladesh, especially under the current dispensation, prefers cooperation to confrontation with its neighbors.
Perhaps most importantly, Bangladesh appears comfortable in its own skin: politically secular, religiously Muslim and culturally Bengali. Bangladeshis celebrate the poetry, film and literature of Hindus and Muslims equally. With Pakistanis it's more complicated. The man on the street displays the same cultural openness as his Bangladeshi counterpart, but Pakistan also houses a vast religious and military establishment that seeks to hold the country together by using triple-distilled Islam and hatred toward India as glue.
In a way their best known national heroes sum up the two country's personalities. For Bangladesh, it's Grameen Bank's Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, synonymous with small loans to village women. For Pakistan: Abdul Qadeer Khan, the rogue nuclear scientist who peddled contraband technology to Libya, Iran and North Korea.
Nearly 40 years ago, only the most reckless optimist would have bet on flood-prone, war-ravaged Bangladesh over relatively stable and prosperous Pakistan. But with a higher growth rate, a lower birth rate, and a more internationally competitive economy, yesterday's basket case may have the last laugh.