By Ken Coates, January 24, 2023
For Canadians of a certain age, Bangladesh is associated, first and foremost, with George Harrison, Ravi Shankar and the famous 1971 Concert for Bangladesh. The newly formed nation, forged out of its War of Independence from Pakistan, suffered through mass killings, widespread poverty, and an economic collapse that devastated the country. Images of that era, marked by starvation and severe brutality, have hung over Bangladesh like a dark cloud.
In recent years, hard times have lingered. The country is extremely vulnerable to climate change, relies heavily on foreign aid to develop its national infrastructure, endures widespread poverty, and recently accepted over 1 million Rohingya refugees fleeing from Myanmar. Many of the nation’s wealthiest and most talented citizens leave the country in search of high incomes and a higher quality of life.
It is easy to put Bangladesh in a group of failing, if not failed, states. First impressions re-enforce these notions. Dhaka is a massively over-crowded and chaotic place, a city of more than 20 million people with almost no traffic lights and without the modern infrastructure that now dominate urban centres in East Asia. Being stuck in traffic is a fact of life and the myriad cranes, the endless clamouring of jackhammers, and tens of thousands of workers buzzing around unregulated worksites are constant reminders that the country is under construction.
Bangladesh is either an example of unending chaos or a brilliant illustration of the self-ordering capabilities of human beings. It often feels like the former, as the incessant noise and endless waves of humanity can be overwhelming. But the uncoordinated markets, miles of tiny stores and service outlets lining streets and roads, flotillas of commercial vessels and local boats in overcrowded harbours, and tens of thousands of bicycles, rickshaws, and CNGs (gas powered three-wheeled vehicles), by the miracle of the invisible hand, actually work, employing millions, feeding the nation and building a surprisingly robust economy.
Outside Dhaka, there are very few quiet spots, for jamming almost 170 million people into an area the size of New Brunswick has obvious consequences. There are some protected areas, particularly the ecologically vital Sundarbans mangrove forests. The corporate-run tea plantations in the eastern districts provide pastoral sanctuaries. But in the outlying areas, the pace is just as frenetic, the roads just as terrifyingly chaotic, and the land and water use equally intense. The Dhaka haze extends over almost the entire country, with daily air quality readings well in excess of the worst Canadian urban ratings. To a North American visiting Bangladesh, the country seems close to beyond redemption, a judgment repeated with profound sadness by many citizens.
These initial impressions mask a reality that deserves to be much better known. For this is not Bangladesh of 1971. The country receives massive amounts of foreign aid, with close to $10 billion in COVID-enhanced assistance in 2021-2022. Donor countries – Japan, Germany, Netherlands, the UK and US are among the largest supporters – and international financial organizations like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank provide targeted assistance that is slowly but impressively rebuilding the roads, adding new hospitals, expanding education and improving health care offerings.
The combination of concerted government efforts, which are stalled by difficulties collecting tax revenue from the poorly regulated economy, and externally funded development projects have had real and substantial effects. An aggressive electrification effort increased access to power from around 30 percent of the population to over 96 percent at present. The birth rate has fallen from 47/1000 people in 1970 to 17/1000 in 2020. Life expectancy, under 47 years in 1970, has risen dramatically to almost 73 years. Urban population growth, still high at 3 percent per year, is down from 10 percent in 1980.
Conditions for young people are improving quickly. In 1990, 65 percent of children under 5 years old were underweight – a prime indicator of future health difficulties; by 2019, that number had fallen to under 23 percent. Participation in post-secondary education has jumped from under 15 percent in 2012 to almost 25 percent in 2021. High school participation rates are over 70 percent for both genders and over 85 percent for girls. Literacy, under 30 percent in 1980, is closing in on 80 percent.
There are signs of an emerging modern economy. High speed Internet is widely available, and cell service is inexpensive and reliable. Home delivery of restaurant food and supplies, although largely the preserve of the wealthy and ex-pats, are better than much of Canada. Electrical services, while not totally dependable, are affordable for many. A major international airport is under construction in Dhaka, a much-needed replacement to the current over-capacity facility. Major bridges and flyways (elevated roads) have been built or are under construction, with a goal of reducing the famous congestion on the city’s streets.
Of course, there are many signs that the country remains a work in progress. Open sewers need attention as does the nation’s groundwater dependant water supply. The heavy reliance on remittances from Bangladeshis working abroad robs the country of many of its best workers and most highly skilled professionals. The smog that chokes the entire country needs to be brought under control. Marginalized peoples, particularly in the Chittagong Hills, have received fewer benefits from the country’s improved infrastructure and the arrival of a Rohingya refugees from nearby Myanmar strains Bangladesh’s limited resources.
Countries like Bangladesh are off Canada’s radar most of the time, surfacing only when events like the Rohingya crisis bursts onto the headlines or when climate change threatens millions of residents of the low-lying country. A casual observer might view the nation as being at risk, if not a classic illustration of an undeveloped nation. This perspective misses an important example of national resilience, of a country overcoming formidable historical challenges and converting the nation-building energy of independence from Pakistan into a country determined to join the list of developed countries by 2041. The World Bank described Bangladesh as “a model for poverty reduction” and noted that the country had enjoyed the world’s highest GDP growth in the decade before the pandemic.
Transformations of this order have occurred in other Asian countries, from Japan to Taiwan and including South Korea and, more recently, Malaysia. India is undergoing a comparable transformation and is, in many respects, well in advance of Bangladesh. But Canadians, for now content to welcome a steady influx of wealthy Bangladeshi migrants and university students, would do well to pay more attention to the remarkable transformation underway in the underappreciated and rapidly improving nation of Bangladesh.
Ken Coates is Distinguished Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, and a Canada Research Chair at the University of Saskatchewan. This article is a companion piece to the author’s article on the Rohingyan refugee crisis in the Ottawa Citizen.