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Dhaka Tribune

‘US can look to Bangladesh as a model to cut poverty’

Bangladesh has much to teach the world on how to engineer progress, says Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof

Update : 11 Mar 2021, 07:22 PM

Bangladesh can be a shining example of poverty reduction for the United States, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof.

In his opinion piece for The New York Times, Kristof said the richest and most powerful country in history had accepted astonishing levels of child poverty, which was one of the biggest moral blemishes on the US.

“With final legislative approval of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan on Wednesday, the US has decided to scrub at that stain,” he remarked.

If the measures included in the plan were made permanent, child poverty could be halved, as suggested by a Columbia University study, mentioned Kristof. 

The US journalist then shifted his attention to Bangladesh: “To understand the returns that are possible, let’s look to lessons from halfway around the world.”

He writes: “Bangladesh was born 50 years ago this month amid genocide, squalor and starvation. Henry Kissinger famously referred to Bangladesh then as a “basket case”, and horrifying photos from a famine in 1974 sealed the country’s reputation as hopeless.”

Kristof then noted that back in 1991, after covering a devastating cyclone that killed over 100,000 Bangladeshis, he had written an article saying the country was “bountiful primarily in misfortune”.

But his pessimistic views have since been proven wrong as Bangladesh has enjoyed thirty years of remarkable progress.

The columnist continued: “Economic growth rates rose steadily, and for the four years before the current pandemic, Bangladesh’s economy soared by 7 to 8 percent per year, according to the World Bank. That was faster than China’s.”

Moreover, life expectancy in Bangladesh is 72 years — longer than in several places in the US, including 10 counties in Mississippi.

“Bangladesh may have once epitomized hopelessness, but it now has much to teach the world about how to engineer progress,” Kristof opined.

Bangladesh’s ‘secret’

Nicholas Kristof attributed education and girls to Bangladesh’s notable progress. 

He said that in the early 1980s, less than 33% of Bangladeshis completed elementary school, and girls in particular were seldom schooled and their contribution to the economy was insignificant.

“But then the government and civic organizations promoted education, including for girls. Today, 98 percent of children in Bangladesh complete elementary school. Still more astonishing for a country with a history of gender gaps, there are now more girls in high school in Bangladesh than boys,” he noted.

Quoting Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who pioneered microcredit, Kristof said: “The most dramatic thing that happened to Bangladesh has to do with transforming the status of women, starting with the poorest women.”

Kristof said Muhammad Yunus founded Grameen Bank, which aided women in becoming entrepreneurs and helped them transform their lives as well as the country.

“As Bangladesh educated and empowered its girls, those educated women became pillars of Bangladesh’s economy. The nation’s garment factories have given women better opportunities, and that shirt you’re wearing right now may have been made by one of them, for Bangladesh is now the world’s largest garment exporter, after China,” the journalist observed.

Noting that factories in Bangladesh were riddled with problems, including low wages, abuse and sexual harassment, fire risks and other safety problems, Kristof said: “But the workers themselves say that such jobs are still better than marrying at 14 and working in a rice paddy, and unions and civil society pushed for and won huge though incomplete improvements in worker safety.”

He continued: “Educated women also filled the ranks of nonprofits like Grameen and Brac, another highly regarded development organization. They got children vaccinated. They promoted toilets. They taught villagers how to read. They explained contraception. They discouraged child marriage.”

Bangladesh has not had great political leaders, he said, before adding: “But its investments in human capital created a dynamism that we can all learn from.”

Kristof said the World Bank called Bangladesh “an inspiring story of reducing poverty”, with 25 million citizens lifted from poverty over 15 years. 

In addition, he said the number of children affected by malnutrition had fallen by about half in Bangladesh since 1991 and was now lower than in India.

He also dismissed the overpopulation issue by saying that on average, Bangladeshi women now had only two children each (down from seven).

“In short, Bangladesh invested in its most underutilized assets — its poor, with a focus on the most marginalized and least productive, because that’s where the highest returns would be,” remarked the award-winning journalist.

The same could be true in America, he opined. 

“We’re not going to squeeze much more productivity out of our billionaires, but we as a country will benefit hugely if we can help the one in seven American children who don’t even graduate from high school.”

“That’s what Biden’s attack on child poverty may be able to do, and why its central element, a refundable child tax credit, should be made permanent,” Kristof emphasized.

“Bangladesh reminds us that investing in marginalized children isn’t just about compassion, but about helping a nation soar,” he stated.

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