There has been considerable progress, but it could have been much greater if confrontational politics was not the norm
Whenever I am asked to write about how I feel about Bangladesh and its development, I find that I have so many feelings going back to the very painful birth of the country, that it is very difficult to write everything down.
As Bangladesh is about to celebrate, next month, the 50th anniversary of the independence of the country, I thought I should write down a few thoughts and feelings.
When I came to Dhaka overland from Kolkata in January 1972, I saw a broken country.
Villages burned, bridges and culverts blown up, ferries sunk, many fields uncultivated; but I also talked to Bangladeshis going home, and they said that they were happy and relieved to be going home, but also fearful of their uncertain future.
With the return of Bangabandhu in January 1972, Bangladesh was in a state of euphoria. However, by March 1972, when it was clearer how bad things were, we wrote, then, to the head office of my organization, Oxfam, that many seasoned international aid officials, then in Dhaka, believed that if food supplies were not provided by the world community in sufficient quantity and the infrastructure not quickly repaired, Bangladesh might not be able to survive as a nation state.
I am so very glad that Bangladesh has proved these observers wrong. In 1972, there were an estimated 75 million people in Bangladesh. Now, 49 years later, the figure is approaching 170 million.
In the famine of 1974, thousands of people died from starvation. Now, I am prepared to confidently say that nobody dies of starvation.
Now, their neighbours and local communities do not allow this to happen.
The Rowmari of Kurigram in 1974/75 is not the same at all in 2021. It is now green for a lot of the year.
So the agricultural “positive” is huge and for all to see, and important research is ongoing to develop new varieties of rice that will grow with less water or in saline water.
At the same time, there are many who worry greatly about mono-cropping depleting the soil’s structure and fertility. Farmers talk of “poisoning the earth” with chemical fertilizer and pesticide. It is, perhaps, difficult to strike the right balance.
Everyone knows how “positive” the development of the garment industry has been for the country, and it has helped change the image of women as well. In 1972, I rarely saw a woman on the streets in Dhaka, and there were hardly any women in the government offices I visited then. Now, it is completely different, and the education of girls and women has increased dramatically.
However, as a result of the Covid pandemic, very worryingly and tragically, the financial pressure on poorer families has led to a sudden increase in the number of child marriages, and great effort needs to be made by everyone to stop this trend. Another enormous “positive” is, of course, the development of communication; roads and bridges as well as mobile phones and internet. However, it is a huge mistake that investment in the railways has been tragically neglected.
If successive governments had invested wisely in the railways and mass transit systems, the country would not be reeling from hours-long road traffic tailbacks and traffic jams which drain the country’s economy to a great extent.
One area of work that has been close to my heart is the improvement of life for people with disabilities. In the last 25 years, there has been considerable progress both at government and NGO levels, but it is not nearly enough when it is estimated that 15% of the population has some kind of disability.
The range of government safety nets is impressive, but the funds available are nowhere near sufficient, and the allocation is not made so that the neediest benefit.
Sadly, political interference is often allowed to take place. At the same time, many examples are coming to light and are being publicized about people with disabilities contributing in many ways, including income-generating, to the society.
Foreigners often ask me how I love Bangladesh so much. They remind me that Dhaka has been named as one of the most unliveable capital cities in the world -- there is still much poverty, and they wonder if I have not become just a little mad.
It is true that Dhaka was a much greener place when I lived here 35 years ago, and since then the city planners and other authorities, by doing nothing, have done a great disservice to the inhabitants of the city. However, it is the people of Bangladesh, across class and religion, whom I love, and who are dear to me. Most of them are hard-working, hospitable, generous, and full of warm feelings. I was here when “democracy” returned to Bangladesh in late 1990, and there was great hope that progress would surge forward.
There has been considerable progress, but it could have been much greater if confrontational politics was not the norm.
Can I hope that we will soon see an end to this? Perhaps, but I dare not predict when that will happen. The quality of a government’s work is usually enhanced if there is a robust opposition which offers constructive criticism, but in Bangladesh, this is absent, and it is also difficult for the public to offer the same.
If members of the public provide suggestions to or constructive criticism of the government, they are often harassed or silenced. This is not how a healthy democracy should work, and I hope that those in power will find ways to change their attitude to constructive criticism.
I have written about Bangladeshis being generous. In 2012, I was one of many foreigners and organizations of different countries honoured by the Government of Bangladesh, and I received the “Friends of Liberation War Honour” for the work I undertook with Oxfam among 600,000 Bangladesh refugees in India in 1971.
For me, it was an honour to be able to help at a time of need in 1971, and I just happened to be “in the right place at the right time.” I do not think that a country has ever said “thank you” in this way before.
It was a truly remarkable and generous recognition and award. I hope that, in the future, Bangladeshis will find ways in which to be more generous and kind to each other, and not just to foreign friends.
Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.