Bangladesh has often been praised for its resilience. If it is a compliment, it is a back-handed one. It implies that things are not good here, and may often become catastrophic, but somehow the sturdy Bangladeshi can manage to smile through it all. In truth, while a great deal still needs to improve, and vastly so, much has already gone right. And it has not gone right either by accident or due to the largesse of others. So, as Bangladesh celebrates its 43rd independence anniversary, it's time to take stock also of other qualities of Bangladesh that have helped us achieve so much and promise yet more to come.
Bangladesh has by now raced ahead of Pakistan and India on most social development indicators. There is a narrative favored by both Western governments and media that claims that this progress is mainly due to NGOs, and no thanks to the government. In truth, since the '90s,many NGOs have moved away from traditional development work - literacy, birth control, sanitation, etc. - to focus on microcredit. While some NGOs still do important work that directly relates to human or community development, the majority of them now act effectively as a financial sub-sector. One needs an analytically more sound understanding of howBangladesh has posted impressive growth in human development since the advent of democracy in the country in 1991 (see chart).
Bangladesh's development has been propelled by four key factors:
a. Stable macro-policies by successive governments
b. Private entrepreneurship
c. Remittance earnings
d. NGO interventions.
Government should get a lot of credit, though it's rarely given, for stability of macro-policy on human development issues - such as female literacy or maternal health care - and for building infrastructure (while the latter still leaves much to be desired, that is not to say that nothing has been done). Jobs and income have been powered by the private sector. Consumer spending has been heavily boosted by remittances from abroad; ideally more of these funds should go towards investment too.And finally, NGO's engagingwomen has helped attitudinal changes on many issues where other Muslim (and non-Muslim) countries struggle: women's empowerment, valuing girl children, and much more.
Iteration of the policy context may seem prosaic, but it is indicative of something beyond mere resilience and reflex:
an evolving self-identification and capability building as a place of enterprise. Bangladesh is not about radical or rash reforms; it is a society of moderation but also of immense ability to make and sustain quiet change: a Muslim country that agitates for secularist goals and has a deeply rooted sense of social justice.
Our history is one of a long and continuous struggle for representative governance. It culminated with the Liberation War of 1971, but the struggle for rights and equity both pre-dates that great moment by decades and has continued since. From the Fakir-Sannyasrebellion in the early days of colonialismto the Tebhaga movement (for share-cropper rights) on the eve of Partition, among numerous other instances, mark a history of collective assertion for rights. Since 1971, our self-identification as Bengalis, rather than as Muslims in the communal sense, has survived foreign-funded revisionist politics. What also needs to be noted is that Bengali nationalism has always been animated by a strong strand of seeking rightful autonomy both for the nation and for individuals.
The brief excursion in history is meant to illustrate that the kind of participation we see in our citizens today in most social development initiatives - be they ushered by the government or by NGOs - has a long cultural basis of activism and of rights consciousness.
To compliment us only on "resilience" every time we withstand the battering of a natural - or political - storm thus misses the point. To express admiring puzzlement at how we could have made such progress - ahead of India and Pakistan - is also disingenuous. Given that the rapacious rule of first the British and then the Pakistanis had left the eastern half of Bengal more badly damaged than many other regions of India, our progress is powered neither by one laudable trait (resilience) nor one over-acclaimed sector (NGOs). It is a sign of a culture that took shape through struggles against deeply unjust rules and has continued to evolve into a constructive model of self-propulsion.
None of this is to say that we can't and don't need to do far better, but it is high time we also acknowledged our gains. Policy stability on key human development issues over the years marks a quiet consensus and desirable evolution of social sensibility that both underlies and survives our deeply riven politics. Given the odds we have overcome both to achieve our independence and then to put to lie insulting epithets like 'a basket-case', it's also time we ditched stunted goals like "middle-income" status. We should dream instead of something much bigger: a place on the world stage befitting the history and chutzpah of our 160 million people.
Think of it this way: a country like the United States has spent trillions and failed to establish even the rudiments of a democratic and secular culture in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we take that price tag as the monetary index of what democracy and secularism are worth, then what is the value of even our flawed democracy and struggling secularism? The lattice of social and cultural attitudes, and supporting policies, that make us one of the most progressive Muslim-majority nations in the world is reason enough to consider ourselves not merely resilient, but rich.
It is also reason enough imagine the kind of future we have not dared to do so far: not just a Beautiful Bangladesh, but Big Bangladesh.
K. Anis Ahmed is the author of The World In My Hands (a novel) and Good Night, Mr. Kissinger (stories). He is also the publisher of the Dhaka Tribune. A version of this piece was first printed in Bangladesh Now.