Vol. 5 Num 972 Fri. February 23, 2007  

Bangladesh's development syndrome

There is an enviable constituency for Africa in the United States -- one that is designed to mobilize attention and resources to be directed towards every major issue that plagues the continent. Whether it is the Aids epidemic, food crisis or human rights violations, NGOs, interest groups, celebrities and policymakers are invested in leading the fight against them head-on.

Indeed, Africa needs all the attention and help it can get. Save a few African countries, which have made progress on economic growth, debt reduction and governance, progress in most others is severely inadequate.

What is regrettable though is that when it comes to foreign trade and aid policy, the US focus on Africa often tends to sideline some other very poor countries such as Bangladesh.

Of the 50 UN-designated Least Developed Countries (LDCs), 33 are in sub-Saharan Africa. The rest are largely Asian countries, some of them small island states.

Of these, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Cambodia are some of the more populous states with quite substantial development challenges.

Even their per capita incomes are smaller than those of some African LDCs, such as Mauritania or Angola.

Despite this discrepancy, American NGOs, policymakers, and the assorted cadre of interested parties mentioned above often tend to ignore, or at best minimize, the problems of very poor, but non-African, LDCs such as Bangladesh or Cambodia.

Worth noting that Afghanistan gets ample attention and aid, due to US strategic interests of creating a functioning state there.

The fact remains that while Africa is in truly desperate shape, there are far larger numbers of people living in severe poverty in places like Bangladesh or Cambodia than in groups of some African countries combined.

Recent Bangladeshi accomplishments, such as self-sufficiency in food production, social innovations such as microfinance, and the ability to withstand cutthroat clothing trade competition from China are obviously remarkable.

But somehow, they are falsely projecting an image of our nation in Washington, DC circles as one that is no longer in need of foreign attention or help.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh recently had to slash its annual development program for this fiscal year by 15 percent to 220 billion taka (USD 3.18 billion) because of hefty loan repayments and poor aid inflows.

My point here is not that poor countries like Bangladesh or Cambodia should seek to make donor country governments and NGOs see us as perpetual victims.

It is, rather, that things should be kept in perspective. Our impressive economic achievements should be seen as examples in their own right, and not as reasons to shift trade and aid policies to favor others at our expense, some of whom may even be better off than us.

For example, at a recent gathering of international development wizards in Washington, DC, an influential Washingtonian, while mentioning the need for better trade and aid policies for Africa mentioned Bangladesh and Chile in the same breath as countries that are doing well and not in need of help.

Note that while Bangladeshi growth rates over the past few years have been quite phenomenal, Chile's national income per capita is slightly higher than Bric countries (emerging economies) like Brazil or Russia.

It is time for Bangladeshis to build a well-oiled machine similar to the constituency for Africa in the United States.

We must strive better to convey the real situation, interests and needs of our country to American policy decision-makers than be the victims of their false notions.

The author is a freelance contributor to The Daily Star.