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     Volume 4 Issue 52 | June 24, 2005 |

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Changing the Face of Bangladesh

Mustahid Hossain

Is there something we can do to improve how Bangladesh is perceived by outsiders? Is this a question we should even care about?

I think increasingly such questions are becoming more and more important to answer as we join the rest of the world to attract investments from them and to sell them our goods and services. Think, for instance: Would you buy fly-infested food for your six-year-old? You wouldn't. That's because fly-infested food gives you a bad impression about the shop and its hygiene and you certainly would not want to risk your child's health. Similarly, as global trade becomes interdependent, each nation, by definition, has also become a shopkeeper of sorts: competing in the global bazaar to sell goods and services to other nations for profit. Like individual shops, the ones that do good advertising to give positive impressions and build lasting reputations are likely to attract repeat customers and prosper well. This is how the way a country manages its reputation in business is related to how wealthy it can be.

Recently, a columnist in an English weekly had this to write in The Nepali Times:

Most Nepalese are unsure about what to make of Bangladesh. When asked, they grope for the clichés: floods and cyclones, heat and dust, overpopulation and food shortages, and poverty and destitution. Others who have been there talk about the allure of Bangladeshi textiles and handicrafts, the variety of rice-and-fish dishes that add zing to Bangla cuisine, and stunningly beautiful tea gardens of Sylhet and mangrove forests of Sundarbans. Some mention the vitality of politically conscious theatre and arts scenes with roots in the Bangla-language movement that came forward in the run up to the Liberation War of 1971 against the then West Pakistan. A few may even hum a stanza or two of evocative Rabindra Sangeet.

But tell them how this youngest South Asian country, with a land area that's slightly smaller than Nepal's but a population of 150 million, has today created food surpluses. Explain to them its success in reducing population growth at a rate lower than Nepal's. Describe its pioneering use of micro-credits to help impoverished women through NGO networks. Talk about how its 5-billion-dollar-a-year ready-made garment industry has managed to maintain a steady growth despite the end of the global quota system. Add further that South Asia's largest shopping mall opened for business in Dhaka last October, and you are likely to hear the inevitably lamentable comparisons with Nepal. To be sure, highlighting Bangladesh's recent achievements is not going to make its bundle of problems related to governance, economy and geography disappear anytime soon. But doing so does recast them as manageable problems that -- given the political will, resources and time -- are likely to yield to solutions."

There you have it. At least, a friend of Bangladesh is giving a positive spin on our image to his countrymen. If outsiders go to such lengths to talk in our favour, why can't we do it for ourselves?

A quick scan of the Western press, through Google's news search service, shows how the outside world views Bangladesh. It is not a positive image. And we help them keep that image by reacting negatively to it -- arguing with them over relatively petty details while missing the point that we can take a step back only to come forward to re-shape that image to our advantage. The idea here is to be strategic about what we want to emphasise and repeat many times about Bangladesh and what we don't want to focus on, thereby drawing unnecessary attention. The point is to let our strengths outweigh our weaknesses, as they usually do. After all, advertising our strengths to the global community need not make us defensive and reactive. If anything, it should make us singularly proud, which then enhances our in-built sense of patriotism too.

Yes, lately, the Western press is writing about Bangladesh as a place where religious extremism has flourished. Sad though that development is, we should not fear from repeatedly telling the world that such extremism is a marginal element in our society of 140 peace-loving million people who have been exercising their political rights democratically since 1991. We all know that democracy, despite its merits, is known world-wide for temporarily even allowing space to some extreme elements in the name of giving all viewpoints to chance to be aired in the public space. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the US is an example of a democracy giving temporary space to a racist organisation. However, just as sunshine is bad for cockroaches, democracy is ultimately bad for these extreme elements. In light of this, why can't we emphasisse our democratic achievements, which despite its correctable flaws, remain the best antidote to extremism?

It's time we in Bangladesh seriously looked at how we manage our country's international image. This has, as I said earlier, become an urgent task in today's world where countries are getting richer by selling and buying goods and services. Given this reality, we need not be defensive about Bangladesh's image. Nor do we need to be accusatory toward others. We also need not be reactive to anything others might say, for doing that gives them a chance to set the agenda as to how to define us. We just need to talk about our positive aspects, our strengths, and our resilience repeatedly and often to show that the image the rest of the world has of us is long overdue for a timely update.

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