Letter from Bangladesh

Patrick Belton of OxBlog receives a letter from his colleague in Bangladesh:

IT is the new buzz here, but it is unclear whether it actually exists besides one sad-looking internet café with two computers in the “wealthy” part of town (read: less than abject poverty). Both times I went there was no current and hence no internet, but in theory you could check your email. Dhaka still does not have a McDonald’s nor any other international chain, although it does have a Dominous pizza (note the ingenious way around copyright) and a restaurant that has stolen the Chili’s logo and sells Thai food. The country has trouble attracting foreign investment because it has one of the highest corruption rates in the world, exacerbated by a political system run almost entirely by two political families who trade off power almost every election. During my visit, two strikes called by the opposition caused economic activity to grind to a halt. Fearing reprisals from the organized crime mobs controlled by each of the families, the entire country shuts down. When I ventured onto the streets around 2 p.m., the only activity I saw on the usually congested streets was an occasional rickshaw.

After several days in Dhaka, I traveled by launch down the Ganges River to the island of Bhola, which served as my home for several months back in 2001. Things here have changed more dramatically, but I fear for the worst. When I was here before, women did not adhere strictly to purdah and many ventured into the marketplace wearing only hijab. Now, women are largely kept to their homes and are required to wear a burkah in public. However, some advances have been made in women’s health. Birth control in the form of contraceptive pills from India is now available, although apparently the local Madrassa has organized a campaign against its use (not that it seemed to be having much effect; most of the women see it as a Godsend). The island still only has a handful of doctors for 8 million people; education is spotty, although improving. I was glad to hear that in the past five years, families have begun to send their daughters to school past primary school. I also saw evidence that microfinance projects were living up to their touted potential here. Several women’s craft guilds have appeared in the area since I visited last and many women appear to be supporting their families on the income they make.

The biggest difference has to be the proliferation of cell phones and televisions. Before, the only telephone was owned by the police chief, who doled out phone privileges based on bribes or personal connections. Now, every third person seems to have a cell phone. The people in the area may still not have reliable electricity, or safe drinking water, or indoor plumbing, or much of anything else, but now many families do have a television. The children look just as malnourished but now they can sing Bollywood songs. Because of this, the people have a greater awareness of the outside world than they did four years ago. And the more they see of the outside world, the less likely Islamic extremism will make inroads in the area, something that it is constantly threatening to do. [OxBlog]

6 thoughts on “Letter from Bangladesh”

  1. Well, one would be very wrong if he/she imagines Bangladesh through the eyes of Nicole(Patrick’s colleague). I am not saying that there is no truth in her observations but those were grossly generalized for a country with a lot of diversity. It is the same western notion that portrays the countries of the subcontinent (India mostly.. they hardly know Bangladesh) with brown-skinny poverished portraits, congestion of people and poor infrastructure and mocking the culture the people cherish over thousands of years. The successes are being ignored till it hits them really hard (like when they lose their job outsourced to a competent productive person from a place they mocked).

    They never realise that these very hard working people are the assets of future and they are putting their countries forward with 5%(Bangladesh)- 10%(India) growth every year combating many natural calamities and adverse political situations.

    Nicole has missed the following:
    * There are 1 million registered internet users in Bangladesh (Not counting the family members)
    * Most Bangladeshis with wealth & connection cannot go overseas at their free-will. Finding a job abroad is not that easy.
    * There is no McDonalds chain in Bangladesh, but Pizza Hut and other franchises are there. And does that define progress? A local burger costs Tk. 20.00 and the burger at Wimpys is Tk. 150+VAT. So is there any customer base for Mcdonalds burgers at a rate above Tk. 150?
    * Birth controls and contraceptive pills are distributed free since early eighties and the govt. population program has been a success in keeping the population growth at a moderate rate. Wherefrom did she get the misinformation?
    * She is basing her observation on a place (Bhola) which is a remote area and does not represent the entire country. She probably did not hear that in a span of 4-5 months the first lot of 200 BMWs (Tk. 4 – 7 million) imported in the country were sold (even beyond our comprehension).

    She has observed these points correctly:
    * The political situation
    * The corruption
    * The infrastructural developments are happening mostly in the capital and the district capitals. Remote areas like Bhola are still far behind.
    * The success of proliferation of subsidized education and microcredit in the rural areas

  2. As an arrogant pompous Indian, I have to ask, did breaking away from India help serve any purpose for Bangladesh? Wouldn’t being part of a bigger union help your impoverished country? Just a thought.

  3. Rezwan,

    Yes. I agree that this letter tends to take the stereotypical (simplistic?) view of the economy. It is not as if McDonald’s is an indicator of liberation from poverty.

    But as you pointed out, she makes some very relevant points too.

    The good thing about such letters is that reveal how outsiders perceive a country. While the good reporters and journalists take care to understand the country and present a balanced view, most people do not have the same patience. So they’ll look for familiar signs of development (eg McDonald’s, mobile phones, WiFi hotspots, Starbucks etc) when they make their judgement. In their own way, they are not wrong.

  4. TTG,

    That’s water under the bridge. Not much point discussing what could have been.

  5. Thanks Nitin for your views. The irony is that we have much exposure to the western culture and would seldom comment this much grossly on a Western country. But the opposite is not happening. Even at this century some Westerners think that India means a land of magicians who wear turbans and know many rope tricks. I think they would be surprised to know how this part of the world is progressing in all aspects. I have read somewhere that this century will be dominated by Asian countries like China & India. I have little doubt on this.

    So I think the West should start exploring the real sub-continent before more surprises hit them. I have mailed Nicole (who wrote the letter) and we have reached at some sort of reconcilliation after exchange of couple of mails and the sparrings were really interesting and cordial.

    TTG: Nitin said it all. I personally am for joint families (even when the modern society is inducing splitting family clusters). I favor unity of countries with similar cultures(like European Union). But sadly our forefathers are not available to ask why they split India. The chemistry that induced the breakup is still reigning.

    I think we can nurture the thought at personal level stripping all politics and nationalism behind it.

  6. That water under the bridge is flowing and continues to flow straight into India with grave demographic consequences for Indian states like Assam. If Bangladesh had any respect for itself as a sovereign independent nation it would claim responsibility for its citizens in India instead of pretending they are all Indian bengali muslims.
    Its a blessing in disguise that they broke away from India. Im sure even Pakistan would feel the same way today.

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