Dacca — To pessimists, Bangladesh will remain the world's prime example of an international basket case -- too poor, overcrowded, unproductive and disaster-prone to ever shake off the label bestowed on it by former American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
But to optimists, Bangladesh may yet be able to make an economic go of it -- however modest it may be.
The difference is the credit they give to a can-do spirit in the face of formidable economic odds. Their favorite symbol is a swarm of villagers laboring in the hot sun to dig canals.
Egged on by President Ziaur Rahman, who personally scours the country by helicopter to preach hard work, villagers throughout the country are donating their time and labor to dig the irrigation canals that can mean an extra crop during the arid winter season.
The economic planners in Dacca, the capital, call the donated labor which has built hundreds of miles of new canals a "nonmonetized development outlay." The optimists call it self-help and say it shows that even a country poor in conventional domestic resources can move on its own to raise subsistence standards of living.
Bangladesh has not been without outside help, of course. More than $10 billion in foreign aid has been pledged since the devastation of its 1971 war for independence drew the country's plight to world attention. No one even tries to predict when Bangladesh will be able to wean itself away from dependence on foreign assistance. But unlike some foreignaid sinkholes, Bangladesh is generally credited with doing a good job of plowing its aid into worthwhile economic development projects -- most notably, improved agricultural production.
"They really are making measurable progress," says Alexander Storrar, World Bank director in Dacca. "They have moved quite a distance for them," a Western diplomat agrees. "It's still pretty pathetic compared with most countries of the world, but they have come a long way."
Bangladesh's gains include a growth in gross domestic product expected to top the target of 7.2 percent in the year ending this June, compared with 3.4 percent last year. Record harvest during the year have boosted food grain production by 15 percent and reduced Bangladesh's chronic food deficit down to 1 .2 million tons. The government has turned back to the private sector many of the industries nationalized --of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and private investment and investor confidence are growing.
Lures are being thrown out to foreign investors, and the government hopes that its large pool of cheap labor will draw manufacturing and assembly concerns to a new free-trade export processing zone being set up in the port city of Chittagong.
Oil drilling is under way -- reportedly without fruitage so far -- and large natural gas reserves estimated at 9 billion cubic feet on up have only began to be tapped. A new urea fertilizer factory, which will use natural gas as a raw input, will open later this year to help cut the country's dependence on fertilizer imports and eventually turn it into a fertilizer exporter.
There is no shortage of economic obstacles. The country has only a tiny industrial base on which to build -- industry accounts for only 8 to 10 percent of gross domestic product --and the transport system, power generation and transmission, and communications are inadequate. Western observers describe the bureaucracy as lethargic and corrupt.
Performance in both finances and productivity are poor in public-sector enterprises, and exports -- almost wholly centered on jute and jute products -- are stagnating. The trade deficit, $1.6 billion last year, is growing: By June, planners estimate, Bangladesh, will have only enough foreign-exchange reserves to pay for one month's worth of imports.
Bangladesh's goal of feeding itself by 1985 depends both on calamity-free weather -- not a safe assumption in a land prone to natural disasters such as cyclones, droughts, and floods -- and on checking population growth, spiraling disastrously upward at the rate of 2.7 percent a year.
With population growing faster than the food supply in the '70s, Bangladeshis now actually have less to eat per capita than they did in pre-independence days. Instead of shrinking, mass poverty and landlessness have spread. The government is trying to meet the population crisis by actively promoting family planning. Its goal is to more than double the use of birth control methods -- including sterilizations -- by 1985.
Development experts point out several pluses for Bangladesh. Among them are an unprecedented degree of political stability, a government seriously committed to economic development, a lushly fertile land capable to yielding much more food, and a people united rather than torn by language, culture, and religion.
"If you're on optimist, people are an asset for development," an aid expert says. "The outside world doesn't give enough credit to what can be done here."
"Yes, we are poor and inefficient, but we are trying to improve our situation ," says Dr. Fasihuddin Mahtab, the planning minister. "You should judge not what we are now but whether we are improving our performances."