THE devastation from the recent typhoon in Bangladesh is another reminder of the fragility of existence in that poverty-stricken nation. Long one of the world's poorest countries, the average person has an income of less than $200 for an entire year - just a bit more than a week's wages at McDonalds or Hardees. Existence in Bangladesh is unimaginable to Americans. I last visited that country about 25 years ago, when the population was less than half the current 110 million. Even then it was a desperately poor rural area, grossly overcrowded, and it was still East Pakistan.
Born twice - once in 1947 in the partition of British India and reborn in the liberation from Pakistan in 1971 - Bangladesh has a history of violence both political and natural.
Tens of thousands died at partition in religious violence. Periodic "communal" clashes between the Muslim majority and the Hindu minority have taken thousands more lives. When the Pakistani army cracked down on political resistance in 1971, millions of people fled to India; thousands were slaughtered in post-independence violence between Bengalis and "Biharis non-Bengali Muslims, generally Urdu-speakers, largely from the Indian state of Bihar, who were moved to East Pakistan in 1947.
But natural disasters have always been the curse of Bangladesh. I've visited Bangladesh in every season and every type of weather except typhoons, and traveled by car, land rover, train, helicopter, DC-3, and several types of boats throughout the land. Nature's power is everywhere evident, and the rural people (87 percent of the population) have no choice but to deal with floods and typhoons annually. The only question is how destructive they will be.
Bangladesh is the size of Iowa, but Iowa has a population of 3 million, not 110 million. Imagine Iowa on the Gulf Coast, just as flat (indeed, except for small areas in the east, flatter), dissected by two major rivers (the Ganges and the Brahmaputra) each carrying more water than the Mississippi at its mouth, and with nearly 35 times as many people as are now in Iowa.
Imagine a rainy season in which all the rivers rise and flood their banks (where local peasant farmers laugh at the arrogance of urban and foreign engineers who think they can tame them); where in some areas rice is planted in May or June so the grains will grow on six-foot-long straw and ripen floating on the surface, to be harvested when the flood recedes in November.
Imagine a land with no rock or gravel, where bricks must be made so they then can be broken up to make the gravel for concrete mix.
Imagine a land so flat, so subject to flood, that to build an all-season, on-land road one must dig up a strip of valuable farm land, perhaps a dozen lanes wide, pile the earth six or eight or 10 feet above ground level, and finish it with baked brick and tar, since there is no stone. That is Bangladesh.
Imagine a country where the average family spends 60 percent of its income on food (compared to 13 percent in the US), but where the average person consumes fewer than 2,000 protein-deficient calories per day (compared to over 3,600 in the United States), a country where over a fifth of all imports are for food, and where over a fifth of all export earnings have to pay interest on foreign debt, a country where life expectancy at birth is only 51 years (versus 76 in the US) and where 16 percent of those b
orn will not live to age 5 (versus 1 percent in the US). That is Bangladesh.
"Golden Bengal," a description of his beloved land by Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagor (1861-1941), portrays this land in the dry season when the largest annual rice crop is harvested, when weddings and other festivals are held. But the rest of the year, work is hard, farming is risky, and life itself is precarious. With more than 1,900 people per square mile, or more than three per acre, including acreage in cities, rivers, and roads, agriculture at its best is a dicey business. And, when th e
worst of the typhoon season strikes as it does every year at the beginning and the end of the monsoon, there is, literally, no refuge.
In 1971, at the birth of Bangladesh, then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was reported to have said that since Bangladesh would be an "economic basket case," it would be better if it were someone else's. A long-time colleague of mine at the World Bank often referred to Bangladesh as a "sink" for international aid. The record of economic and political management has been poor, just good enough to manage very modest growth in per capita income. The country is still dependent on foreign aid, which am o
unts to nearly 10 percent of national income.
Is anything possible except despair? There are immediate needs for emergency assistance, and both official and volunteer efforts need the support of the American public. Beyond the emergency, however, the question is whether growth of economic production, and reduction of population growth, can be promoted more effectively. In the late 1950s, South Korea also was widely thought to be an economic disaster; for a number of years about 90 percent of imports were being financed by foreign aid. Purposeful de v
elopment policies put that aid to good use, and only 30 years later Korea, also densely populated and resource poor, is an economic powerhouse. Miracles can be made to happen.
The road is tough and long, and will require more political will and better internal management than Bangladesh has yet attained.
What is needed now is to look beyond the emergency toward substantial international investment to increase production while encouraging a reduction in population growth.
If the international community is serious about aiding Bangladesh in the long term, a country better able to cope with the inevitable natural disasters is possible by the turn of the century. As it has in the past in such situations, the government of the United States should lead the way.