Bangladesh's Zia Counts on Billions in Aid

One of the world's poorest countries last year switched from dictatorship to democracy. Now it seeks help to handle burdens of debt, monsoon, and a refugee influx. INTERNATIONAL RELIEF DRIVE

THE United States and 10 other donor governments are meeting in Paris this week to consider a multi-billion-dollar aid package to Bangladesh.

The 11 bilateral donors, including Canada, Japan, and European countries, are expected to extend at least $2.1 billion to help Bangladesh, which is burdened by poverty, natural disasters, and refugees pouring in from neighboring Burma (now officially called Myanmar).

Based on Washington's responsiveness in the past, Bangladeshis are hopeful.

"The US government has helped us in our struggle to restore democracy in Bangladesh," Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia said in a recent Monitor interview. Mrs. Zia, the widow of assassinated President Ziaur Rahman, took over the government in March last year in the nation's first peaceful transition of power since its 1971 founding.

But while Bangladesh made strides by replacing authoritarian rule with a parliamentary system last year, the country is still beset with severe economic problems.

Zia says she recognizes that political stability can only be achieved through economic advancement.

At present, her country's industrial and farm production cannot keep pace with the country's rapid population growth. The current population is estimated at 110 million.

Saddled with $10 billion in debt, Bangladesh is among the world's poorest countries, ranking just behind the four most impoverished African countries. More than half of Bangladeshis are malnourished and only about 30 percent are literate.

Zia met with President Bush in Washington on March 19, asking for money to help feed and house thousands of refugees fleeing persecution in Burma.

"We are a poor country with a very large population of our own," she says. "We have extended our hospitality to those seeking refuge in our country, but we need international help."

Bush promised $3 million in US aid to cope with Burmese refugees, only a portion of the amount the prime minister is soliciting internationally.

"To a large extent, we are dependent on American aid," says Serajul Islam, head of the Bangladeshi Chancellery in Washington. The US is Bangladesh's second largest benefactor, after Japan, which sends about $300 million a year in assistance.

The US has given Bangladesh more than $3 billion in the past 20 years, Mr. Islam says. Today, the US help is in the form of grants, soft loans, and food aid. The development assistance is mostly focused on four areas: population control, industrial employment, agricultural productivity, and infrastructure such as electrical grids.

Zia contends that her government is making progress. One of the world's three female heads of state, she asserts that the present status of women is a "great handicap to our society."

She is working to keep girls in school longer, hire more women as teachers and nurses and offer training opportunities for work in villages across the country, including weaving, needlework, handicrafts, and poultry and cattle raising.

The government is also offering women more loans and other employment opportunities after graduation. Birth control programs are also available, she says.

The country's notorious weather is, however, one serious problem over which Zia's government has no control. In the past three years the country has been hit hard by cyclones and monsoon rains. The US is participating in a separate World Bank-sponsored donor conference to help Bangladesh grapple with massive flooding.

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