A country that reversed a narrative of poverty

The pandemic’s effects have put a spotlight on the resiliency of Bangladesh and its ability to shake off a stereotype as a “basket case” country a half century ago.

Muslims offer prayers inside the Baitul Mukarram Mosque in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, May 14.

When former Beatles guitarist George Harrison organized the world’s first rock ’n’ roll benefit concert in 1971, it was to aid one of the world’s poorest countries. Nearly independent, Bangladesh was so poor that Henry Kissinger, then U.S. secretary of state, called it “a basket case,” implying beyond hope. While the aid concert did raise some $12 million, it also fueled a stereotype of the world’s poorest countries as chronic victims.

Fifty years later, the distilling effects of the pandemic have revealed a wholly hopeful Bangladesh, one that gives caution to writing off any place – or person – as terminally destitute.

In May, for the first time, Bangladesh’s average income earned per person was larger than India’s. Just 14 years ago, it was half of its larger South Asian neighbor. In fact, its income grew 9% during COVID-19 while India’s shrank. It now claims to be the fastest-growing economy in Asia, with a stable currency and stock market.

Despite a vulnerability to cyclones, an often-unstable democracy, and high durniti (“ill practice,” meaning corruption), Bangladesh has rewritten the rules of prosperity. Its microfinance institutions like Grameen Bank have fed an entrepreneurial culture. It has cut infant mortality and illiteracy while boosting exports with industries such as textiles. Before the pandemic, it was able to cut the poverty rate by half in just 15 years. The United Nations says Bangladesh’s social development is “phenomenal.” In the coming decade, the country is projected to have the world’s 28th largest economy.

With a stereotype now reversed, Bangladesh is in a position to lift others. Last month, it came to the aid of Sri Lanka with a $200 million loan. No rock concert was needed. The financial aid was a reflection of a country that had been unwilling to accept a foreign narrative of perpetual poverty.

Any struggle against an imposed narrative starts with a new view of oneself. Or as Mr. Harrison wrote for the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh: “All things must pass / None of life’s strings can last.”

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