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.

AP
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.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Give us your feedback

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

 

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.