How Bangladesh has changed

The country has come a long way since the ‘70s.

It is not often that Bangladesh is mentioned in international media. If there is news about the country, it is usually about a political crisis, natural disasters, or spectacular accidents. 

This is unfortunate since Bangladesh has enjoyed steady and strong economic growth in recent decades, which has benefited a large proportion of the country’s 165 million inhabitants. 

When Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan in 1971, it was one of the poorest countries in the world. What are the reasons for the strong economic growth that has benefited broad strata of the population?

I have been following the development in Bangladesh for over 40 years. During the latter half of 1970, I worked as a visiting research fellow at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies in Dhaka and participated in a major national poverty study. 

I was a social anthropologist and did fieldwork in a typical village for weeks and months at a time over a four-year period. People in the village were impoverished and were depending largely on employment and income from the agricultural sector. 

This was the case for most people in the country’s 60,000 villages at that time. The agricultural sector was characterized by simple technology and the output was very low. There were few jobs outside agriculture.

I saw poverty daily in the village where I lived, among my closest neighbors. It was primarily lack of food. 

Many poor families only ate one or two meals a day for long periods of the year. Few people could afford to buy chicken, meat, or fish. The nutritional situation was very bad, and many people became weak and ill. Child mortality was high and life expectancy short. Many people did not have access to clean water and the sanitary conditions were miserable. The public health and education services in the village were very bad. Almost no girls attended primary school. The international aid organizations and the Bangladesh authorities were pessimistic about the future for the country. 

After many years of absence from Bangladesh, I returned in 2009 to the country and the village I had lived in during the late 1970s. I was very happily surprised to see the positive economic and social transformation that had occurred in the village. 

I decided that I wanted to do a restudy of the village and during the period between 2010 and 2016, I again conducted fieldwork in the village on various occasions. I interviewed the same families I knew from the 1970s. Many of the old and grown-up people I knew from the past were dead, but I talked with their children who all recognized me. All families had a significantly higher standard of living. 

Nobody starved anymore and the poor and landless ate three meals a day and there was money left after the food had been purchased.

The increased material standard in the village was easily visible. The houses that people lived in were built of corrugated aluminum sheets or brick, not bamboo and straw as before. People had enough clothes and much better tools and equipment in their homes. 

The village had received electricity and all the families in the village were connected. Half of the families had bought televisions, and almost everyone had a radio and a mobile phone. Many families had their own water pump and the sanitary conditions had improved. 

In their homestead plot, many families in the village had several cows, goats, chicken, a vegetable garden, and fruit trees. Women earned their own income by selling milk, fruits, and vegetables in the market.

Not at least, many people in the village benefited from the new job opportunities that had been created outside agriculture. Many young women worked in the textile industry in the capital, Dhaka, and contributed to the family’s economy. 

The public education and health system had also improved significantly. The village school was nicely refurbished. All the children attended primary school and most completed and continued to secondary school. 

A few decades ago, women moved little outside the home. Much of the family’s honor was linked to keeping women and young girls in purdah, tucked away from public space. Today, girls and women have become far more “visible” and active in new areas of the village. 

In the morning and afternoon, the roads in the village were full of girls in fine school uniforms with books under their arms. This was an unthinkable sight 40 years ago. Many girls received scholarships paid by the government and international donors to attend school.

Health professionals visited the village regularly. All children received a vaccination book. One nurse told us that 80 percent of young married couples in the village used family planning methods.

How representative is the development of this village compared to what is currently 88,000 villages in the country? 

All national statistics confirm that the changes I saw in the village I studied have to a large extent occurred in most of the villages in Bangladesh.

The green revolution has taken place across much of the country. Total rice production has increased from 12 million tons in the 1970s to 36 million tons today. Bangladesh is more than self-sufficient in grain and can today export rice. 

Within a few years, Bangladesh is expected to pass China and become the world’s largest exporter of textiles. 

Today, 10 million people, mostly young men, are migrant workers and send back $15 billion a year to their families. Most work in the Middle East. Life expectancy in Bangladesh has increased from 59 years to 72 years over a 40-year period. 

Now, women give birth to an average of 2.3 children compared to six children in the 1970s. Almost all children are vaccinated, and all go to school. Bangladesh reached most of the Millennium Development Goals set by the UN.

Infrastructure has improved across the country. Huge bridges are built across the great rivers, Brahmaputra and Ganges, and link the country together. Bangladesh has become a large construction site.

No other developing country has given the voluntary organizations so much room for action. NGOs in Bangladesh have become a model for NGOs in other countries and the NGOs of Bangladesh export their ideas and working methods to NGOs worldwide. 

What is the reason Bangladesh has largely succeeded in its development over the last decades? 

Many would argue that an important reason is that the country has been integrated into the international labor market and that international companies are now investing in the country and creating millions of jobs for poor people.

Another reason is that the most important development actors: government, NGOs, and international donors have managed to cooperate well. The government of Bangladesh, unlike many other developing countries, has allowed NGOs to operate in many sectors across the country and international donors have provided financial support to many of these programs.

What role have foreign donor organizations played in Bangladesh? After independence, international donors poured much money into the country with the WB in the lead. 

As economic growth accelerated, aid declined. The voluntary organizations are today largely self-financed. Western embassies, formerly mainly engaged in development assistance and development programs, are now mostly engaged in creating business cooperation between their own country’s business companies and the companies in Bangladesh.

Is the development in Bangladesh a sunshine story? To a large extent, it is. 

The writer is a social anthropologist and has written several books on Bangladesh. This article was earlier published in Norwegian Daily, Klassekampen, in September 2019 and in Bangladesh Daily, The Dhaka Tribune, in January 2020. This is an abridged version.