Fifty years ago, when Bangladesh emerged as a sovereign, independent state after having wrested its independence from Pakistan through a blood-soaked 9-month long Liberation war, it had been written off contemptuously as a "Bottomless Basket Case" - an epithet that still rankles with us. Today, 50 years later, Bangladesh is a very different country.
Bangladesh: 50 years ago
On liberating itself on 16th Decmber 1971, Bangladesh was a "Wasteland". It had a population of about 75 million peeople (vs. West Pakistan's 60 million), growing at 3.6% annually. It was among the poorest of the Least Developed Countries, overwhelmingly impoverished, with a large proportion below the poverty line. A largely agrarian country, it was unable to feed itself and was heavily dependent on food aid from donors. Whatever infrastucture and indusrtrial bases it had, were destroyed during the 9-month long War of Liberation. At liberation on 16th December 1971, it had, literally, no hard or liquid assets worth reckoning. Even though it had comprised 56% of total erstwhile Pakistani population and had earned, during first couple of decades of that association, almost 80% of foreign exchange revenues, 80% of those earnings were re-invested in West Pakistan depriving the majority population residing in East Pakistan of their rightful share to that hard earned wealth.
As per World Bank's statistics for 1972, Bangladesh had a GDP of $6.3 billion, a negative GDP growth rate at -14.0%, and a paltry per capita income of US$ 94.00 only. It was geographically India-locked, with China located at one stage of separation from it. Located in a very hostile region, it found conflicts raging in east (Korean peninsula, Vietnam) and west (the Middle East). It was born into a world sharply divided by the Cold War Paradigm that I hold responsible for being midwife to Bangladesh's bloody birth and had also wetnursed its politics. The seeds of Bangladesh's strategic importance are to be found within this same paradigm, driven by perception of Bangladesh's geostrategically unhappy location between the Indian sub-continent's two antagonists in the Cold War, India and Pakistan, being on opposite sides of Cold War divide. The loss of the Eastern Wing of Pakistan, supposedly a part of the Western world's South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) considered as a lynchpin in the West's so-called Containment ring around the Communist world, was deemed as a loss by the US-led "Western free world" to the Soviet-led "communist world' in the "zero-sum" game being played globally.
Bangladesh today has a population of 167.74 million with a growth rate 1% (vs. Pakistan's: 229.489 million today with growth rate of 1.9%). It is one of the most densely packed country in the world, with a population density of 1265 per sq.km, crammed into total land area: 130,170 sq.kms. This gives it the dubious distinction of being the 8th largest country population-wise, with median age of 27.6 years, of which 39.4% is urban.
Bangladesh today is set to graduate from LDC to Developed Country by 2024. According to the World Bank, it is "a model for poverty reduction". Its projected GDP for 2022 is estimated at $ 400 billion, increasing to $430 billion in 2023. Its GDP growth in 2021 was 6.94% (but real GDP in 21-22 is claimed at 7.25%. The projection for 2022 is 6.6% according to the WB (or 6.9% according to ADB), while for 2023 it is likely to be 6.3% (WB) or 7.1% (ADB).
Bangladesh has been among the fastest growing economies during last decade not only in the region but globally. It is ranked 41st largest economy globally, (2nd largest in South Asia) and projected to be 28th largest by 2030
Today, Bangladesh is not an inconsequential country anymore. Its geostrategic importance has catapulted astronomically with global focus swivelling to the Indo-Pacific region.
So how did we get from Then to Now?
Bangladesh's progressive transition, from "bottomless basket case" in 1972 to lower-middle income status in 2015, from LDC in 1972 to Developing country status now, reads like a fairy tale. It aspires to be upper-middle income country by 2031. Its poverty declined from 43.55 (1991) to 14.3% (2016) - [based on international poverty line of $1.90/day], while extreme poverty was reduced to 10% and is expected to halve by 2030. Its per capita income today, (according to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics data) is $2824. Many of its Human Development outcomes improved, and it has actually better HDI than most of its neighbors. Its GDP growth steadily increased from 2009 (5%), reaching an all-time high of 8.2% in 2020, before taking a palpable hit from the COVID-19 pandemic (5.2%). To its credit, the government responded fast and managed the crisis reasonably well, with 75% of population being vaccinated in the last two years. It has made strong recovery in the years 2021-22, led by rebound of manufacturing and service sector activities. Sustained exports and rise in private consumption-led growth largely contributed to this.
The transition to an aroused tiger today has been messy and bumpy with severe body blows to the state by the assassination of its founding father in 1975, followed by a series of coups and counter coups and prolonged military rule from 1975-90. Between 1991-2008, despite return to civilian rule, no one party could consecutively remain in power for more than one term. Each successive party in power, replacing the previous, tended to roll back whatever the previous government had initiated, even if that was good for the state and its people.
Today, Bangladesh has acquired food autarky. It has even extended fiscal support assistance to Sri Lanka in 2021-22, and disaster management assistance to Maldives. It has also had to, perforce, provide shelter to over 1.2 million refugees from Myanmar since 2017.
Bangladesh's impressive transition was supported and fueled by a demographic dividend, very strong RMG exports, continuously increasing remittances from its large but very productive disapora working gainfully abroad, and creditable stable macroecomic management of its economy at home.
With an unleashed and burgeoning private sector, its exports rose by 80% in the last decade, mainly driven by the ready-made garment (RMG) sector - Bangladesh is globally the 2nd largest exporter after China. FDI in Bangladesh in 1972 was $90,000. In 2019 it stood $3.61 billion. It received investment of over 2.37 billion in 2019-20 and received proposals totaling over $21billion. Getting its relations right with India and actively pursuing an ambitious sub-regional cooperation agenda, reconnecting lost or disrupted connectivity and overcoming infra-structure inadequacies are perhaps the drivers of this spurt in interest in Bangladesh by foreign investors.
The economy is diversifying with potentials demonstrated by growth of pharmaceuticals, basic steel, cement, ceramic, and ship building (a newly emerged industry -that marks a revival of ancient tradition). Forex reserves today top $43 billion.
Another important factor was domestically opening up investment in several key areas to private sector, notably communication and energy. The investment to GDP ratio was 31.6% in FY 2018-19, out of which 23.4% came from the private sector and only 8.13% from the public sector.
Access to electricity has increased from 14% (1991) to ~100% (2022). During last decade, there was unprecedentedly heavy public spending on major infrastucture projects, notably the Padma Multipurpose Bridge (opened by the Prime Minister on June 25), the Bangabandhu Tunnel (across the Karnaphuli River in Chittagong), the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant, the Dhaka Metro, and notably long neglected upgrading/revitalizing railways and reviving inland waterways. The completion of the iconic Padma Bridge, built with domestically mustered capital, has infused a sense of self-confidence in the people's mind liberating them from previous long years of heavy dependence on foreign aid and technical and engineering-technological dependence largely on foreign contractors. It represents the shattering of a glass-ceiling of a different sort, which is bound to have profound impact on the minds of policy makers and planners in contemplating such mammoth infrastructure projects in the future without feeling beholden to external agencies.
There has been continuously heavy investment in education sector. Literacy rate has risen from 26.4% (1974) to 74.7% (2019).
In terms of Gender equality, Bangladesh ranks first among South Asians, having closed 73% in gender gap.
There has been gradual but significant expansion of health sector. Life expectancy has increased from 46.6 years in 1972 to 72.6 years today. There have been significant commensurate advances in other related areas as well. Maternal mortality declined by 75%, while Infant mortality dipped from 167/1000 (1973) to 21/1000 (current). The country posted widespread success in immunization drives.
Bangladesh, historically prone to frequent natural disasters, has credibly established high disaster resilience. It embarked on an aggressive and concerted drive in last decade and half to digitization of its economy and services, based on achievement of huge ICT advancements.
What enabled us to survive?
Ensuring survivabilty of the state under very hostile circumstances in a deeply divided world was an imperative sine qua non for Bangladesh. The country's Founding Father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman only too well understood that in the post-colonial neo-Westphalian world disorder into which his newly founded state had emerged, every state is part of a greater comity of nations. In order to survive viably, it had to first navigate through very treacherously mined waters and numerous hidden shoals that lay ahead in its voyage as a new state. A visionary foreign policy was among the first priorities of the day in early 1972.
A fundamental dictum in foreign policy formulation and analysis is unquestionably this: each country, as a sovereign, independent nation-state, contextualizes its every move or action within the overall rubric of preservation and advancement of its own national interest, of maintaining a happy equilibrium between its boundless aspirations and the numerous challenges to the new state's viability. These foundational precepts must be buttressed by a hard-nosed pragmatism and understanding of the inescapable reality that while one may choose one's friends, one cannot choose one's neighbourhood; and that while friendship may exist between peoples and persons (which even then are vulnerable to change), "friendship" between states is primarily driven by the national demands of each state professing such friendship, rendering such friendship very protean in nature. In this context, friendship between states may best be described as the state of relatively happy equilibrium between two or more states that have managed to arrive at a mutually acceptable alignment or co-existence of their national interests that serves everyone in perceptibly equitable measure.
The critical importance of foreign policy in early '70s
Our essential foreign policy moorings established by Bangabandhu in early '70s were:
respect for each other's sovereignty, independence, and mutual respect; non-interference in each other's internal affairs; a deep and abiding commitment to "non-alignment based on the principles of peaceful coexistence and friendship to all"; avoiding being caught in the jaws of competing powers regionally or globally, (even aspiring to becoming a "Switzerland of the east"); being one of the largest Muslim countries of the world, fostering close relations with all other Muslim countries; supporting staunchly the right of all struggling people, everywhere, to self-determination and taking control of their own destinies; an abiding commitment to ensuring universal peace based upon justice for all peoples to combat "the scourges of poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy and unemployment"; and, most importantly, to build national resilience and self-reliance among his own people and of his newly born state to be able to stand the test of time.
The continuing imperatives of a balanced foreign policy today
Fifty years later today, the wheels of history have turned full circle. The world is, once again, in the grip of another cold war brewing, with a somewhat different configuration of protagonist and antagonists still in the process of kaleidoscopically fluctuating alliances. Tearing at us all globally today are ranged deeply divisive forces, some new, some malevolent offspring of the old. We see conflict still raging between nations, indirectly and directly.
On our western horizon, in our immediate regional neighborhood, we are witnessing live an internal churning evocative of a darkly foreboding resurgence of the divisive narrative of the thirties, that drove and tore the sub-continent apart, and that will not leave any neighbour untouched. The "cold-hot" conflict between our fraternal twins, India and Pakistan is much worse today than it was at the time of our independence, the dangers exacerbated by their both being armed to the teeth, primarily against each other, with conventional and nuclear weapons.
Craning further west, at one stage of separation, we see our 'first cousin' Afghanistan (with whom we had enjoyed excellent fraternal relations at the time of our birth), now plunging into uncertain implosion with the previous established government overthrown chaotically by the Taliban. Panning further west, we see horrendous effects on multitude of innocents caused by the continuing hostility between the states that control the heartland of fossil fuel reserves of the world - the Persian Gulf. The continuing "war-fought- at- distance" between two major Gulf powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen shows no sign of abatement, being culturally and ideologically inimical to each other even though professing to share the same faith. An extension of this struggle magnifies and becomes more intangibly complex even further west, in what is known historically as the Levant.
Shifting our lens further west north-west, we see new ideological or ideational struggles manifested in severe churnings domestically as well as across borders in the larger European arena, with Ukraine burning and reeling from Russian assault (perhaps dashing whatever dreams some had harboured of a united Europe emerging into a "clustered superpower" that could have acted as a buffer power). If the flames of the current proxy war in Ukraine are not doused quickly, they may transform into a "WW-3" that no one wants, with Europe once again becoming the hapless main theatre.
A differently resurgent Russia today is still chafing psychologically at national level at having been cut down to size by its erstwhile arch-rival the United States, and still taking jabs and swipes at its rival that became the lone standing global superpower. In the USA, we witness a surreal revival of the "Civil War syndrome" playing itself out uneasily, with a sharply and viscerally divided polity pitted against each other short of being dug in trenches with bayonet-fixed guns pointed at the "enemy".
Swiveling our gaze to our east now, we see our immediate neighbor Myanmar (with whom we had fairly good relations in the seventies) in the throes of imminent implosion and possible state failure - an implosion that will be followed by the probable explosion of multiple cluster bombs that will not leave any of its neighboring states, including a relatively stable ASEAN group, untouched. Bangladesh is already bearing the cost, by sheltering over a million refugees from Myanmar.
Further to our east-northeast, we see the rising Red Star of China, its eyes resolutely, and impatiently, set now to inexorably taking on role in the 21st Century as world's largest economy and new superpower, nudging well aside the superpowers of the 20th century. We glimpse a still divided Korean peninsula, one nuclear armed, both with different, ideologically antagonistic allies; and a struggling Taiwan trying to evade falling gravitationally into mainland China's lap. All these do not lend to any sense of composure.
And so, here we are, geo-strategically caught squarely in the middle, with the rising but internally troubled power that is India (which surrounds us on all sides) and the next neo-superpower that is China (geographically located at one stage of separation from us to our north-northeast), both engaged now in vigorous shadow boxing and a very risky brinkmanship in the deadly arena located at Himalayan heights.
Compounding all the above is the inescapable fate that global warming and its deleterious effect on climate change have pushed Bangladesh into the list of most vulnerable countries globally. This last imminent danger, of existential consequence for us, fuels our leadership role in all climate-related fora and strive for at least a minimum regional collaboration pending the more difficult task of global convergence on issues
Bangladesh's critically important geostrategic location is highly vulnerable
Today the focus of attention by almost all major, middle, or minor powers has pivoted to Asia. Contextually, the Indo-Pacific region is strategically at the heart of Asia. If in our mind's eye we can disembody ourselves and reimagine our planet viewing it from outer space, we would see an Oceanic planet with 71% of its surface immersed in deep waters. We would see our location as being uncomfortably at the epicenter of this oceanic world. This heightens the perception of us as being of strategic importance. The increasing attention on Bangladesh emanates from it being perceived as a bridging nation located at Asia's very epicenter, so to say. This lays us open to vulnerabilities as never before, but also places on our shoulders a very onerous responsibility as well.
Bangladesh's prosperity historically was derived from its locational advantage that today is much enhanced, and in future it will continue to be derived from this bridging role. Successfully sustaining this role will also depend on its ability to maintain the best of relations with all countries, whether located near or far from it. Our salvation lies in hewing to the fundamental moorings of our foreign policy that had been laid by Bangabandhu in the early years of our independence. We must adhere, without wavering, to the bedrock principle of "friendship to all with malice towards none". We cannot afford to align ourselves with anyone, against anyone. On the contrary, the current diverse challenges described above all demand, compellingly to my mind, that we do, in geo-strategic and geo-political terms, recalibrate the tools and policies we inherited from Bangabandhu to truly transforming ourselves into the "Switzerland of the East", anchored by "positive neutrality".
Ambassador Tariq Karim is a retired diplomat. He is Honorary Adviser Emeritus to Cosmos Foundation, a Member of the Advisory Board of the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) of Seattle and Washington DC, and Director of the Centre for Bay of Bengal Studies at the Independent University, Bangladesh.
This article is based on keynote address by author at a seminar to celebrate Golden Jubilee of Bangladesh's independence, Bangabandhu's birth centenary and 50 years of relations with EU, jointly Organized by Embassy of Bangladesh, Brussels In collaboration with Brussels Diplomatic Academy and Asia Pacific Studies, Vrije Universiteit Brussels (VUB), on June 16, 2022.
The views expressed here are the author's own, and do not represent official policy or thinking of the government of Bangladesh or the institutions he works for or is associated with.
© Tariq Karim
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