Half a world away 30/11/13

Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed 30 November 2013

It is safe to assume that few people have visited both the world’s longest beach at Cox’s Bazar and the town of Rio Grande in southern Brazil, home to the beach called Praia do Cassino, which also claims the same title. Not having been to either, unless you count driving past, I am reliant on the internet for the disputable geographical facts and can only say they both look very inviting on Google Earth.

With the World Cup and Olympics heading to Brazil, the municipal burghers of Rio Grande will have plenty of opportunities to boost their beach. Uruguay, with its soon to be expected rush of legalised cannabis tourists, is relatively nearby (Montevideo is roughly 600km away which is less than a third the distance to Rio de Janeiro), so prepare to see its beach length claims discussed more widely. This should not dishearten patriotic Bangladeshis. The Olympics will one day move on and Cox’s Bazar will still be a much smaller number of minutes flying time from half the world’s population. In any case, it is a wonder of the world that such a small land mass as Bangladesh should boast great rivers, long beaches, and the unique solitude and World Heritage site of the Sunderbans. Keen surfers aside, the people with the most interest in visiting both beaches are probably located among the good citizens of Cox’s Bazar. If any of them are planning a fact finding visit to discuss town twinning arrangements, I’m sure there’ll be a steady queue.

All of which is another way of bringing up the awkward reality that Bangladesh is not talked about as much abroad as the size of its population (eighth highest in the world) warrants.

Yes, I know that, to misquote Life of Brian, readers of this newspaper will have plenty of answers to the question of what has Bangladesh ever done for the world? Its peaceful foreign policy and supply of troops to United Nations programs is admired and the achievements of world renowned NGOs like Brac and Grameen are widely applauded and emulated. People living in the West could also add that people of Bangladeshi origin have a growing profile, albeit one that is often subsumed within broader identities such as South Asian sub-continent or Muslim heritage. The never-ending rush of UK celebrities and politicians to the annual British Curry awards which took place this week is a one such example.

But the fact remains that even though Bangladesh is on the frontline of many of the key issues facing the world, from climate change and corporate responsibility to debates about secularism and democracy, its footprint on the world stage is still relatively small. The meme started by the CIA World Factbook in the early 1990s that Bangladesh is roughly ‘’the size of Iowa’’ doesn’t exactly help. But at least the parochialism of using Iowa as a unit of measurement adds some insight into US intelligence debacles over the years. (What it should say of course is that Bangladesh has a population somewhat larger than Russia in a space slightly larger than England.)

Like other poor countries not high on the tourist trail, Bangladesh tends to figure in the global media consciousness only during times of disaster. The coming ICC World T20 tournament next March is unlikely to change the number of Western newspapers that include the taka in its tables of daily exchange rates or which care about the Dhaka Stock Exchange. The underlying reasons for the country’s “failure to project” are complex in cause and effect. Bangladeshi independence was a worldwide cause célèbre, but that was a generation ago. Contemporary interest in the country abroad is typically limited to specific issues such as labour rights and sea level rise. That these tally with Western associations of Bangladesh with crisis, disaster and poverty has not helped to improve perceptions, the undoubted success of the large NGO sector in challenging gender inequality and reducing rates of population growth notwithstanding.

Analysing this background alone will not help to quickly increase international interest or to change stereotypes. That can only come over time with greater global interaction through growing trade and cultural influence. Leading NGOs still play a creative role in modernising the economy by for example helping to popularise technological innovations in facilitating payments by mobile phone, but the future requires the country’s private sector brands to become as world famous as the Grameen Bank.

Victimhood is not a viable option for a country that may need to feed 220 million people by 2050. Dhaka’s burgeoning megacity status demands that the country become known again for the quality of its goods and the wealth of its people rather than sweatshops and disasters. The millions of poor Bangladeshis on whose resilience and hard work the economy depends deserve nothing less. The country’s leaders have to raise aspirations higher. Excuses for not following best practice standards, particularly for safety and environmental management, should no longer be tolerated. And the people who named the Dhaka-Kolkata train as an “express” when it barely averages 20 miles an hour need reminding this is the age of Maglev and undersea tunnels. If we are seriously telling ourselves that two of the biggest cities in the world can do no better than this sort of speed, then how can we expect to cope with the challenge of raising living standards while improving resilience to climate change? Bangladesh’s per capita GDP has a long way to grow before reaching the world average, which is currently around $10,000 per year. The economy’s size just about scrapes its ranking into the top 60 list of global economies, but per capita it is still closer to 160th in the world. But if China and India can grow their economy to be on the cusp of matching their world ranking by population, then Bangladesh needs to aim for the world top 10 as well. How and when exactly this can happen, I do not know. But it is a moral as well as economic imperative to try. The people will provide the answers.

Maybe most of the world doesn’t think about Bangladesh much yet. One day soon, this will change.

– See more at: http://www.dhakatribune.com/opinion/op-ed/2013/11/29/half-a-world-away/