Soft power, hard targets

First published Dhaka Tribune Feb 2021

All the best-known rankings of soft power in the world have two constants in common.

From the IfG-Monocle Soft Power Index to the likes of Elanco and Portlands’ annual surveys, the top 20 nations have always been from Western Europe, Canada, Japan, and the US, with occasionally Australia and South Korea as outliers.

Second and more importantly here, Bangladesh is always an awfully long way from the top.

No surprises here. Such rankings ask questions like which countries do you think have: The most cultural influence? The best brands? The best universities? The most famous sportspeople? The most influential films and media? The most effective foreign policies? 

Clearly being a leading global economy correlates with building a country’s global reputation and soft power influence. Money and culture both talk, but it is easier for the former to attract listeners.

France and the UK also benefit from imperial legacies, giving them cultural and linguistic footprints that enable them to punch considerably above their economic weight.

In the index compiled by strategy consultants Brand Finance last year, Bangladesh was ranked 57th out of 60 countries. The US, Germany, and UK took the top three places.

Having seen the new Global Soft Power Index 2021 being released on February 25, (based on the opinions of 75,000 people in over 100 countries) I will not be giving away any embargoes to note that Bangladesh’s position has barely changed. 

Bangladeshis may be interested to know according to an email on Friday, Hillary Rodham Clinton has been announced as the new keynote speaker, replacing the old nemesis, one Dr Henry Kissinger.

The nation has long transcended the “basketcase” predictions of the 1970s of course, but remains sorely lagging on the key soft power metrics of global familiarity, influence, and reputation. 

Not being noticed is the major handicap here. Bangladesh is home to more people than Russia, Lebanon, Norway, and New Zealand put together. It does not abuse the hard (military) power it has internationally, indeed it does the opposite as a respected contributor to UN peacekeeping operations. But the fact is global media attention is more likely to be directed towards minor royals and Hollywood awards.

In recent years, making clothes for the world has joined climate change, disasters, and floods in shaping international perceptions and stereotypes, so it is encouraging to see the BGMEA announce initiatives like “Go human, go green” as part of its mission to grow Bangladesh’s garment exports. 

BGMEA President Rubana Huq is right to talk about wanting to change the narrative away from the country being “treated as a low-cost and large volume-manufacturing destination,” and engaging with high-end fashion designers to help promote and export Bangladesh’s culture and heritage.  

Leveraging economic activity to promote branding and culture is a cost-effective way to increase the country’s profile and build soft power.  


For me, the BGMEA project of funding scholarships for garment workers to gain degrees at the Asian University of Women (AUW) deserves to be far better known, not least so that it can be expanded. It not only highlights women’s empowerment which is entwined with both the industry’s growth and key national development goals, but also speaks to the universal appeal of growing educational attainment and aspirations. 

National cuisine and national dress are old staples of programs to promote culture abroad, but both are hardly unknown to start with, and always come with over 150 competitors. Another red herring, there is little point in complaining that India and Pakistan are regarded as more influential or well-known abroad. That is just the hand history has dealt. Better to learn about or remind people how Bangladesh influenced and shares in the same heritage and stories.

Bangladesh can also play its hand better. It should have been part of the Asean plus East Asia and Oceania Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) from the start but was not. 

Look at the global profiles of Denmark and the Netherlands and their proximity to Germany, and it seems more futile to think the sheer size of India’s population means Bangladesh will always be overlooked by others.

The indicators used by soft power surveys comprise things like: Products and brands the world loves, high ethical standards and low corruption, food the world loves, rich heritage, tolerant generous fun people, influential media, educational institutions, leading-edge technology, human rights, and protecting the environment.

Plenty of room for improvement, but nothing esoteric or unattainable.  Improving global perceptions can be a by-product of doing more to improve the day to day lives of ordinary people in Bangladesh. 

Take the environment for example. Cleaning up the Buriganga and making a stroll by Ahsan Mazil and Sadarghat as attractive as a walk by the Thames, or a circular waterbus around Dhaka as exciting as commuting on the Staten Island ferry is what Dhaka’s residents should be investing in right now for themselves. Others can follow, there is no good reason to wait.

It should always be true that a film director with the genius of the late Tareque Masud will gain international recognition regardless of how Bangladesh’s economy fares. But Bangladesh has plenty of people who can and are making good music and drama but not getting the same international attention as, say, K-pop or lengthy Turkish TV series.

If the nation had the economic influence of Turkey or South Korea, would not more non-Bangladeshis around the world be paying attention? 

Of course, they would. Even more so if Walton had a quarter of the global fame of Samsung.

Mind you, there is little point in promoting culture abroad if it is not provided with sufficient platforms, theatres, and venues at home and freed from threats of censorship and the harassment of artists targeted by religious zealots. 

It pays to do more to help oneself. With an abundance of people, there is no shortage of talent to nurture in the country. Investing in dramatically improving education and the economy together are vital for building Bangladesh’s soft power rankings.  

The only way is up. Smart power is the key.


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