America's former Secretary of State and National Security Adviser in the President Richard Nixon's administration in the 1970s, Henry Kissinger, once termed Bangladesh an 'international basket case'. His poor impression about a nation that at the time had just emerged from a bloody war of liberation was not unexpected. With the agriculture in a shambles in the aftermath of the war, the prospect of a famine was looming large on the horizon.
There were also other destabilising factors of political nature. Not surprisingly, in the eyes of the top diplomat of the world's richest and mightiest nation, the prospect of the new nation did not look optimistic.
Even before the independence, when this land was part of Pakistan, its image in the Western press was one of a human settlement frequently devastated by storms, cyclones and floods, while its population was forever struggling to eke out a bare existence.
So, Henry Kissinger was not saying anything new, but only repeating what he already knew from the world press. But the resilience and determination of the people in the face of adversity and their ability to come out victorious against all odds were also legendary. As such, the hardworking people of this land refused to accept the infamous label of 'a 'basket case'. However, in recent years, the same Western press has changed its outlook about Bangladesh. On more than one occasion, prestigious newspapers and magazines like the Economist expressed their disbelief about how the country with its disproportionately huge population living within a very small land area hardly the size of the state of Ohio of the USA can provide its people with two square meals a day, far less dream of achieving anything better?
So, what are they now saying about Bangladesh?
According the UK's Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR) projection, Bangladesh, if it can maintain its present level of economic growth, a decade hence in 2030 will emerge as the world's 28th largest economy and in one and a half decades as the world's 25th.
Even before the pandemic hit the economy hard, Bangladesh's international development partners like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and other multilateral donor and lending agencies were expressing genuine concerns if the country could be able to hold on to what it had achieved in terms of economic growth so far. The fear originated from the facts that the two major sources of the country's foreign currency earning, the apparel industry and the flow of remittance from its migrant workers were certain to receive a severe jolt from the pandemic. And internally, the economic shutdowns to combat the pandemic would further disrupt business and other economic activities.
Indeed, the main destination of the country's readymade garment products, the European market, was severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Business had virtually come to a standstill in Europe. The picture was not different in Southeast Asia and in the Far East and in North America. So who will buy Bangladesh's apparel products that bring it more than 85 per cent of its export earnings? What will happen to those factories at home once the economic shutdowns to combat the pandemic begin to bite? How will the government protect the millions of unemployed-over four million-garment workers, let alone tens of millions of others to be out of work during the pandemic? Adding to its woes, hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers returned home after they had been terminated from their overseas jobs by their employers. Many, on the other hand, remained stranded at home due to the lockdowns after they came on a vacation. And consider the condition of the migrant workers still staying abroad, especially in the oil-rich countries of the Middle East. Those economies already reeling from the plummeting oil prices, the only source of their revenues, would be in greater jeopardy as a consequence of the pandemic. Will the migrant workers still in those countries be able to keep their jobs and survive the uncertain times ahead? What if they begin to return home in droves once the restrictions on movements in those countries are relaxed? With such bleak prospects looming, the question of further receipt of any remittance from those beleaguered migrant workers would be out of question!
But nothing like that happened. After the initial shock of the pandemic, the apparel industry slowly turned around. The workers returned to their work. Many, however, lost their jobs, while others got those back though at a lower pay. The government came up with huge stimulus packages both to bail out industries as well as to protect jobless workers from starvation. Similar stimulus money was also made available for the cottage, small, medium and micro level industries which provide jobs for more than eighty per cent of the country's unemployed. Then there was the social safety net programme for the extreme poor and the vulnerable section of the population. It cannot be said that the crisis time measures were all foolproof or hundred per cent successful. But it worked for there were at least no reports of people dying from hunger. Then happened the unexpected. The remittance from the migrant workers continued to rise in volumes and finally recently broke its previous records! A stroke of good luck? But already the nation had proved many pessimistic prognostications wrong and all those cannot be attributed to mere chance or luck. What some both at home and abroad often fail to see is the stubbornness of the common people to fight against the odds even in the worst of times.
But this is not also to say that the country is now out of danger. It is not as the pandemic is still raging through the country. Neither has the GDP-centric growth focus has been able to serve all the people equally. The income gap between the rich and the poor is increasing. These are the urgent issues in need of addressing. We hope in time the issues of inequities would also be resolved the way we fixed our perennial image as an international poster boy for poverty and hunger!