Did you see the shoutout for Bangladesh in the Times, I was asked sincerely. I would have rather he left Bangladesh alone, I responded.
As Bangladeshis living in Bangladesh and in the diaspora we want so desperately to be seen as "modern" that we accept any mention of Bangladesh.
This is true for Nicholas Kristof's article, What Can Biden's Plan Do For Poverty? Look to Bangladesh (March 10).
I share my thoughts here to spark a genuine conversation in the 50th anniversary year of Bangladesh's independence.
Why is his op-ed harmful to Bangladesh and to 40 million (12% of the population) poor people in the United States? Kristoff's rhetorical moves explaining the importance of investing in girls' education in economic progress (as did Begum Rokeya who actualised this in the 19th century) is racially coded, patriarchal and anti-environmental.
Educate the girl, economically empower the mother and the entire family and village benefits. But not in the way Kristof suggests.
Kristof and I do agree on one thing: Bangladesh is an important nation to study for valuable insights for the globe. She is a cautionary tale of the dangers of neoliberal economics, where the market delivers crucial social goods that ought to be the state's responsibility.
This is the tale of how such policies widen economic inequalities, limit the rights for women and girls and increase environmental degradation.
Bangladesh - as ground zero for climate change - where its land and resources are being converted for industries in service of the global economy, is a forewarning for those who truly care about poverty alleviation and the environment.
We should not emulate its economic path but take lessons from its resistance movements.
After Liberation, Bangladeshis chose a socialist-oriented path for its new nation but quickly moved away from that due to pressures from the World Bank and other global financial institutions to pursue export-oriented strategies, i.e., neoliberal policies.
This led to the adoption of economic policies that relied on the cheap labor of girls and women and the export labor of migrant, mainly domestic, workers under the banner of women's empowerment.
Today, Bangladesh is one of the largest remittance recipient countries in the world, receiving close to 20 billion in 2020. Bangladesh's global economic policy did not lead to material and meaningful changes in the lives of the vast majority of women.
I detail this in the context of garment workers in my article on Women's Empowerment in Bangladesh.
Indeed, the idyllic picture accompanying Kristof' piece of a young girl running in the fields is not the reality of export oriented industries, especially garments, which continue to employ young girls.
Kristof would have us take her from the paddy fields away from her family into the factories to make garments for US consumers. Child labour is still prevalent in Bangladesh.
For so long the Bangladesh economic model was a direct influence of global capitalism, and in an ironic twist, as social movements in the United States are demanding more socio-economic benefits, to tax the Rich, Kristof dangles Bangladesh in front of Biden as a nod and wink to where we need to go.
When I mention the American poor keep in mind the Bangladeshi diaspora who toil in low-waged jobs in the US and who have been among the hardest hit due to Covid because they work as essential workers.
Bangladeshi Americans have been an active part of these US based social justice movements. Tax on billionaires must fund critical social benefits that each person needs to live with dignity.
Where advocates in the United States are calling to #TaxTheRich, Kristof says we can't "squeeze much more productivity out of our billionaires." Tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs, meanwhile, billionaires in the United States have increased their wealth by a staggering $685 billion including Jeff Bezos whose wealth ballooned to more than $200 billion.
Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama are organising for a union despite Amazon's efforts to prevent them from organising. The aggressive anti-unionism is something garment workers in Bangladesh are also familiar with.
This is what Kristof wants for American workers. This is not what we want for even Bangladeshi workers. Unionism is an anti-poverty solution for workers (including women) in the US and Bangladesh.
Kristof is enamored with Muhammed Yunus as the neoliberal guru of microfinance. But microfinance comes with its own share of unintended and intended consequences.
Scholar Lamia Karim has documented that wide scale poverty alleviation through microcredit has its limits. She has shown how microfinance participants remain embroiled in debt over time, "hopping" from one organisation to another to pay off their previous debt, while a large portion of the women took on loans for the benefit of their husbands.
Nadine Murshid has shown that microcredit foments violence, including intimate partner violence, because these economic strategies are implemented without any regard to the social context.
In Kristof's economic paradigm, people are commodities to be capitalised on. He discusses people as "investments in human capital" assets in racially coded and gendered ways. He justifies national economic growth at the expense of the marginalised. Such a statement is horrific when not too long ago Rana Plaza led to the death of over 1,100 workers, many women.
Humans as capital and commodities is reminiscent of the not-so-distant history of slavery-- humans were property to be bought and sold to support the plantation economy of the US South.
WEB DuBois in Black Reconstruction mentions how Northern US industrialists compromised on civil rights for newly freed Blacks in exchange for availability of cheap labour for industrialisation. Promises of economic rights, including land, was quickly taken away by racial violence of lynching and segregation laws.
There are similarities between extraction of Black labour in the US and Bangladesh explained by racial capitalism.
That Kristof would so casually mention Mississippi to say that Bangladesh is doing better without providing any historical or social context is deeply troubling.
In Mississippi, Black workers continue to live under horrendous working conditions. This is what Kristof calls progress: extracting labour from Black and Brown people under the pretext of empowering the girl, the marginalised.
It is a wonder Kristof had to travel to Bangladesh for solutions for US poverty alleviation when the Poor Peoples Campaign in the United States taking up the mantle from Martin Luther King Jr provides a detailed platform for the poor.
The movement asks us to dramatically alter our values to confront "interlocking evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism."
We can and must pursue economic development that promotes good working conditions, protects our environment, and genuinely empowers women and girls. For so long the rich in the United States have extracted wealth from average families that has prevented them from realising some basic benefits such as universal health care, access to quality education and just jobs.
In Bangladesh, elite collusion with the government has also revealed massive corruption that leave the average Bangladeshi poor and destitute and compelled to seek work overseas.
At the end, with racially coded and patriarchal rhetorical moves, Kristof uses Bangladesh as a neoliberal cover to detract from a vibrant global grassroots movement for economic and racial justice demanding that billionaires be taxed to pay for social goods.
Bangladesh should not be used to thwart the possibilities of a transnational solidarity for human rights. That would be a huge dishonour on the 50th anniversary of its liberation.
Chaumtoli Huq is an Associate Professor of Law at CUNY School of Law in New York whose work focuses on Bangladesh and immigrants to the United States. The writer is thankful to Nadine Murshid and Layli Uddin for their thoughtful comments on this piece.