Ploughing through the recent spate of bad news about the Indian economy, I learnt Bangladesh is now the world’s second largest exporter of apparel. It seems that companies that are finding Chinese workers expensive are migrating to Bangladesh and Vietnam. Once again, India is missing out on the migration of labour-intensive industries in the search for cheaper manufacturing costs.
Looking back on Bangladesh’s history as an independent nation, its export success is remarkable, some might say miraculous. Many of its achievements are ahead of India’s. In Bangladesh, there has been a successful family planning programme. Furthermore, gender equality is better in Bangladesh than India. Both these achievements run contrary to the traditional portrait of Muslim society and women.
In the 1970s, I used to visit Bangladesh regularly. The war between the Pakistan army and the Mukti Bahini destroyed most of the bridges, and sunk most of the ferries in that riverine country. Law and order had collapsed. Young freedom fighters challenged the authority of the State. The army was split between those who had been posted in Bengal when the war broke out, and deserted to fight alongside the Bahini, and those who were holed up in West Pakistan. The economy had collapsed, and, as a result, there was a famine in 1974. The government said 27,000 people died of starvation. The famine was followed by the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and almost his entire family, leading to a series of military coups and political instability.
Amid this shattered economy and political instability, two remarkable NGO’s arose. Fazle Hasan Abed founded BRAC in the first year after Bangladesh was born. It was established to provide health care, education, livelihoods and disaster preparedness for those who were deprived of them. BRAC has played a key role in the development of Bangladesh, and has spread to other parts of Asia and Africa. It educates 1.8 million children in 66,000 schools. In 1974, Mohammad Yunus founded the Grameen Bank, which proved to be the beginning of micro-financing to empower women.
India’s former prime minister Manmohan Singh has said India benefitted from reaching the verge of bankruptcy in 1990 because the crisis enabled him and then prime minister Narasimha Rao to overcome the political opposition to the reforms they believed were needed. Bangladesh, it seems to me, also benefitted from the economic crises. It has had to depend on aid and had to accept the advice that comes with it. This hasn’t always been a happy relationship. Bangladeshi NGOs, for instance, have often clashed with international donors. The Bangladeshis have claimed, with some justification, that they know what is best for their country. There have also been accusations that Bangladesh has developed an aid-dependence syndrome, and some donors have given bad advice at times, prompted by their country’s commercial interests rather than the interests of Bangladesh.
But Bangladesh’s dependence on aid has meant that it’s been far less easy for politicians to politicise economic decisions or twist them to their own advantage. It has given NGOs the freedom to make a contribution to the county’s development. Guided by their experience of working on the ground, they have also influenced policy.
India has been reluctant to accept aid, and insists there should be no strings attached – no advice is needed. Indian governments have tended to be suspicious of NGOs. Those that accept foreign contributions have been harassed and still are. A foreign development expert told me, “The laws which control NGOs in India seem much stricter than those in Bangladesh”. Maybe India should be more open-minded and less suspicious when it comes to NGOs.