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Bangladesh as Cinderella

The idea of Bangladesh as a development success is a twenty-first-century trope, a deliberate and striking contrast to its 1970s role as the poster-child for Malthusia. Chief of the cheerleaders for international aid, Jeffrey Sachs, spotlighted Bangladesh's development success as early as 2005:

Bangladesh was born in a war for independence against Pakistan in 1971. That year, it experienced massive famine and disarray, leading an official in Henry Kissinger's department to famously label it 'an international basket case'. Bangladesh today is far from a basket case [He provides illustrative statistics of human development progress]... Bangladesh shows us that even in circumstances that seem the most hopeless there are ways forward if the right strategies are applied, and if the right combination of investments is made. (Sachs 2005, 10)[1]

Rock star Bono wrote the foreword to Sachs' book, which was published by Penguin and has been cited several thousand times, so let us assume his view is influential. Contrasting Bangladesh with also very poor Malawi, both of which Sachs had recently visited, the author describes a dawn vision in Dhaka of long lines of garments workers en route to the factories. He suddenly realizes they are all young women. Rich country protestors campaign for better working conditions, but they would do better to protest the trade protectionism at home that prevents more such garments jobs from being created:

These young women already have a foothold in the modern economy that is a critical, measurable step up from the villages of Malawi (and more relevant for the women, a step up from the villages of Bangladesh where most of them were born). The sweatshops are the first rung on the ladder out of extreme poverty. They give lie (sic) to the Kissinger state department's forecast that Bangladesh is condemned to extreme poverty. (Sachs 2005, 11)

He is not unaware of the hardships these young women suffer: a newspaper article contained 'poignant, fascinating, and eye-opening' stories of long hours, harassment, lack of rights in the factories. But what was most striking and unexpected about the stories was the repeated affirmation that this work was the greatest opportunity that these women could ever have imagined, and that their employment had changed their lives for the better.

Nearly all of the women interviewed had grown up in the countryside, extraordinarily poor, illiterate and unschooled, and vulnerable to chronic hunger and hardship in a domineering, patriarchal society. Had they (and their forebearers (sic) of the 1970s and 1980s) stayed in the villages, they would have been forced into a marriage arranged by their fathers, and by seventeen or eighteen, forced to conceive a child. Their trek to the cities to take jobs has given these young women a chance for personal liberation of unprecedented dimension and opportunity.

(Sachs 2005, 12)

Sachs also visited a group of rural women members of a credit group run by the non-governmental organization BRAC (formerly the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee). With their tiny food-trading businesses and beautiful saris, these women 'presented a picture every bit as dramatic as that of the burgeoning apparel sector' (Sachs 2005, 14). None of these women wanted more than two children, a remarkable change from the fecund situation in the 1970s, when six or seven were normal. He concludes:

Bangladesh has managed to place its foot on the first rung of the ladder of development, and has achieved economic growth and improvements of health and education partly through its own heroic efforts, partly through the ingenuity of NGOs [non-governmental organizations] like BRAC and Grameen Bank, and partly through investments that have been made, often at significant scale, by various donor governments that rightly viewed Bangladesh not as a hopeless basket case but as a country worthy of attention, care, and development assistance.

(Sachs 2005, 14)

Bangladesh is powerful as an aid-justifying idea partly because its unpromising start made any success so entirely unlikely. But the idea of Bangladesh is so powerful in the twenty-first century partly because its successes satisfy both the soft-hearted liberal and the gung-ho neoliberal. Those on the political left remain largely unconvinced, but as they play such a minor and specialized role in contemporary debates about economic development, they do not spoil my point. Despite its continuing troubles—and there remain many and new ones to come thanks to climate change—Bangladesh provides the photo op that convinces sceptical taxpayers in the West that development works and the aid flows should continue. Bangladesh is the smiling, more often than not sweetly female, face of global capitalist development. Better yet—she often wears a headscarf as she goes about enjoying her new economic and political freedoms, signalling that moderate Islam can couple with global capitalism. What's not to like?

It is well to be wary of self-aggrandizing stories of success, in the aid industry or any other. Yet like all myths, this one gets much power from core truths.

Early entry into global markets was vital in a densely populated place with no resources other than its rural masses. Innovative social entrepreneurs devised clever ways of reaching those people at scale and sustainably, even figuring out how to bring millions of secluded, unschooled, traditional village women into markets from which they were traditionally excluded. Aid donors did a lot. They provided finance and technical assistance; they documented, analysed and evaluated, learning about what was working; and they granted Bangladesh's development project the international community's seal of approval. The way the average Bangladeshi lives now is vastly different— and, in respect of basic securities and freedoms, particularly for women and girls, measurably better—than forty years ago.

So Sachs' narrative contains many truths. But like most development blueprints it is a caricature, exaggerating and minimizing for effect (Roe 1991). What stands out most here is the emancipatory potential for women of the flourishing non-profit sector and the unstoppable transformative forces of export industry. Sachs invests the promise of low-paid jobs for the girls in the global economy with a particular moral power, an example of what Nancy Fraser calls the 'new romance of female advancement and gender justice' (Fraser 2012, 10). There is all the charge of the attraction of opposites in this romance: custom, parochialism, and the chains of patriarchy meet the white- knuckle pace of change in the globalized fast-fashion industry. And the moral power of anything that promotes female advancement packs an even greater punch at a time when gender equality has become a tenet of, a motive for, and a motif of the war on Islamist extremism.

But after the excitement of having 'stepped up' into factories and credit markets subsides, the downsides of being the cheapest industrial workforce in Asia and in collective micro-debt to the tune of USD 4.2 billion give pause.[2] Is this what empowerment looks like? It no longer feels like enough, if it ever was. But perhaps that is what empowerment does—raises expectations so just the chance to earn some cash, what once felt like such a step up from the village, stops being enough; you start to want rights, to secure those earnings, to organize if not, and to do so in safety. The largest and most visible effort by women to empower themselves, the garments workers' struggle for basic workers' rights, has happened with neither moral nor actual support from the aid industry. Its clear implications are that workers cannot live on the wages that the global economy is willing to offer them. But political and collective forms of empowerment may not be consistent with the fairy tale.

There are other silences in this idea of Bangladesh's success. You would be forgiven for forgetting that Bangladesh's gains were 'partly through its own heroic efforts'. Sachs' respectful reference to the role of a sovereign state in directing its own development is drowned out by the role of NGOs and donors, whom it is clear have full freedom to operate in this space. It is a fair sketch in a way. In drawing a positive image of Bangladesh, it makes intuitive sense to minimize the role of a state which it is difficult to characterize other than as chronically corrupt, driven by a violently divisive politics and a venal, pathologically mutually antagonistic leadership.[3]

  • [1] There was not actually a famine in either 1971 or 1972—at least not in Bangladesh (some say itwas exported, with the refugees, to India). See Chapter 5 for a full account. But it is certainly true tosay that the post-war period was one of mass hunger and chaos.
  • [2] Moazzem and Raz (2014) estimated that in 2011, Bangladeshi garments workers had thelowest wages in Asia;even Cambodian workers had higher wages. Micro-credit figures are (accessed 3 February 2015).
  • [3] There may be many hundreds of donor and newspaper reports saying as much, but for anauthoritative perspective on Bangladesh's governance see the State of Governance series by theInstitute of Governance and Development at BRAC University (formerly the Institute ofGovernance Studies, and before that, the Centre for Governance Studies;, accessed 25 July 2016).
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