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Nasty, Brutish, and Short

Callous and politically motivated though the 'basket case' label certainly was, it was not, in 1971, inaccurate about Bangladesh's prospects. An early CIA report noted that independence meant that the 'rather unique phenomenon' of Bangladesh could finally be seen. No longer hidden among or averaged out by membership of a nation dominated by less precarious and more prosperous communities in Pakistan or india, it was suddenly obvious that 'so much of (sic) poverty (was) shared by so many squeezed into so little a land area' (CiA 1972, 6, citing National Plan 1972-3). In independent Bangladesh, the CIA discounted the long-term prospects of the political energies of liberation, predicting instead that the inevitable disappointment in its material fruits would lead to wider regional destabilization:

[T]he formidable and probably insoluble nature of these problems will make East Bengal—be it East Pakistan or Bangla Desh—an object of concern to its people, its neighbors, and the world in general for the foreseeable future. With 70 to 80 million people packed into an area the size of Florida, unable to grow enough food to feed itself, almost devoid of natural resources, facing a decline in the sale of jute (its principal export), periodically subjected to floods and cyclones, East Bengal will be plagued by economic privation and political crisis. (CIA 1971, 13)

Apart from its remarkable political energies, the odds were not in Bangladesh's favour, posing a challenge to the project of aided development:

Even under the best of circumstances, Bangladesh constitutes a critical and complex development problem. The population is poor (per capita income of $50-$70, a figure which has not risen over the past 20 years), overcrowded (population density is nearly 1400 per square mile), short-lived (life expectancy at birth is well under 50 years), in many cases unemployed (perhaps 25-30 percent), and largely illiterate (under 20 percent literacy rate). (World Bank 1972, i)

These Hobbesian framings were political acts, not merely a catalogue of dismal facts: their diagnosis was on the basis of contemporary economics, pushing political relations firmly out of view. As Rehman Sobhan points out, the problems were not merely of financing gaps:

[t]he disruptive effect of this decisive [political] break with the past has been seriously underestimated by analysts who seem to see the problem as one of direct substitution of resources, sources of supply and social forces. (1982, 3)

Many of Bangladesh's contemporary economic fragilities could be directly traced to the political subjugation of its people prior to independence. Bangladesh was exceptionally weak economically in part because it had suffered nine months of Pakistani bombardment and an all-but-scorched-earth policy that killed, maimed, or displaced as much as one-third of the population. Behind that catastrophe lurked decades of neo-colonial rule that had stalled and sometimes even reversed economic and human development. Pakistani rule had in its turn been enacted upon a population and landscape that was at the coalface of British imperialism, bearing the brunt of policies of extraction and enforced commodity production for the global economy for generations. Whether Pakistani or British, the state consistently failed to protect the population against the frequent ecological and subsistence crises. In several instances, including the 1943-4 famine, the state had been instrumental in causing the disaster and vulnerability to its effects. If a shopping list of economic problems said nothing about the politics that had historically thwarted and undermined the fragile economy of the Bengal Delta, it could equally say little about what development might be unleashed in a sovereign state, and about how the population might respond to a different distribution of resources and chances.

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