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The Bengal Tiger

Aerotropolitans and Cinderellas

Bangladeshis in the Global Economy

Imperialism, trade, and migration placed people from the Bengal Delta on the frontline of a recognizably capitalist world economy hundreds of years before twentieth-century Bangladeshis started migrating abroad for work, manufacturing exports, or transacting financial services en masse (Lewis 20H).[1] By the eighteenth century, 'Golden Bengal' was a major source of the lucre circulating in the City of London; the British state financed its Indian adventure through taxes on peasants under the Permanent Settlement, and financial markets were fuelled by the profits of European investments in lucrative indigo, opium, tea, silk, and jute (Van Schendel 2009). Exposed to the vicissitudes of global markets under East India Company rule, East Bengal's peasants turned to rural elite moneylenders for protection (Van Schendel 2009; Bose 1986). So while rural exploitation in the money markets and through economic migration and the global export trade are nothing new, in the twentieth century the population of Bangladesh came to participate directly in global production networks, albeit at the bottom of global value chains, where they have been incorporated on terms that are often individually empowering yet collectively adverse (Phillips 2016; Phillips 2011).

Human resources came to generate wealth for elites and incomes for its population in manufacturing exports, chiefly of readymade garments; labour migration, in particular to the Gulf states; and the heavily garlanded and equally criticized microfinance industry, which channels (mainly) aid funds to circulate in the rural erstwhile subsistence economy. This chapter explores the scale and impact of these major 'growth sectors' on the national economy, and perspectives on their influence in transforming an agrarian society into one shaped by globally connected wage workers and entrepreneurs. It also surveys the experimental and incremental nature of the policies and programmes through which they were introduced, or which gave them space to grow. Aid played a major role in financing, learning from, and cheerleading for microfinance, but was less important, at least in any direct sense, with regard to RMG and 'manpower' exports. Donor engagement encouraged broadly pro-global market shifts, and human development and poverty reduction policies that specifically supported goals of market integration.

The three sectors interact in real lives, with microcredit paying for upfront costs of international migration and garments workers migrating abroad for factory work; together, these represent momentous changes in livelihoods since the 1970s. A combination of factors was essential: openness to free markets and the global economy; foreign and economic policies satisfactory to Western aid donors and their political leaderships and acceptable to the Middle East; and human and social development policies that allowed people to 'accumulate' human capital in the form of basic health and education. Moving into labour-intensive garments and migration was a step away from the crises of subsistence and survival of the 1970s, and generated enormous wealth from the 1980s and in particular the 1990s. Yet in its more mature post-global financial crisis phase, it is clear that Bangladesh and Bangladeshis at the heart of global production networks are highly exposed to shocks in the global political economy, whether spiky rice prices, export order cuts, industrial accidents, or racist immigration policies.

  • [1] People in the Bay of Bengal could speak Portuguese in the seventeenth century, presumablyhaving learned through trade (Van Schendel 2009). Sake Dean Mahomed, an early travel writerfrom India, opened the first Indian restaurant in eighteenth-century London (Narain 2009);Bengali Muslim sailors were arriving in Dundee with Scotland's jute imports as early as the midnineteenth century (Ansari 2004;see also Gardner 1995 on histories of travel in Bangladesh).
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