Jenny January 25, 2013

Bangladesh. Many tend to associate the country with things like poverty and starvation, or the looming threat of a changed global climate. But there is another story to tell.

When Bangladesh gained independence in 1971, after a long and brutal war for independence, the country represented just about every problem the developing world was struggling with. Many were even wondering if the new country would make it through as an independent state.

But now, 40 years onward, things are different. Development-wise, the country has made a quite remarkable journey, especially during the past 20 years.

Life expectancy has been raised with ten years, from 59 to 69. Bangladeshis now live on average four years longer than Indians, despite the fact that the big neighbor to the west is much richer.

The country is now aspiring to become a middle-income country by 2021, 50 years after its independence. And there are those who predict that Bangladesh may overtake western economies by 2050.

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During the same time, literacy has tripled. Today, almost all Bangladeshi children start school (although there is still a big problem with early drop-outs). The improvement in education is something big, since it puts young Bangladeshis in a better position than ever before to build a better future.

It is among girls that the biggest change has happened. Enrollment rates are now higher among girls than boys, a reverse of the situation 20 years ago. But, the gender gap is not closed that easily. Girls remain disadvantaged at the upper levels of schooling, and continue to have limited opportunities once they’ve graduated.

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Overall, living conditions have improved a lot. Bangladeshis have surely not become rich over night – life continues to be simple and basic, far from the kind of consumerism that is draining the world of resources – but the improvements from the years when people died from hunger are substantial.

“The big majority of people now eat three meals a day. They may eat very basic food, but they do not starve like they did before,” said Sheikh Nasrul Islam, professor at Dhaka University’s Institute for Nutrition and Food Science.

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The reasons behind the improved living conditions can be summarized in one word: women. It is through projects that are run by and for women that the country has been able to not only develop, but to aspire to do it in an inclusive way. A lot is thanks to NGOs (many of which, like the world’s largest NGO BRAC, are 100% home-grown), who are targeting women with everything from micro credit loans and small-scale business support to social and judicial campaigns.

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Yet Bangladesh is no exception from other countries. Women continue to face discrimination, inequity and long-standing patriarchal norms, just like their sisters elsewhere.

“Sure we’ve made progress. But the fact remains: we are women so we have less power. This is the case everywhere in the world,” said Fazilatun Nessa, head of the local UN project on urban poverty in Barisal.

There are other challenges too. Huge ones. Bangladesh is the world’s most densely populated country, and with shrinking economical opportunities in the countryside, thousands of people leave for the city daily. This puts huge pressure on Dhaka and other already congested urban areas.

Unequal distribution of resources, land grabbing and environmental pollution are other brakes on human development. And, not to be forgotten, everyday life continues to be hard for millions of Bangladeshis. Poverty has gone down, but almost one third still live below the poverty line.

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That has a lot to do with two things: bad governance and corruption. For an idea of just how problematic the political behavior is, I suggest you read Afsan Chowdhury (who described the corruption like this when I met him the other week: “without paying people, you get absolutely nothing done at all”). Headlines like “the opportunity to talk nonsense” and “political immaturity” – or “a brief political history of my beard” – say it all!

In the end, human rights advocate and international relations professor C R Abrar probably nails it:

“We have done incredibly well on the development level, despite our politicians. One wonders, where would we have been had those people not been in power?”

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All photos, except for the first and third, are shot by Karim Mostafa.