One of the natural results of the recent terror attacks in Bangladesh is contemplation. Some are rightly focused on the immediate need to understand how these unprecedented acts of violence could happen, and how to stop them. But the fact that one major attack targeted foreigners in Bangladesh makes me wonder, what would Bangladesh be like without the foreigner presence?
I first came to Bangladesh in 2002, and have lived in the country for several years and visited numerous times since then. This is the first time in memory that many of my foreigner friends and colleagues in Bangladesh are hesitant to stay in or visit the country. As we foreigners count our blessings that we were not among the victims at the Holey Bakery, we also recognize that it could have easily been us that night. The fear is amplified by both the brutality and the utter lack of sense behind the attacks.
In the recent past, few major areas of economic and social progress that would have happened without a partnership with a foreign individual or organization with a presence in Bangladesh, even if all progress was completed with Bangladeshi leadership. The main markets for the garment industry are the US and Europe, whose buyers have large offices in Dhaka with other buyers visiting the country frequently. The aid industry supports many government programs, as well as the enormous NGO system in Bangladesh. Academic partnerships have similarly been crucial in creating life saving health institutions such as ICDDR,B, involved in life-saving interventions that include ORS. Foreigners, particularly from Sri Lanka and India, contribute greatly as skilled employees for a number of industries, particularly garments. This is not to say that the record is perfect, with numerous disastrous aid projects and imposed, destructive policies, amongst other negative effects; but the partnership has been positive on the whole.
As we look to the future, these areas of progress have been firmly established in the country, so even if many foreigners would depart, it is difficult to imagine they would vanish. But one wonders, which other partnerships for progress are endangered? Where are the major new areas where a partnership with foreigners in Bangladesh can make further contributions? I would argue that four areas are vital to maintain growth and ensure Bangladesh progresses further as a Middle Income Country.
While the garment industry is strong, sustained growth requires the development of new sectors. Export of light manufacturing goods is one of the most promising sectors, but as with garments, this requires the presence of buyers in the country, who will provide business opportunities and work with manufacturers to improve their capacity. Similarly, the growing technology sector of Bangladesh should be greatly enriched through international business and the exchange of ideas. Reliance on the garment industry to sustain growth is a risky approach for the economy.
To continue developing, Bangladesh requires major investments in infrastructure. Everyone knows the current infrastructure in Dhaka is woefully inadequate. Indeed, several of the victims of the terrorism were reported to be visiting Dhaka to advise the government on the construction of a badly needed metro system. Foreign governments and other institutions are needed to both provide advice and financing for infrastructure.
A Skilled Labor Force and Higher Education
Most large businesses in Bangladesh identify the lack of highly skilled, well-educated employees as a key constraint, leading many to offer such jobs to Sri Lankans and Indians. These foreigners play a critical role in meeting this need. At the same time, it is clear that Bangladesh needs to further develop its higher educational institutions. While foreign investment in universities has been limited, exchange with foreign universities will play a critical role in producing critical research for the country, as well as improving the quality of higher education.
Bangladesh has received worldwide attention as one of the main victims of climate change. While some progress has been made, adapting to this challenge will require large-scale programs, with cooperation on a number of fronts. The West should rightfully bear the costs of many of these programs. At the same time, their presence is required to offer these resources, as well as cooperate to produce technical analyses to understand the varied effects of climate change.
The need to prevent terrorism in Bangladesh is obvious, but it’s important to keep in mind what is at stake. As if a general sense of fear and sadness isn’t enough, there are also grave threats to the partnerships that have yielded economic and social progress of the country. Re-establishing a general sense of security in the coming months and years may prove to be pivotal to the future of Bangladesh. The country may continue its current, admirable progress or see that progress grind to a halt.