Thursday, June 18, 2009
Why Bangladesh doesn't want your pity
Bangladesh: land of desperation, starvation and floods of biblical proportions, beloved and pitied in equal measure by the legions of NGO workers who flock here. At least that’s how it’s normally portrayed.
Coming to Bangladesh for the first time, I’ve got a rather different view from many of the people I’ve spoken to. While poverty is ever-present and the country is hit by devastating natural disasters on an annual basis, many Bangladeshis are proud of the progress their country has made since independence in 1971 and are none too pleased with the perception that they are nation of pitiful wretches.
One senior public health expert I spoke to explained that during recent cyclones Sidr and Aila, Dhaka residents had taken it upon themselves to travel down to the affected regions in the south and give out food packages to those in need.
Rouf Chowdhury, an influential, Oxford-educated businessman, chided the West for failing to give Bangladesh credit where it was due.
“Our population has doubled to around 150 million since independence and yet, in a country the size of the state of Maryland, we have managed to become self-sufficient in food,” he explained in the scruffy boardroom of the Bangladesh Vegetable Oil Refiners Association, which is one of the many organizations he chairs.
“That’s a minor miracle and that makes me confident and optimistic about the future.”
For the official low-down on the comparative area, check out the invaluable CIA world factbook, which says that Bangladesh is slightly smaller than Iowa (and Cambodia, Oman and Suriname).
The pic shows fancy new lakeside apartments facing off against not-so-fancy lakeside slums in central Dhaka - although I'm told that these slums are of the comparatively upmarket variety.