10 years after independence, Bangladesh moves toward self-sufficiency in food
President Ziaur Rahman is pushing, prodding, and exhorting his country toward a new image -- that of a breadbasket instead of a "basket case." International aid expects believe he may yet bring his country to food self-sufficiency -- if not in 1985, his target year, then in the next few years.
"Maybe it will be 1986 or 1987, but everyone gives them a fair chance of doing it," says a Western diplomat. "They've come a long way," agrees an international aid agency official. "They're not just looking for aid. There is a real attempt here to demonstrate a degree of self-help."
Independent observers assign much of the credit to Zia personally. In power since 1975, first as martial law administrator and later as president with an elected parliament, he has given the country "as stable a government as Bangladesh has ever had," one analyst says.
Zia has proclaimed a "peaceful revolution" aimed at doubling food production, reducing the 80 percent illiteracy rate, cutting the population growth that has so far swamped most of the country's modest gains, and promoting village-level government.
Marking the 10th anniversary of its independence from Pakistan today, March 26, Bangladesh is still heavily dependent on foreign aid and shares with Cambodia the dubious distinction of being at the rock bottom of the world poverty scale. The Bangladesh are still struggling to live down former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's assessment of their country as "an international basket case."
But in Zia, they have, "a development president who's got his priorities right," says an admiring international aid official. "Political will is the major or maybe the most important factor in development, and it's here."
Acting as kind of a national cheerleader for the bootstrap efforts he is trying to promote, Zia is constantly on the move through the towns and villages of his country, about the size of Illinois. Descending by helicopter, he exhorts villagers to donate their labor to dig irrigation canals so that the land will yields up an extra crop during the dry season. Couples are urged to stop at two children, and the educated are pushed to teach their reading and writing skills to others.
"He really does mobilize people to do things we think are impossible," a Western diplomat says with a smile. "While the diplomatic corps shakes its head , he goes out and gets people to dig canals. We sit and wonder, 'How did he do that?'"
The problems remain formidable. Although Bangladesh has whittled its food deficit down to 1.2 million tons this year, it is prone to natural disasters such as cyclones, floods, and droughts. These spell famine unless the government can quickly intervene -- as it successfully did during the drought of 1979.
Its poverty is even more pervasive today than before independence, which it finally won in December 1971 with Indian Army help and a half-month war of secession with Pakistan. Malnutrition is rampant, with 80 percent of the people living below subsistence levels. Life expectancy is only 47 years. Bangladesh is already the most densely populated country on earth, with the exception of a few prosperous city-states, and its population of 90.25 million is growing at a clip of 2.7 percent a year.
Longtime observers call corruption "pervasive," and fault Zia for doing little to check it. But his own reputation, they note, is untainted. "His worst enemies would not call him dishonest," says an analyst.
with few domestic resources of its own to spare, the country relies on foreign aid for three-quarters of its development budget. A big worry now is the wave of belttightening in the West, which planners fear will cut into aid donations for critical agricultural production, family planning, and industrial development drives.