Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Toward a New Bangladesh

A gentler kinder face of Islam

News from Bangladesh

ND Batra

Given a chance everyone could get out of poverty. Human beings are essentially entrepreneurial in spirit. Entrepreneurship, which means innovating and building new tools for opening new frontiers—not merely a struggle for survival—has been the ultimate fount of human evolution and growth. Charity is the antithesis of entrepreneurship, though it makes the charitable feel good. Charity does have a place in society, as Islam rightfully insists, and as all great religions of the world have been preaching for millennia. But Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Laureate of Bangladesh who trained as an economist at Vanderbilt University, says that it is “not an answer to poverty. It only helps poverty to continue. It creates dependency and takes away individual’s initiative to break through the wall of poverty.” Social tyranny whether of petty money lenders, religious fanatics, or a well-organized poltical party such as the communist party perpetuates poverty. In 1983 with only a few hundred takas ($27) in hand, as the legend says, Dr. Yunsus told a handful of rapacious moneylenders, one might say in the spirit of Moses, “Let my people go.” Chains of slavery were broken but freedom comes from ability to work. Work means dignity. Nothing comes closer to the American yes-I-can-do spirit than Dr. Yunus’ secular faith that “Unleashing of energy and creativity in each human being is the answer to poverty.” Fighting poverty should be the primary fucntion of the government. When the government gets out of the way of the people, as it has been happening in China and India, entrepreneurs rise and create wealth. It is that simple. Awarding the Peace Prize to someone from a country that most regard not only as an international basket case but also a breeding ground for Islamic jihadism, the Nobel Committee rightfully admonished that "lasting peace cannot be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty… Development from below also serves to advance democracy and human rights.” The most unique aspect of micro-credit financing in Bangladesh is that it has been empowering women. A liberated woman can be a powerful regenerative force in a society, especially an overwhelmingly Muslim society mined with petrodollar financed madrassas. Whether Muslim clerics would accept liberated and empowered women is another momentous challenge. In a manner of speaking, the secular liberation theology—liberating the bottom people from poverty— Dr. Yunus may be the answer to Al Qaeda and religious extremism. But micro-credit cannot lift all boats. Bangladesh needs to think big in order to compete internationally in trade and commerce and for which it needs some friendly help from countries like the United States whose markets, homes and hearths, have become a captive of China. Wal-Mart, JC Penny, Target and other global buyers should be encouraged to play the role of corporate diplomats and be urged to import on a priority basis from countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the quality of whose garments is as good as that from China. That is my personal experience when I shop around for my personal clothing needs.Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, said about Bangladesh in his book, The End of Poverty: "Not only is the garment sector fueling Bangladesh economic growth of more than 5 percent per year in recent years, but it is also raising consciousness and power of women in a society that was long brazenly biased against women's chances of life." The international consequences of a dollar flowing to Bangladesh are far more important in terms of fighting poverty and terrorism, human rights and democracy, than willy-nilly letting China add to its trillion-dollar reserve. Dr. Sachs wrote, "The job for women in the cities and rural off-farm microenterprises; a new spirit of women's rights and independence and empowerment; dramatically reduced rates of child mortality; rising literacy of girls and young women; and, crucially, the availability of family planning and contraception have made all the difference for these women." If there is hope for womankind, you see its bright face emerging in Bangladesh—a crucible for struggle between the old and the new face of Islam. Bangladesh is an open society and a democracy, however, imperfect and fragile, and given a chance it could lift itself out of poverty and become an exemplar for other countries especially in Africa. As Dr. Yunus told a newspaper that some day our grandchildren might to go to a museum and wonder what it was like to be poor, for which of course rural micro-credit schemes would not be enough.Bangladesh must get out of its small-minded siege mentality and irrational fear of its neighbors, emulate countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia, think and plan big, and compete internationally in trade and commerce for which it needs an expanding base of information technology, manufacturing and services, and massive investment to build infrastructure. Its youth is hungry for challenges, for constructive work, or else… Bangladesh must re-imagine itself. One Dr. Yunus is not enough for Bangladesh. ****************************************************************************************(ND Batra, Professor of Communications and Diplomacy at Norwich University, Vermont, USA, has completed a new book, “Digital Civilization: How Much Freedom Does a Man Need?” due for publication in 2007. *****************************************************************************************

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