The following transcript contains the remarks given by Ira A. Jackson, Visiting Lecturer on Sociology at Harvard University, at the conclusion of the Mittal Institute’s Bangladesh Rising Conference on September 16, 2019.
It’s been a very full and productive and informative day. I, for one, cannot do justice in less than 15 minutes to what we have heard and learned from our 27 presenters in eight sessions over the last nine hours.
I will say, as a relative newcomer to Bangladesh, and as an outsider looking in, and from the back of the room and listening attentively, that I learned a lot. This has been a fabulous conference. And I think I can speak for all of us in saying thanks to the organizers and thoughtful presenters for taking this conference as seriously as they have.
No one attending today’s conference could deny that Bangladesh is, indeed, rising. You all are well aware of the progress, but most outsiders, and certainly most Americans, including many American academics, are uninformed, ill-informed, or simply not aware. The portrait that emerges from this conference is of a nation in rapid transition and perhaps at a critical tipping point.
It is clear from today’s presenters that from the UN Sustainable Development Goals, to the rate of economic growth, to the rapidly evolving entrepreneurial culture of the country, Bangladesh is emerging on its own as a major event — and as a distinctive model for development. 8.2% GDP growth — substantially faster than China or India. Life expectancy greater than Pakistan. An economy that has the potential to double to $600 billion in just 10 years. 165 million people are living in an area no larger than Wisconsin, and dealing responsibly with existential issues such as a refugee crisis and rising sea levels.
At a time when so much focus and attention are placed on dysfunction and conflict in so many regions of the world, Bangladesh, as told by today’s presenters and panelists, stands out as an example of a largely overlooked young nation — just 48 years old, Muslim but secular and democratic, growing at a brisk rate, empowering women, taking prudent risks and experimenting and innovating in both the private and non-governmental sectors.
Bangladesh is paving a new and quite distinctive path of progress. Not without obvious challenges — corruption, pollution, the vulnerability of sea level rise, and more. But as you all well know, and what most foreigners haven’t yet learned, Bangladesh is hardly the basket-case country that Henry Kissinger — or, rather, Alexis Johnson — once described. It is well more than the caricature of poverty and famine that for so long dominated Western understanding of this proud and very distinctive nation. Much more. And much more interesting than just the numbers and the metrics. Perhaps this conference might otherwise have been titled: destroying the historical myths and replacing the poor image with the reality of the new growing, increasingly prosperous and almost infinitely interesting Bangladesh.
Bangladesh’s surprising and inspiring transformation and success must be the best kept secret of all emerging nations in the world. Perhaps this conference can help signal the beginning of the recognition and reality that Bangladesh has arrived, that Bangladesh is important, and that the rest of the world should take notice and appreciate Bangladesh, and yes, begin to learn from Bangladesh as well.
Even as Bangladesh is rising, we learned at this conference, there is a concerted and intentional appreciation for, and commitment to, preserving and promoting Bangladesh’s unique humanity, culture, aesthetic, and history, which is much older than our own here in the U.S. That commitment to preserving and promoting its indigenous language and music and poetry and architecture and painting is also unusual and noteworthy — and highly commendable.
Clearly, Bangladesh is not only rising in terms of human development, economic growth, and cultural strength, it is also rising in geopolitical importance. It is gaining the attention and increasingly the investment of not only the region, but the rest of the world. And it is beginning to gain recognition for many lessons from which all of us can learn and benefit — from the model of BRAC and Grameen Phone and bCash and micro-savings accounts, to how Bangladesh is dealing with Rohingya refugees and how it is tackling the existential challenge of climate change.
So, to me, if not many others, this conference was a revelation.
I can’t in less than 15 minutes — and I will take less than 15 minutes — do justice to everything that was said and what we learned from the 27 experts. So, my apologies to all.
Let me simply cite a few, perhaps a dozen additional take-aways from this conference, which I will pose as questions worth pursuing, that illustrate how rich and rewarding the discussion has been all day long:
First, how can Bangladesh transform its image? The myth so dramatically contrasts with the reality. For instance, density is often viewed as a liability, but it is, in fact, a valuable asset. How can Bangladesh leverage its density dividend? And, more importantly, how can we help to transform Bangladesh’s image from one that emphasizes liabilities to one that showcases its incredible assets and strengths?
Second, after being born into a negative 14% GDP growth, Bangladesh now exceeds Pakistan in per capita income. How can Bangladesh best benefit from its inclusion in the exclusive 7% club?
Third, an increasingly diversified manufacturing sector has given Bangladesh comparative advantage. How can this manufacturing advantage best be leveraged, especially over the next 10-15 years, when Bangladesh might yet become a mini-China? (Hopefully, I might add, without all the Chinese characteristics!)
Fourth, increased FDI represents a major opportunity. How can the government reform and professionalize to facilitate greater private risk capital investment? What steps need to be taken to assure the private sector that risk capital is not only encouraged to flow in, but also has a way of being allowed out?
Fifth, why has there been no accountability or even accounting of the U.S. culpability and complicity in the genocide of 1971? Does the collusion of the U.S. in Bangladesh’s traumatic birth obligate us to greater positive engagement in Bangladesh going forward — and acknowledge, if not apologize, for our role in the violent proxy war that used Bangladesh as a pawn in the Cold War game?
Sixth, Bangladesh is secular and democratic. But there are cautionary yellow lights flashing, warning against authoritarian tendencies. How can Bangladesh best retain its role as a “democratic overachiever?”
Seventh, how can the vast Bangladesh diaspora be more deeply engaged, beyond valuable remittances? How might this huge global talent pool be tapped for their talent, including their circulatory migration — and their love of spicy food and the love of their native land?
Eighth, how can Bangladesh best preserve its rich indigenous culture, including marginalized art, medicinal plants, languages, architecture, dance and music, and their ethical and moral legacy, at the same time that it pursues modernization and growth and national pride celebrated through books and language day?
Ninth, how can Bangladesh accelerate the process of innovation and expand the opportunities within the Bangladesh start-up ecosystem? Here, in one of the most successful innovation ecosystems in the world, how can Boston’s success help inform and assist the process in Bangladesh and help to connect the dots?
Tenth, what role can and should higher education play in developing the talent that Bangladesh needs, and in creating the applied research and knowledge that Bangladesh deserves to capture more value-added elements of economic and social progress? Here in the education capital of America, with 45 colleges and universities, including many world-class research universities, and 250,000 students, what role can Boston-based educational institutions play in this process?
Eleventh, Bangladesh has achieved phenomenal, perhaps miraculous, success in terms of health, but as Bangladesh urbanizes, with a greater reliance upon private medical intervention, how can this progress be sustained? And how can the international community best assist Bangladesh as it deals responsibly but largely on its own with sustainable assistance for the more than a million traumatized Rohingya refugees?
Lastly, how does the whole of society, inclusive approach emphasized by the presenters today achieve the impressive, monumental tasks and dream for a golden Bangladesh in 2100?
Those are just some of the inflection points, questions, and insights shared and lessons learned at today’s conference. Surely fodder for a subsequent follow-on conference that might offer some additional answers to these challenges. Perhaps even an action-agenda for the doers in the audience.
Thanks to the holistic approach that Professor Hussam mentioned at the outset, and the intellectual smorgasbord that Professor Khanna mentioned in his welcome, we leave with a better appreciation of the richness and texture and history and complexity of Bangladesh. Most importantly, we leave with a fuller picture of the potential and future of this proud young nation. As Bangladesh rises, just as the Bengali tiger reemerges, gaining a better understanding of Bangladesh, its promise and its challenges in all its dimensions is an increasingly urgent task for all the scholars and practitioners and artists and change-makers and government officials in this room, and for many others.
Lastly: This conference seems to have been built around the right topics, with many of the right experts and observers, perhaps in the right location here at the Mittal Institute at Harvard, and at just the right time. All of you helped to inform and awaken us to the reality that Bangladesh is rising, and that Bangladesh is a nation about which we need to study, where we need to engage, and from which we all can learn. As Bangladesh pivots and reaches a new stage in its development, so, too, must our understanding, research, and collaboration evolve to a new stage and rise to the importance of helping to answer many of the important questions facing an emerging Bangladesh today and into the future.