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The Paradoxes of the Bangladesh Miracle

After emerging poor and devastated from its independence struggle 50 years ago, Bangladesh has managed to become a global paragon of economic development. While the country's success is the result of many factors, two distinctive features of its political economy stand out.

NEW DELHI – Ravaged periodically by natural calamities, long dependent on foreign aid and remittances, and a perennial source of refugees and emigrants, Bangladesh was once “a basket case of misery,” as Zia Haider Rahman put it in his great debut novel, In the Light of What We Know. But on the 50th anniversary of its independence, Bangladesh is fast becoming a development paragon – a Miracle on the Meghna.

Among the country’s achievements is a dramatic improvement in its citizens’ average standard of living. According to the most recent data from the International Monetary Fund, Bangladesh’s per capita GDP (measured in purchasing-power-parity terms) was about half of Pakistan’s in 1987 and two-thirds of India’s as recently as 2007. But in 2020, Bangladesh has surpassed the former and is catching up with the latter, owing partly to its success in becoming a leading textiles and clothing exporter, trailing just behind China and Vietnam.

Even more noteworthy are the improvements in social indicators such as life expectancy, infant and maternal mortality, fertility, and female labor-force participation. And, equally important, Bangladesh has managed to sustain a modicum of democratic stability – keeping the army in the barracks.