Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Besting the Master

By David G. Young

St. Augustine, Florida, January 1, 2019 --  

A fraudulent election tarnishes decades of progress in Bangladesh.

When opposition activists claimed fraud in Bangladesh’s election on Sunday, the case against the government was damning. In the run-up to the election, mass arrests of opposition members were followed by the government cutting off mobile internet access during the polls.1

But for all the problems facing it's democracy,Bangladesh is a far cry from the basket case it was 40 years ago when many observers expected mass famine and state collapse to have befallen the country by now.

Back in the 1970, Bangladesh was one of the poorest and most densely populated regions in the world. It had an extremely high fertility rate of nearly 7 births per woman2, and the decade saw the country's population skyrocket first to 70 million and then surpass 80 million.

The country was born with a bloody independence war fought against Pakistan to become an independent country in 1971. Once freed of their elite and light-skinned former overlords in Lahore and Islamabad, many predicted the poor dark-skinned Bengalis would never be able to run their own affairs.

In his 1968 book the Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich predicted mass starvation in the 1970s and 80s, and said the Indian subcontinent would never be able to feed itself. Bangladesh, the poorest and most densely populated country in the region, was the most likely place for starvation to begin.

This Malthusian nightmare never came to pass. Between international charities, expat workers in the Persian Gulf, and local entrepreneurs, Bangladesh not only managed to feed itself, but slowly grew its economy to surpass its old master Pakistan in GDP per capita as of last year.3 The economy has averaged over 7 percent growth for the past few years.4

Much of this growth has been thanks to globalization. After a stagnant start as a socialist "people's republic" with nationalization of industries, Bangladesh later liberalized its economy and was well positioned for a textiles boom after rising wages chased the industry out of China and Southeast Asia. Today, if you buy clothes from H&M or other mass retailer, it's a good bet the label will say it was made in Bangladesh.

The country's impressive growth is part of what the ruling party touted in Sunday's dodgy election to keep it in power for a third term. There is little reason to think Bangladesh needs to sacrifice democracy to continue on its successful path. Time will tell whether the growing middle class will force change after a fraudulent election or decide to look the other way.


1. The Guardian, Bangladesh Opposition Reject 'Farcical' Election and Demand New Vote, December 30, 2018

2., Bangladesh Fertility Rate, World Bank Figures, as posted December 30, 2018

3. The Economist, Bangladesh's GDP Per Person is Now Higher Than Pakistan's, September 7, 2017

4. World Bank, GDP Annual Growth Rate, As posted Jan 1 2019