Down the Malay Barrier 6.

As the world measures these things, Bangladesh ranks 6th in population and 92nd in land area.  So, it is really crowded.  It has large natural gas reserves, both on- and off-shore, as well as a good deal of coal.  Otherwise it lacks natural resources beyond the rich soil that supports more than 40 percent of the population.  How is an environmentally-precarious, over-populated country that has scarce natural resources supposed to pay its way in the world and to raise the living standards of its people?

Bangladesh lives from its exports.  First and foremost, it exports cloth and ready-made clothing.  Better than 80 percent of the country’s exports in any given year are textiles or ready-made clothes bound for markets in Europe (60 percent) or North America (40 percent).  In 2013, Bangladesh had about 5,000 garment factories that employed 4 million people.  Most of these were women.[1]

Mostly they had moved as girls from rural villages in search of a better life.  One worker, profiled briefly in the New York Times, dropped out of school and left her village for the city when she was twelve.  She got a job in a garment factory, sitting at a little table and working a sewing machine for long hours turning out jeans too big for any Bangladeshi to wear.  She got paid $30 a month.  Modest enough, but it made a huge difference in the life of her family.  Most of it went for food, ending the danger of hunger.  She married and had a child.  She and her husband both worked.  Their earnings allowed them to rent a room for themselves, while sharing a kitchen and bathroom with other tenants.  Steady work allowed the parents to invest great hopes in their child: “I wanted people to say ‘Look, although his mother worked for a garment factory, her son is well educated and has a good job.”[2]

In a larger context, the story of Bangladesh is the story of the last quarter century of economic progress in the Developing World.  In 1990, 1.9 billion people (36 percent of the world’s population) earned less than $2.00 a day; by 2016, “only” 734 million people (10 percent of the world’s population) earned less than $2.00 a day.  Roughly, that means that 2.4 billion people who would have earned less than $2.00 a day, now earn more.

Pitiful as that advance may seem to many Western observers lounging in a Starbuck’s, it’s the difference between acute hunger—and the vulnerabilities to disease that malnutrition brings—and a full belly.  There haven’t been famines in the West since the Irish potato famine of the 1840s or the famines attending Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War.  They remained all too common in South Asia into recent times.[3]

Furthermore, economic progress gave the government the means to launch previously-unknown social programs: better health care and basic education (especially for girls).  However, like other Western amenities, unemployment insurance will have to wait for better times.

Now the Covid-19 economic slump has dried up global markets for ready-to-wear.  It has led to a million Bangladeshi textile workers being laid-off.  Shoved back toward poverty.

[1], and Elizabeth Paton, “Garment Workers Are Facing Ruin,” NYT, 2 April 2020.

[2] Maria Abi-Habib, “Millions Had Risen Out of Poverty.  Coronavirus Is Pulling Them Back,” NYT, 30 April 2020.

[3] See, for example:

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