The Bonsai Nation Grows Full-Size: Bangladesh at 50

Fifty years ago, when Bangladesh was born as an independent country after terrible civil conflict, some people called it a ‘basket case’. But now the picture is completely different. Now Bangladesh is a rising star, says a recent Foreign Policy story marking the anniversary.

Life expectancy has almost doubled, to 72.6 years. Nearly all Bangladeshi children finish primary school, and its female literacy rate is higher than India’s and much higher than Pakistan’s. Its infant mortality rate is lower than both of its neighours, and its fertility rate has fallen so far that “in a generation, the high population growth that has gone hand in hand with poverty will be no more,” the magazine noted.

And the credit goes almost entirely to civil society, inspired by three men and the organizations that they helped to create. I knew about Muhammad Yunus and Grameen, and about the late Sir Fazal Hasan Abed and BRAC (the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, it was called at its founding, before it shortened its name). But I hadn’t heard of Zafrullah Chowdhury, who pushed to make pharmaceuticals affordable, so I will have to learn more about him. For now, though, I wanted to focus on the first two men, because I know much more about their ‘origin’ stories.

Enormous change grew from small, unexpected discoveries, and small acts, and it began at the grassroots, with the people the late economist C.K. Prahalad called ‘the bottom of the pyramid’ – the people of our world who live on less than $2 a day. Neither Yunus nor Abed arrived back in their homeland with grand strategies for creating change, and that is worth remembering when we think about ‘international development’ today.

Photo by Delaney Van on Unsplash

Yunus once wrote that poor people are bonsai people. Like seeds that grow into miniature trees because they are planted in a shallow pot, they have not grown in soil rich and plentiful enough to let them become full-sized. “All that is required  to get poor people out of poverty is for us to create an enabling environment for them,”  he says. “Once the poor are allowed to unleash their energy and creativity, poverty will disappear very quickly.”

He has spent decades creating and advocating for the kind of institutions that do provide such rich soil – but that learning happened after he moved back from the US, where he was a university professor. When he came back home in 1972, he became head of Chittagong University’s economics department. But he soon found there was a big contrast between what he was teaching, about grand five-year plans to end poverty, and how people lived in Jobra village, right beside the university. 

Thousands had died during the terrible 1974-75 Bangladesh famine, and people who had no land remained very poor. Yunus helped the farmers in Jobra create an association that improved irrigation so they could harvest a third crop during the normally unproductive dry season. But that hadn’t improved life for Sufiya Begum, who fed her family by crafting bamboo stools. She borrowed from the local moneylender to buy bamboo for the stools, but he lent her money only if she sold him the stools, at a price he fixed, as well as paying high interest on the loan. And so she earned only two pennies a day.

After a week of visiting families in Jobra, Yunus and one of his students learned the scale of the problem – 42 people owed the moneylender the equivalent of less than $27 US. He paid it out of his own pocket and began lobbying banks to lend to the poor. But banks said the poor had no collateral and no credit history, and couldn’t fill out paperwork because they were illiterate. Eventually, he asked the government to let him create the kind of bank they needed, and in 1983, a new law made it possible for him to create  the Grameen Bank. It turned conventional banking practices upside down. Banks loaned to the rich; Grameen lent to the poor. Banks made loans to men; Grameen loaned to women (eventually, exclusively to women, because that benefits families more than lending to men). Banks made large loans; Grameen lent small amounts. Banks required collateral; Grameen saw the skills of the poor. Banks required paperwork; Grameen was  “illiterate-friendly”. Clients had to go to banks; Grameen went to its clients. And it worked brilliantly.

Microcredit – lending to the poor – also fuelled BRAC’s growth from a small-scale citizen-run relief and rehabilitation project with a budget of less than $1 million in 1972 into an independent,  virtually self-financed, sustainable human development organization that is now the world’s largest. Fazle Hasan Abed was working for a petroleum company in London when he chose to return home, and BRAC was begun with the proceeds from the sale of his apartment.

BRAC’s focus is on sustainable development that empowers the poor residents of rural areas, and it promotes these goals through community-based  organizations and micro-finance, health, education, training and research programs. Over the years, BRAC came to operate on a national scale and in partnership with the government, other NGOs and organizations. It has, from the beginning, evaluated every program it has ever run. 

By 2006, its budget was $330 million US, and only 30% of that came from donors. It employed  108,741 people, 61% of them women, and worked in 78% of all villages, with 110 million of the country’s 140 million residents. BRAC provided health care, primary education, and created millions of jobs. It had its own university, bank, and finance corporation, and invested in many commercial enterprises.

When  BRAC celebrated its 35th anniversary in Dhaka Army Stadium in February 2008, space constraints meant that only the longest-serving of its staff, teachers and volunteers could attend. It now works in 11 countries including Bangladesh. When it won the prestigious Conrad M. Hilton Humanitarian Prize some years ago, it used the proceeds to fund some of that expansion, in Africa.

Few people realize how much microcredit work pioneered by Grameen and BRAC encouraged a worldwide crusade to end poverty through such small loans. In fact, Grameen helped bring microcredit to the United States, along with some other innovations developed in Bangladesh by both organizations. 

Lessons Without Borders brought some of USAID’s overseas capacity-building work back to the US in the mid 1990s, inspired by a discussion about how much Oral Rehydration Salts (developed in Bangladesh during the civil war) could save US hospitals in operational costs. Some US cities learned new strategies from visits to USAID operations overseas, as part of that program.

It has always struck me as being an example of a really good horizontal, or neighbour to neighbour, development activity.


Bangladesh’s Remarkable Journey From ‘Basket Case’ to Rising Star. Foreign Policy, Apr. 10, 2021

Bringing Lessons Home: A Perspective from USAID. Carnegie Council, Jun. 5, 1998