Bangladesh on the Rise

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in New York on Sept. 20, 2011

NEW YORK, September 20, 2011 — "The Switzerland of the East" isn't a title most would associate with Bangladesh. Yet this is an impression Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina would like to forge.

Speaking at the Asia Society on Tuesday afternoon, Hasina mentioned the central European nation as a role model for her own country, citing the two countries' similar position as crossroads amid much larger powers.

Without a doubt, Bangladesh has a long way to go before anyone confuses it with one of the world's most prosperous countries. In recent years, however, the Bangladeshi economy has shown impressive growth, averaging six percent even during the recent global economic slowdown. According to the prime minister's prepared remarks, all sectors of the economy — agricultural, industrial and services — have shared in the growth, and 90 percent of annual public expenditure now comes from domestic sources.

On top of this progress, Bangladesh has enormous economic potential, not least due to its geographic location. Situated between India and Southeast Asia and only a short distance from China, Bangladesh is positioning itself as a regional economic hub. Demographics may also play a favorable role in Bangladesh's future. Of its population of over 160 million people, more than half are under the age of 40. Such a sizeable, inexpensive pool of labor could pay the same dividends in Bangladesh as it has in China, India and elsewhere.

"We want to become the breeze between East and West," remarked Sheikh Hasina.

Clearly, major problems persist. Bangladesh remains one of the continent's poorest nations, facing enormous resource and environmental hurdles. Political instability has plagued the country since its independence from Pakistan in 1971, often preventing previous governments from implementing sound economic policies. Corruption remains rife in spite of Hasina's rhetorical commitment to eliminating it. Basic needs such as food, shelter, education, and health care remain the prime minister's biggest priority.

"Helping my people meet those needs is the only thing I worry about," she said.

Yet one could detect a spirited optimism in Sheik Hasina, now in her second tenure as prime minister. Relations with neighboring countries are good, and the investment climate has improved markedly since her first days in office. The prime minister, though, believes more can be done. Referring to high US tariffs on apparel and textile products, the prime minster said that waiving these tariffs would "contribute to our economic development and social transformation, particularly in the empowerment of women."

Bangladesh may not be close to becoming a world-class skiing destination, but in the future comparisons to Switzerland may become considerably more apt.

Reported by Matt Schiavenza