(This article is part of our special series ‘Rethinking Bangladesh’. You can read the editorial note to the series here.)
For years, the Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation, the country’s statutory tourism board, ran a campaign with this terse instruction: “Visit Bangladesh Before Tourists Come”. Its brightly-coloured posters with scenic landscapes and grand monuments showed what the tourists were missing, yet failed to convey what makes Bangladesh interesting to outsiders – what could attract the desired tourist dollar. The wags said it should read: “Visit Bangladesh Because the Tourists Never Came”, and at some point the campaign was quietly dropped.
Its recent replacement might speak more invitingly of “Discovering Bangladesh”, but still sells the country as a destination for the iconoclastic traveller, rather than appealing to the mass-tourism market. This niche marketing may have been partly successful before the COVID-19 pandemic: visitor numbers have doubled since 1995, and in 2019, the World Economic Forum listed Bangladesh as the world’s ‘most improved’ location for tourism. Yet Bangladesh still had remarkably few international arrivals. War-torn Syria saw seven times as many visitors as Bangladesh in 2019, while three times more went to Haiti than to Bangladesh. Domestic tourism is a growth sector, a fact that Parjatan Corporation recognises with its predominantly Bangla social-media posts. But outsiders, by and large, have resisted its charms in favour of almost anywhere else in the world.
Without a tedious catalogue of Bangladesh’s natural beauties, and historical and cultural fascinations, and even accepting that it lacks the hotels and bars that international tourists desire, it is safe to say there is plenty to see and enjoy in the country, as there is anywhere you take the trouble to look. Many visitors, including veteran travellers, continue to be pleasantly surprised by a place that is on nobody’s bucket list – even by the scenic beauty and grand monuments of the Parjatan posters.
It was never an objective lack but a subjective – and therefore changeable – fact that partly explains why the tourists never came: that Bangladesh’s international reputation remains that of a place of poverty and disaster and that alone. Other countries are poor and disaster-prone – violent and dangerous even – but they are not only those things. But in the global imaginary, it seems, ‘Bangladesh’ only ever sounds of calamity, and a remote calamity at that.
A reputation for trouble
Why does the international reputation of Bangladesh linger so enduringly on disaster and poverty? Such a caricature is unwarranted by its size, complexity and growing weight in the world. Spurred by reports of its growing GDP, the liberal international media now refers to Bangladesh respectfully as “a surprising success” or “the Bengal Tiger”; and it is true: on indices of human development and macroeconomic growth, Bangladesh has seen major gains. Bangladeshis are, on average, now richer than Indians or Pakistanis to their surprise, horror, and in the case of India, disbelief. From my Washington DC vantage point, Bangladesh seems better equipped and more inclined than the United States in trying to protect its citizens from climate change disasters. And yet its international image changes little.
There are several possible reasons for this resilient reputation for trouble. One is that Bangladesh attracts so little informed interest: nothing else has come along to replace the old story of disaster and suffering. It has had little international significance other than its status as the world’s ‘aid lab’ – a site of often successful developmental experimentation that shows that global capitalism works even under the most testing conditions. Recall that those initial conditions included cyclones, floods, war, mass rape, famine, and political violence, afflicted on a vast, densely-packed, impoverished population without exploitable natural resources, broadcast straight into the living rooms of international audiences through what filmmaker Naeem Mohaiemen describes as the ‘accelerated medium’ of 1970s’ television news.
Bangladesh is mainly international newsworthy when there is a spectacularly horrific disaster.
These early images and impressions that branded Bangladesh as a ‘basket-case’ in the international imagination have proven impossible to delete as if hard-wired into its place in the world. Efforts to replace those images with happier ones have relied on (people like me) bombarding an indifferent international audience with the good news about Bangladesh’s growth and human development. But it is increasingly obvious that it is a thin story we tell. We cite statistics of infant mortality (going down) and GDP (going up) to tell a story of progress, and yet there is nothing exactly new here: people once died en masse of horrible avoidable afflictions, and now they don’t. Is there a story in the absence of mass trauma? Can these numbers possibly stand in for real lives that are lived, not merely survived?
There are stories aplenty circulating in Bangladesh and across into West Bengal, as you would expect from a culture with as rich an artistic and literary heritage as Bengal. But – as someone who reads Bangla with difficulty and a dictionary – I know how little of this enters into ‘international culture’. Bangladeshis write, paint, photograph, dance, film, act and sing mainly for and to each other. It is true that this is changing, and that literary, musical, photography and art festivals in Bangladesh are now moments on the global cultural calendar. Yet notably little Bangladeshi art crosses into the ‘universal’ category that would win them a chance of an English translation, an international exhibition, or an audience beyond Bangladesh.
The reason the world has been unable to change its mind about Bangladesh is that it has been told no new stories. Changing its reputation depends not on bigger and better statistics, but on a new narrative. And for this, Bangladesh needs to invest in its boundless human creativity and refrain from banging on about growth.
The resilience of Bangladesh’s reputation as a disaster hellhole – the ‘international basket-case’ in Henry Kissinger’s indelible aside – is often explained with reference to international media bias. But while there are many examples of bias and racism, with US President Richard Nixon helpfully setting the tone in 1971 by dismissing Bangladeshis as “just a bunch of brown goddamn Muslims”, global coverage is not so much biased as it is meagre. Bangladesh is mainly international newsworthy when there is a spectacularly horrific disaster.
Even the disasters are framed for and by the Western gaze. The photojournalist Ismail Ferdous told me his pictures of the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse resonated with picture editors in the US because they reminded them of 9/11. Less well known is his remarkably tender After Rana Plaza series, in which the tragic statistics return to life in firsthand accounts of rebuilding lives in the literal rubble of global capitalism. Bangladeshi lives are rarely rendered real to outsiders in such an intimate way: from the outside we see that disasters happen, and that people suffer. But what that means to the people on the brutal battlegrounds of international trade seem to be of not even passing interest to the outside world.
Why might it matter what powerful outsiders think of Bangladesh and Bangladeshi lives? I ask these questions after years of living in Washington DC, the capital of the world’s most powerful country, a place where thoughts turn into wars and ill-informed perceptions can kill with impunity. Many people I meet here struggle to locate Bangladesh or to dredge up a positive observation about the place. The best-informed know it to suffer from climate change, Islamic terrorism, and an exploitative garments industry, often because they themselves drive international action on these problems.
Speaking from the frontlines of globalisation and the climate crisis, Bangladeshis are uniquely positioned to tell stories of the Anthropocene.
“‘Nobody is interested in Bangladesh’,” the Swedish novelist Helena Thorfinn told me, quoting her publisher on their delight that her next book was set in Myanmar instead of Bangladesh like her previous books. Myanmar may be a resource-accursed genocidal nightmare of brutal military rule and ethnic conflict, but (or perhaps, so) it excites the Western imagination. Bangladesh does not. Having partitioned twice, first from India and then from Pakistan, Bangladesh is in effect shorn of its history until it appears in the annals of world history in 1971. And so it lacks the back story that would locate its impoverishment in its centuries on the frontlines of empire, or its contemporary successes in a long history of resistance and resilience.
“Nobody is interested in Bangladesh,” because, beyond its role as an exemplar of aid-driven development, Bangladesh is not geopolitically interesting, possessing neither enough natural resources nor a sufficiently grave threat to merit exploitation or containment. Lying smack-bang along some useful maritime and land routes might change this calculation in the Asian Century. If Bangladesh gains strategic significance it may become more interesting to the world, but if it does, it will be Asian and not Western perceptions that matter most.
In the meantime, there is much to be thankful for not being ‘interesting’ to imperial powers. But it means that to the extent that Bangladesh occupies any position at all in the US-dominated global public discourse, it is disposable and hilariously irrelevant, a land of laughably Malthusian horrors as per P J O’Rourke, of such remote interest as to provide Mike Pompeo with comedy value on public broadcast at the height of Trump’s Ukraine crisis. Nora Ephron’s Heartburn uses the trope of Bangladesh with immaculate irony when the two main characters discuss the career prospects of their State Department friend (currently being cuckolded by one of the pair). They conclude that the hapless bureaucrat would not get posted to Bangladesh “because we still care about Bangladesh”. Not good enough even for Bangladesh, in case you missed it.
‘Bangladesh’ in symbols
Bangladesh was one of the first countries to be born into the glare of television news and photography, and it is through these media that Western eyes witnessed first the Bhola cyclone, then a genocidal war featuring mass rape, and floods and famine in the early 1970s. The world then saw the founder of the nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, or Bangabandhu, brutally assassinated with most of his immediate family in 1975. In its early years, all the world saw of Bangladesh was disaster: humanitarian, ecological and political. Some of these lasting imaginaries are the unfortunate side-effect of solidaristic initiatives like Ravi Shankar and the ex-Beatle George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh in August 1971. This star-studded event raised international public attention to the genocide and refugee crisis, symbolised by the image of a hungry child on the iconic album cover.
In their effort to capture international attention and sympathy, these images presented Bangladeshis as ‘bare life’ (as Giorgio Agamben put it) – as people without the basic protections of life, beyond the scope of the law. Such representations came into focus in the CIA’s first shocked reports of this apparently unviable country, a vast poor population concentrated in a small land buffeted by nature and without effective leadership. This concentration of ills had previously been obscured by its membership of Pakistan, and before that, of British India and Bengal. The question ‘how could such a place survive?’ hung over US foreign policy towards this problematic new nation. The idea that Bangladeshis were barely surviving licensed the humanitarian experimentalism that turned Bangladesh into the world’s aid lab, justified because the new state had shown itself incapable of looking after its own, and so its people had nothing to lose.
Yet these dry factual nutshells repeated ad nauseam tell no new stories and do little to change Bangladesh’s international image.
Fast forward 50 years and the positive press of Bangladesh focuses on its ‘surprising success’ story, spotlighting high GDP growth rates, sensible fiscal policies, profitable export factories, women micro-entrepreneurs, and similar markers of success in global markets. Images of poverty and desperation from Bangladesh are now beamed from the Rohingya refugee camps, where a million victims of Myanmar military genocide are housed by the Government of Bangladesh, because no other country is willing to provide them with refuge. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina presents this as closing a circle: a country whose people were refugees from genocide in 1971 can now offer sanctuary to similarly vulnerable and violated people. The international media coverage of Bangladesh once again focuses on poverty and desperation, even if these are now images of Myanmar’s vicious governance and military impunity, and signs of Bangladesh’s progress. Yet somehow, it is still framed as poverty and desperation in Bangladesh.
The Rohingya crisis and other stories fail to shake off the old image because they tell no new stories about Bangladesh, just newish takes on the old ones. The perennial question of its precarity persists in the climate change discourse of: how can Bangladesh survive? Lives in Bangladesh still seem bare; they are still, in effect, victims without agency. At its worst, Bangladesh shows us the dystopian future of untrammelled capitalism on a warming planet, so it is not surprising that the world prefers to look away.
Dhaka helps explain why Bangladesh gets so little international love. A first visit to Dhaka is a cacophonic shock, like being dropped into a high-speed video game of dodging crowds rushing chaotically ahead, with the occasional clash or crash of too many characters in a space too tight and ungoverned. Twenty or so million people live, work, are fed, schooled, healed and entertained in what is by some measures the world’s most densely populated city. Even those of us inured to Dhaka cannot cope with the legendary traffic jams, power cuts, water shortages and abysmal health services. There are few of the pleasures of public space you would expect in a major world city, but even if there were, you would be stuck for hours in traffic to reach them. As the Parjatan might say, it takes a special kind of person to get beyond the chaos to discover what is loveable about a city that bounces forever at the bottom of world city ‘liveability’ rankings.
Creative industrial revolution seems like the natural destiny for a country whose movement for national independence was triggered by a fight for the rights to one’s own language.
Another reason Bangladesh has yet to shed its old image is that its model of development is no shiny capitalist vision. Where are the skyscrapers, luxury restaurants and designer stores? Most notable is the visibility of poverty. In some countries, the poor and unfortunate are tucked away or pathologised, rendered functionally invisible to the well-heeled visitor. They have entire vacation resorts built for precisely this purpose. But in Bangladesh, concealment is unimaginable and impossible. Rich and poor rub up against each other daily, as petitioners and relatives, patrons and dependents, leaders and followers. Smart neighbourhoods go unshielded from the homeless and destitute, whose acknowledged rights include frequenting mosques and rich houses to permit the wealthy to enact their virtue through charity. The balcony of every west-facing apartment in affluent Gulshan 1 offers a view of Karail, a vast and precarious informal settlement much prone to fires and other disasters, from where domestics, drivers and other workers commute to service the rich.
Bangladesh’s development success is less visible from the outside because it has been less about enabling the rich to live more cushioned lives than about change in the less visible economy of care. It is in the average Bangladeshi family, the place where Bangladeshis are made, that the true success lies: people now rear healthy families, eat well, learn and grow, and worry less about the next apocalyptic flood, fire or storm. It is a miraculous change in the most mundane parts of life, where women toil mostly invisibly and without reward. The capitalist gaze habitually turns away from women’s reproductive labour everywhere, so it is no surprise that women’s everyday role in Bangladesh’s development success is so easily ignored.
A creative industrial revolution
So how might Bangladesh tell new stories about itself? One strategy has not worked: in our quixotic quest to promote Bangladesh’s unexpected success to an uninterested world, writers and researchers like me have touted the ‘surprising’ GDP and human-development statistics of which Bangladeshis are rightly proud. Yet these dry factual nutshells repeated ad nauseam tell no new stories and do little to change Bangladesh’s international image. A preoccupation with indices of development merely reinforces what Michelle Murphy calls the ‘economisation of life’, in which the stories only matter when the bodies behind the statistics pile high, whether those stories are good or bad.
After half a century, Bangladesh has no obligation to retell fairy tales of neoliberalism, even if that is what the world is primed to hear. The nation’s international reputation depends on new narratives, stories that make Bangladeshi lives real to the world in all their perfect imperfection. It seems obvious that reimagining Bangladesh depends on investing heavily and broadly in the arts – funding the artists, photographers, painters, sculptors, animators, novelists, journalists, poets, dramatists, and historians to do what they already excel at, and building the institutions to support them to do it. Private foundations and philanthropists do exist, but the government has yet to throw its growing weight behind the creative industries. It is here that Bangladesh has, the trade economists would say, a strong comparative advantage: an enviably rich heritage of the visual, dramatic, literary and musical arts, in both popular and elite culture. It probably also makes good economic sense in the medium term: we live in an era when ‘Content is King’ and artificial intelligence is threatening to take over skilled professions. For now at least, the creative industries feel like a good bet for Bangladesh.
Bangladesh lacks the back story that would locate its impoverishment in its centuries on the frontlines of empire, or its contemporary successes in a long history of resistance and resilience.
If a creative industrial revolution beckons for Bangladesh, it is neither the kind of project that succeeds by cutting tariffs or exploiting cheap labour, nor the kind of violent state project that ‘cultural revolution’ calls to mind. It means an investment in learning and talent, and a radical rethink of the development project. Looked at across the sweep of Bangladesh’s history, a creative industrial revolution seems like the natural destiny for a country whose movement for national independence was triggered by a fight for the rights to one’s own language, a movement commemorated annually in nation-wide festivals of music and literature.
At home, creative worlds flourish in Bangladesh, despite the chilling threat of censorship under the powerful Awami League government, increasingly dominant since its landslide 2008 election victory. But how far and for how long can the government constrain Bangladeshi people’s freedom of expression? Can creative talent flourish under conditions of censorship, and attacks on free speech and dissidence? It seems unlikely, just as history suggests it is unlikely that Bangladeshis will accept such constraints on their creativity and expression indefinitely.
Even if cultural commentary inside Bangladesh is constrained, acclaimed artists have in any case never confined themselves to telling ‘authentic’ stories of Bangladesh. I think often of Naeem Mohaiemen, Shahidul Alam, Tahmima Anam, and Ismail Ferdous, all creators whose work as often comments on the wider world as it does on Bangladesh. And why not indeed? Speaking from the frontlines of globalisation and the climate crisis, Bangladeshis are uniquely positioned to tell stories of the Anthropocene.
Rethinking Bangladesh: A special issue
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Naomi Hossain is a political sociologist based at the Accountability Research Center at American University. She writes about the politics of development, often about Bangladesh. Her work can be found at https://nomhossain.com/ and https://www.becomingbangladesh.net/.