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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 February 2007, 00:26 GMT
Bangladesh's split personality
By Jill McGivering
BBC News, Dhaka

Most Bangladeshis are tired of ceaseless political bickering

Democratic elections postponed indefinitely - and a state of emergency imposed. It is a scenario which might suggest suppressed civil unrest, the heavy hand of security forces and a frightening increase in tension.

But in Bangladesh, the reality has been very different.

After months of political protest and strikes, the latest round of the perennial feuding between the two main parties, the Awami League and the BNP, the mood in Dhaka under its new caretaker government is one of calm and relief.

Most people, it seemed, had felt the impact of more than enough political fireworks. Better to have stability and a chance to return to normal daily life, people told me, than to carry on with political dramas and elections which no-one expected to deliver reform or real change.

Confidence dented

Garment factory owner (and former general secretary of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturer and Exporters' Association), Annisul Huq, put it most bluntly, as he showed me round one of his busy garment factories.

Several hundred of his 7,000 employees, almost all women, were sitting at small tables in pairs, cutting, stitching and checking shirts for the US market and, downstairs, sweaters for Europe.

Women working in garment factory
The garment industry is an important source of employment

The recent series of national strikes, called by an opposition alliance led by the Awami League, had hit his business hard, said Mr Huq.

Orders had been lost, customers' confidence dented and the country's image as a reliable manufacturer badly tarnished.

It would take him until the end of this year, he said, to make up the losses - and that was assuming there were no more disruptions.

"I'm sure, when you are in England, you think: oh, army is there, people are suffering!" he told me. "But when you are in the field, you can see, people welcome them because we don't appreciate the conflicting political rivalry. Civil society is very vocal against it."

"People are very happy now," he went on. "They want to get rid of this political conflict. They want democracy, for sure, but they also want peace, they want economic growth."

Bangladesh is suffering from a split personality. Its private sector, galvanised by entrepreneurs like Mr Huq, is healthy and thriving. The economy is growing at a steady six to seven per cent a year.

Dhaka is buzzing with energy and commerce. The clatter and grind of new construction resonates on every corner.

Bribes and bureaucrats

But its organs of state are fundamentally sick, suffering from inefficiency, corruption and politicisation. The tension between the two is becoming unbearable - and causing growing pressure for reform.

Anecdotal evidence of the ill-health is everywhere. I met Rashidul, a driver of one of the hundreds of auto-rickshaws that weave dangerously through Dhaka's traffic.

Houses on stilts in Dhaka
Many in Bangladesh remain in poverty

Every week, he said, he is stopped by the local police. They find a pretext, he said, from the state of his paperwork to the colour of his lunghi (wrap), to ask for a bribe. To get any work done in this country, he told me, you have to pay out at every turn, to the bureaucrats and to the police.

It was a familiar story. In one of Dhaka's slums, Rupnagar, I met a family who live in a corrugated iron and wood semi-permanent shack, built on government land.

They had recently managed to get their gas, water and electricity supply connected, they told me - but only after months of endless waiting in government offices and plenty of smoothing the way with bribes.

Corruption, I was told by everyone I met, is endemic in public life.

Civil society is growing and strengthening but Bangladesh is still one of the world's poorest countries. Almost half its population lives on less than a dollar a day.

To some, the priority is to alleviate poverty. As well as being an important goal in itself, the hope is that increasing demand for clean, accountable governance will also flow naturally once a greater percentage of the population rises above the poverty line.

Clothes washing in Dhaka
Political parties have been urged to do more to help ordinary people

Fazle Hasan Abed is one of the towering figures in Bangladesh's modern development.

Along with his better known counterpart, Professor Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank and now Nobel Laureate, Mr Abed too has played a key role in shaping changes in Bangladeshi society.

'Grassroots democracy'

Mr Abed's contribution was the founding of the mammoth non-government organisation, BRAC, 35 years ago. He is still its chairman.

BRAC has multiple grassroots programmes. Many focus on supporting the country's rural women. It has proved so successful that it has also launched programmes in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and several African countries.

In a rare interview in BRAC's gleaming modern offices, Mr Abed, who presents as a gentle and mild-mannered man, described his own hopes for political change.

"What we were hoping for," he said, "was a kind of grassroots democracy we were trying to build in the countryside. You see the beginnings of people power. But it's not yet apparent."

As for the future, he said, the current crisis could well prove a turning point.

"I'm hoping this particular process will bring about dramatic, positive change," he told me, "in the way our politicians operate and behave and run our country.

"I hope it will change for the better and they would look at the interests of the people, rather than the interests of the parties and of themselves."


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