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The World Can't Afford to Ignore Bangladesh

Maneeza Hossain

Last week an estimated 300 bombs went off in less than an hour in an Islamic country the size of Wisconsin, but with a population of 150 million. Although the attacks in Bangladesh were apparently not specifically targeted to kill civilians this time, two people died and more than 120 were injured. A banned Islamist group, the Jamatul Mujahideen, claimed credit for the attacks. Their message was clear: they just wanted to let the nation know that their terrorist network has been established.

Often presented as a success story in combining Islamic and democratic principles, Bangladesh has been quietly trying to make inroads against intractable problems like poverty and perennial floods. But it has also become a major target for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. All too often, this is ignored by the Western media, which barely reported last week’s massive attack.

A case in point of how Bangladesh’s interests can be ignored came recently when the world allowed the Multifiber Agreement, a guarantor of steady employment in this impoverished land, to end on Jan. 1. The MFA provided a favorable quota regime that enabled Bangladesh to expand its export of apparels to $5.7 billion in 2004 from $620 million in 1990.

Under the system, garments took the lion’s share of Bangladesh’s sales overseas, representing today 80% of exports. Millions of families depend on the sector. Now that the quotas have ended, there will be consequences. It is instructive to first consider what these could be, and then what could be done about it.

We can start with the fact that al Qaeda and like-minded terrorist groups prey on socioeconomic deterioration to find recruits. Anything that increases Bangladesh’s already burgeoning unemployed population — estimated at around 40% when underemployment is considered — can have a direct effect on the war on terror.

Given its high population density, unemployment and percentage living under the poverty line (some 45%), Bangladesh’s other export is cheap manual labor. Bangladeshi men have long looked abroad for employment, usually within nations where Islamism is strong. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the population of workers from South Asian countries to the Middle East is as high as 10 million.

Saudi Arabia has been one of the largest importers of Bangladeshi laborers, where over a million reside. Many of the towering high-rises of Dubai and Kuwait were built by Bangladeshi hands. But if this is a source of employment and wealth, it is also a source of something more negative. Bangladeshi men come back from their Gulf “tour of duty” radicalized and ready to promote intransigent interpretations of Islam at odds with traditional Bengali practices. These returning workers have been a natural pool of recruitment for al Qaeda.

We can only expect that the end of the MFA will mean that women may follow this well-worn path too. Nearly 80% of garments workers in Bangladesh are women. Their loss of income could well force many into economic exile as domestic helpers in the Middle East or East Asia. From Kuala Lumpur to Riyadh, Bangladeshi officials are already discussing means of “strengthening economic ties” and preparing to increase the number of work visas issued. Bangladeshi entrepreneurs have lined up to train women in Arabic language skills.

Many of these women will return equally influenced by radical interpretations of Islam, but their absence will also have another significant — and more immediate — impact. Women are leaders in Bangladesh’s economy and political life. The country has been governed by active women leaders for the last 15 years. The freedom that women enjoy has been crucial to democracy taking root. Their sudden, new unemployed status and need to work abroad will weaken the glue that binds democracy and Islam in Bangladesh, a weakness that al Qaeda and the Islamists will certainly try to exploit.

The textile quotas are over and done with, and there is no use crying over spilt milk. The question now is, what can be done to make sure that this already impoverished land does not become even more dire, and a recruiting center for al Qaeda? In the wake of the passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) by the U.S. Congress last month, one solution becomes obvious, why doesn’t the U.S. do the same for Bangladesh? And not just the U.S., but Europe and Japan, too.

Nearly two-thirds of Bangladeshis are employed in the agricultural sector, and free-trade agreements would allow them to sell their produce in these markets. The rapid growth of the textile industry under the quota system shows that Bangladeshis respond to economic incentives. The problem with the quota regime was that it was artificial, and many of those jobs are lost overnight once the quota regime ends. Having trade free of tariffs and other impediments would guide Bangladeshis into longer-lasting industries, as they would have to build a comparative advantage based on economic strengths.

A failure by the international community to take drastic action would not only spell misery for millions of Bangladeshis, but also translate into a serious security threat for the entire world. Unless more attention is paid to Bangladesh, the al Qaedas and Jamatul Mujahideens of this world are sure to take advantage of the situation, and Bangladesh’s major export will become not cheap T-shirts, but suicide bombers.

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