Elephant on the Move: Inflection Point in Bangladesh: Jan 2010


Painting by Goutam Chakroborty
Painting by Goutam Chokroborty


There comes a point of time, in the life of a nation, when things are on a path of change; it’s a generational change. It’s a change, both material and psychological, that is different from its previous generations. My visit to Bangladesh this winter only confirmed my feelings about this emerging nation and the inflection point that it is experiencing with chaos and hope, uncertainty and confidence. There is something unprecedented going on here.   

My first interaction with the Bangladesh of 2010, happens on the plane to Dhaka. The “shonar manush” (golden people) that I meet on the plane, on their way back from their work in the Middle East, are different. Five years ago, when I travelled these routes, there was a fear in their eyes; today, I see confidence; they don’t just stand around accepting their fate, they ask questions, help each other and move forward. They have trendy haircuts and wear funky sunglasses to catch a nap; I hear twenty cell phones beep around me, as our planes land on the Dhaka runway.   

Bangladesh receives more than $10 Billion of remittances from 1+ million migrant workers in Middle East, Japan, Malaysia, Brunei and to a lesser degree many EU nations and the United States. They are the lifeblood of this nation. They provide sustenance to every service, production and retail sector in this emerging nation. They are the single largest source of income for this emerging nation.   

Even the airport is expanding with new terminals. The number of airlines queuing to ferry people back and forth to Dhaka has doubled in the last 3 years. The lines through immigration and customs, while cumbersome and illogical, moves ahead.   

At the hotel, the staff is impeccable in their service. Their English is good and they genuinely want to help you to achieve your goals. The rooms are bright and dynamic. The food is extra-ordinary. The car service we use is meticulous in keeping time and flexible beyond comprehension when we want to stay out till 4 am in the morning. Bangladesh, is becoming more of a service oriented nation and a customer service culture is developing more than ever before.   

On the roads and markets, the traffic is incomprehensible. As if nothing moves. But it does. Things do keep moving. We do it make it to the dinner parties (albeit late). Everyone starts dinners around 9 pm.   

While stuck in traffic, I discover the amazing new Radio Phoorti (Fun); one of the tens of new FM radio channels that broadcasts weather, sports, politics, music and traffic: all the ingredients of new Dhaka life. This amazing new media has spawned a great music industry in Dhaka in just over two years. There are now hundreds of music stars and bands coming out every day. In the past, we would go and seek out one or two new bands or musicians every year. This year, there are so many, at the neighborhood CD store, that I couldn’t even count them. Interestingly enough, when I ride with two of my friends (who in the past, listened to western rock bands), they play Bangla music on their CD players. One of them, introduce us to the #1 song in Bangladesh “ Bahir Bole Dure Thakook, Bhitor Boley Ashook Na” (The outside says stay afar, the inside says come closer), a beautiful melody, both symbolic and amazing in its reach.   

Through interactions and coincidences, I meet three new entrepreneurs, in their twenties and thirties; the first one is a twenty something software engineer, graduated from the US and returned home to start a software services company. He tells me about his dream of taking his company public in <5 years. Next, a cousin, tells me about the land he has recently acquired to set up a solar power plant that will supply industries in a certain region of Bangladesh; the third is a couple, who are setting up the first sports bar in Bangladesh in the next sixty days. Their market research on menu options, target marketing concepts, is just amazing. This is the new face of entrepreneurship of Bangladesh that I have never seen in the past. These folks are not stuck with retail or garments or real-estate; they are helping Bangladesh branch out to services and completely new economic activity.   

Upon the advice of a friend, I visit an art gallery in Uttara, with an amazing collection of charcoal and oil on canvass. I acquire a small piece of an emerging artist and view many other great artists. I am most impressed by the work of Goutam Chakraborty, the owner of the gallery. His own series titled: Elephants, has a level of brightness and dynamism, notwithstanding the symbolic nature of the Hindu God of wealth, that is amazingly reflective of the current Bangladesh I see out on the streets.   

I enjoy a cold coffee with a friend at the Coffee World, where wi-fi is free and the waffle-sandwich is amazing. We talk about emerging HR trends in this nation. Everywhere, I notice hope, prosperity, anxiety and dexterity. As if the nation is shrugging off its brooding past and looking forward to an amazing future.   

Of course, not everything is perfect. But in my lifetime, never has everything been perfect in this land. Roads have always been congested, there has always been poverty, and corruption and some religious zealotry. But overall, as I talked to people in the markets, and streets, I feel a palpable sense that things are moving forward. I hear lamentations from my business friends that there is no support from the government; in fact the government is instigating the laborers for more wages. When I attend the different rooftop parties with live bands and free-flowing booze, Manolo Blahnic shoes and bright red Tandoori ovens… I am not certain that I can fully agree with my rich friends lamentations.   

Elephantine or not, Bangladesh is on the move. Things are changing. The young crowd, the generation which has grown up post the military juntas of the 80s, is changing this nation forever. Global Warming maybe changing its coastline, but, I see hope in the ambition that the problems here will be solved by the people here, not necessarily by the consultants of the treacherous multi-lateral lending institutions.   

I look forward to visiting this land again. When Ieft twenty five years ago, things were dismal in its view; I never anticipated seeing the changes that I see today. At the doorstep of 2010, I envision Bangladesh as a Middle Income Country in 2015 and beyond. The Elephant is moving forward.


22 thoughts on “Elephant on the Move: Inflection Point in Bangladesh: Jan 2010

    1. It is nice to read your article and good to know that things are changing in Bangladeh by the young entrepreneurs.

  1. Pretty optimistic outlook on Bangladesh. Not like anything wrong with that..
    One thing though.. you have not mentioned the effect of global warming Bangladesh is predicted to have. A 3 feet rise in sea-level will cause BD to loose approximately half of the rice cultivating land and that is a very likely scenario by 2100 if the business-as-usual emissions of carbon dioxide around the world continue. I bet some people will still have rooftop barbecues in 2100 celebrating life and being optimistic about future. That’s how life is I guess.

    1. Hasib: Global warming is a phenomenon that cannot be affected by Bangladesh alone. I live in South Florida, which is also expected to be underwater by that. It is a huge thing. My commentary was more about the the daily life in Dhaka and the changes I observed. I wish we could change everything … and fix everything… but at the end of the day we can at least celebrate the good things that are taking place around us, knowing that life is neither perfect today, nor will it be tomorrow. Thanks for your thoughts. B/W. Zain

    1. Thanks, Sakib. Glad you enjoyed it. There are lots of good things happenning in Bangladesh. The good things get overwhelmed by the the bad news. Out of all that, things are making progress. I felt it. Best Wishes.

  2. very well written for which please accept my felicitations and appreciation

    while not entirely agreeing to the views expressed in it’s entirety, i too would surely like to see the country move forward and move on

    i mean who would not ?

    i live and work in a place which is similar to bangladesh in many ways. in fact bangladesh now is in a place where this country was, or rather the country’s mood (soul) was, maybe about 10-15 years ago. there are many similarities that i can see, what with the corruption, government, traffic, religious zealots, politics, et all

    but this country has surely moved on, spurred on by the people’s “can do” spirit and more importantly perhaps, the inherent sense in people of what is right and what is wrong and what is good for them and what is not. it is now already a middle-income country and all the relevant charts (manhattans) show a continuous northbound trend

    so i am always saying to my friends, if they can, we can too and we will

    let’s do it together…

    1. Khairul:

      I understand your skepticism. I also agree with your comment about the “can do” spirit. Bangladesh and for that matter, all countries/societies can benefit from that. Again, we all have a responsibility to nudge our friends to keep things moving forward. I would encourage you to share your story of the land you live where things are making a difference and how Bangladesh can learn from that. B/W. Zain

  3. Having lived in Bangladesh as an expat businessman for the past three years, I echo much of what you say. The future certainly is bright for a segment of society — the educated, professional middle/middle-upper class. However that is only a small percentage of the population. The average rickshaw puller or village farmer won’t be at the rooftop parties.

    Do you have any sense whether the quality of life for the working class is also similarly improving? I haven’t been here long enough to really understand that, but it seems like a critical question.

  4. Miller: Like any other emerging country, the disparity of rich/poor remains high in Bangladesh. I am certain that won’t dissipate in the very near future. The only thing I am trying to point out is the emergence and development of an entrepreneurial and service oriented culture in the new Bangladeshi youth, that I find both encouraging and stimulating. It is that entrepreneurship that will drive the creation of new jobs and will lift the rest of the society up… it cannot be done in any sort of top-down method. “Working classes” as you describe them, universally, neither have the access to capital, nor information to create the kind of jobs needed to help themselves. Thank you for your comment.

    1. zainmahmood: Perhaps my first comment had sounded harsh — I didn’t mean it that way. I agree with your analysis and have also seen some of the emergence of entrepreneurship that you describe. You’re right that the disparity of the rich and poor is normal in emerging countries (and many times in developed countries as well). I’ve just wondered recently what has happened to the life of the “working classes” in the past ten or twenty years? Has their quality of life improved? Or are we hoping that it will improve in the future as the current trends will trickle down to them? I don’t think I have any agenda in asking the question, right now I’m just curious. If you have any insight or know of people who do, I’d love to hear.

    2. My sense, from a very limited viewpoint, is that things are improving for people of all classes since the 1980s. The absense of dismal hunger (unlike what I saw during the 80s) is real; also, there is more availability of clothing and rickshawpullers or small children of the street seem to be clothed. However, health and hygiene, dosen’t appear to have improved much. From what I have heard, access to microcredit and work at the garments factories have also lifted millions of women from abject poverty – i have to qualify this statement because I have not experienced it – just heard about it. Consumerism has increased. People (rickshaw pullers and product salespeople on the streets) are communicating a lot via cellphones and there is a variety in tv channels, music, newsmagazines. This access has been broad based. Again, I want to emphasize that my impression is that things have improved, definitely; I just don’t have a barometer to what degree and don’t have any stastics to prove it. Again, thanks for the opportunity to discuss. Please keep these questions coming. Zain

  5. It was a joy reading your post – thanks for sharing your experience in Dhaka. Yes change is happening – most importantly and noticable a growing middle-class (though some might argue) with a taste and the spending power to go with it.

    If we are determined to think that we don’t have resources, we need to think again. We have plenty of what they call the greatest resource – the human resource. We need to mold them and find ways to use them to for economic prosperity.

    Hope we get to meet someday.

    1. Rehan: I agree with you completely. Thanks for your thoughts. Human Resources, if invested in adequately, can be the best resource for any nation. Are you based in Bangladesh? If so, I will look you up when I am there later in the year. I am on Facebook and Linkedin, and we can stay connected that way. Best Wishes. Zain

    1. Thanks Shaer; great to hear the positive note and the historical aspect of this change. It is visibile from people’s viewpoint (drishtikon) and the way they are approaching challenges. Let’s all do whatever we can to keep the momentum going!

  6. Thanks for sharing your experiences from your recent visit to Bangladesh. Your positive outlook on the development prospects of our country really stands out in your article. Thanks for reminding those of us studying and living abroad that there is opportunity for us back home.

    1. Rajib: I am glad you see it that way. I was telling my wife recently that had there been opportunities like these, when I graduated in 1992, I would have definitely gone back and started some value creation activity. Not sure what your field is, but there is immense need in creative entrepreneurial activities in Bangladesh. With the internet, information is more readily available and it appears that access to capital is better. This is a personal journey and one must always keep there own situation in context, however, I left with a strong, positive feeling that, in the next 20 years, Bangladesh would be a great place to work, live and create something bigger. Best Wishes.

  7. From seemingly positive rooftop vantage point, hope and optimism is always like the blood stream in the artery. I wish to join with millions others who are just living meaninglessly and shout only slogan SAVASH BANGLADESH.

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