Bangladesh has long held an image of poverty, deprivation and corruption in the minds of many. In this blogpost, Parvej Siddique Bhuiyan argues that this negative image in fact overlooks Bangladesh’s humanitarian activities both in South Asia as well as other countries, often when other more affluent and resource-equipped nations have not risen to the humanitarian need of the hour.
Bangladesh gets global attention mostly for her geopolitical issues, US-backed targeted sanctions on its security apparatus, and climate disasters; her significant contribution to humanitarian activities often gets overlooked. Bangladesh’s humanitarian diplomacy has not developed over many years; rather, an impressive record of development and growth in the last decade owing to her demographic dividend, robust ready-made garment exports industry, foreign exchange remittances, and comparatively stable macroeconomic indicators motivates the country to use its soft power through humanitarian activities.
Natural calamities including cyclones, floods, droughts, earthquakes, heatwaves, forest fires, severe food and energy scarcity (intensified by the Ukraine–Russia conflict), the Covid-19 pandemic, the politico-economic crisis in Sri Lanka, and the humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan underline the urgent need to revitalise the SAARC network to enable support with food supplies, and other disaster management mechanisms to navigate the economic and humanitarian turmoil in member nations. Unfortunately, there has been no breakthrough in regional cooperation (and thus coordination) in the current SAARC stalemate due to tensions amongst member countries, especially India and Pakistan.
The Earthquake in Afghanistan
It is evident that Afghanistan, under the new Taliban regime, is confronted with a range of challenges —from severe economic and humanitarian crises to a lack of inclusive governance, international recognition, Human Rights abuses (especially towards girls, women and minorities), and the constant threat of resurgent terrorism from rival factions. Humanitarian challenges intensified in parts of Afghanistan recently when a powerful earthquake on 22 June killed some 1,150 people (including at least 155 children), and destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes in the hardest-hit southeastern Paktika and Khost provinces.
While the Taliban were hoping for support from the international community, many Asian as well as western countries hesitated to extend assistance as no country has yet recognised the Taliban government, not even the nations seen as closest to the regime, namely Pakistan and China. Moreover, after the Taliban’s coming to power in August 2021, Western countries froze billions of dollars in Afghan central bank assets, including US$10 billion held by the US Federal Reserve. Foreign financial assistance to Afghanistan has also been suspended, a nation that is heavily dependent on aid, which accounts for 43 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
It is in this context that Bangladesh’s delivery of a sizable amount of emergency relief in the form of dried food, blankets, tents, and medicine to earthquake-hit Afghanistan as part of its ongoing efforts to broaden its network of humanitarian aid is commendable. Bangladesh had earlier sent Tk. 10 million (US$97,000 approx.) to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) to assist the people of Afghanistan when the country plunged into turmoil after the Taliban took over following the withdrawal of the US military from the country.
Bangladesh’s timely humanitarian approach contributed effectively to alleviating the acute shortage of food, shelter and social services, ensuring basic socio-economic support to Afghanistan, and rebuilding the country. Bangladesh is keen to be a partner in Afghanistan’s developmental process as Bangladesh seeks to enhance regional cooperation for the attainment of a vision of shared prosperity for the region.
Afghanistan, in turn, has expressed its gratitude to Bangladesh for the assistance, a manifestation of Bangladesh’s commitment to the collective prosperity of South Asia and its people. It is evidence of the Bangladesh government’s commitment to regional brotherhood, the integrated development of South Asia, and its policy of cooperation towards everyone, regardless of strategic geopolitical alignments.
The Rohingya Crisis
Bangladesh gained independence in 1971, so it was not too long ago that she herself needed the humanitarian assistance from other countries to survive. Fifty years on, it is setting examples by its humanitarian support to the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. Despite the huge burden on its economy, and with limited resources of her own, Bangladesh has been generously hosting more than a million Rohingya refugees for over half a decade purely on humanitarian grounds.
Bangladesh is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, yet its economy is burdened with an estimated US$1.21 billion in annual support for the Rohingyas, and the cost may rise as their population grows, inflation rises and foreign aid declines. Bangladesh, with its own financing at a cost of over Tk. 23 billion (US$224,000,000 approx.), has set up a modern township at Bhasan Char to relocate more than 100,000 Rohingyas, with better living standards for them.
The moniker of Bangladesh being a ‘basket case’ has changed. As a friend and neighbour, Bangladesh recently provided a humanitarian (potato) aid package to Sri Lanka in a bid to resolve its ongoing food crisis. Earlier, Bangladesh provided US$2.3 million in emergency medical supplies and US$250 million in the form of a currency swap to Sri Lanka, which is experiencing its worst economic and humanitarian food crisis since its independence in 1948, to replenish the island nation’s fast-depleting foreign reserves and ease pressure on its foreign exchange rate.
It should be noted that in the past, Bangladesh has also provided relief by responding swiftly to natural and humanitarian disasters in other South Asian countries, despite her own limited and finite resources. In the immediate aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Nepal (2015), the Bangladesh government’s emergency relief were widely praised by the people and government.
Beyond South Asia
Bangladesh, now ranked first out of eight countries in South Asia, has also extended a helping hand to Sudan, which was unable to repay a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In response to the IMF’s call, Bangladesh stood by Sudan and granted a ‘debt waiver’ of US$650 million on 15 June 2022. Earlier, Bangladesh had also given similar benefits to Somalia (providing Tk. 8.2 crore; US$8.2 million approx.) to break its shackle of poverty as part of an IMF initiative.
What is the cumulative intention of all these humanitarian actions? Experts believe that Bangladesh is looking at deeper integration with her neighbours, ultimately branding Bangladesh positively by building its image globally. The country’s continuous activities of humanitarian support and its vocal stance on the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, the Israeli occupation of Palestine and its active attempts to assist people in crisis around the world has made the country a symbol of humanitarianism.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not express the views of the ‘South Asia @ LSE’ blog, the LSE South Asia Centre or the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Banner image © Rebecca G. Sendroiu, ‘We Love Potatoes’, 2019, Unsplash.