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Hope in a Pummeled Land : New leader stresses need for development in Bangladesh

June 23, 1996

Born in bloodshed, racked seemingly year-round by South Asia's monsoon floods and cyclones, Bangladesh has become synonymous with poverty and disaster. Nor have its politics been calmer. Its first leader, Sheik Mujibur Rahman, was assassinated in 1975, four years after the nation, formerly East Pakistan, became independent. In 1981, a second leader, Ziaur Rahman, a former army general, also died at an assassin's hands.

The years since have been marked first by army rule and then a government led by Khaleda Zia, widow of the talented Ziaur Rahman. Her fiercest opponent was Sheik Mujibur's daughter, Hasina Wajed. This month, in an election notable for its high turnout (more than 70% of those eligible) and the relative absence of vote-rigging, Wajed's Awami League party captured control of the Parliament.

In part, that is unfortunate, since it could be read as a reward for the vicious, crippling strikes she led in an ultimately successful attempt to bring down Zia's government. Many Bangladeshis blamed Zia for not containing the violence, and the voters turned to Wajed.

To her credit, Wajed called for national reconciliation after the balloting. She rightly said it was time for the nation to try to improve its wretched economy.

There have been successes over the years, credited to international agencies, energetic government workers and, for the most part, private citizens trying to organize their neighborhoods and cities to improve their lot.

One notable success has been the Grameen bank, founded by Muhammad Yunus. Funded by international donations, Grameen has loaned more than $1 billion to poor Bangladeshis, more than 90% of them women. Most loans amount to only a few hundred dollars, but even such small amounts have been used to fund tiny businesses that help lift people out of poverty.

Times are changing in Bangladesh. More grass-roots economic development of the type that Grameen bank pioneered is needed. Another requirement is keeping the army out of politics. Wajed must reach out to all parties and be as adept at governing as she has been at politicking. Otherwise, Bangladesh may slide further down the slope.

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