July 5, 2022

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The best product with the worst marketing in Bangladesh

“Is the glass half full or half empty?” was the debate at the Nation Branding seminar at the end of December 2021 arranged by Bangladesh Brand Forum, targeting the non-resident Bangladeshis or NRBs all over the world. One distinguished panelist, an industry leader well respected for business acumen, national economic impact, and societal insight, reflected — and I agree with his assessment wholeheartedly — “We have the best product in the region and the worst marketing.”

Googling Bangladesh slightly over a decade ago showed depressing images of floods, cyclones, and hartals that are bound to pull down the heart of the staunchest optimist. On the other hand, Googling Bangladesh now shows enviable economic progress and unrivaled social progress, with charts and graphs boldly sloping upward; men’s cricket victories and women’s football victories; a humanitarian hosting of a million displaced foreign population; the power infrastructure every Bangladeshi, home or abroad, says “wow” to every time they visit their motherland. Gone are the days when electricity was the blue moon paying a rare visit to the village home. Electricity covers almost all households in Bangladesh, and stays.

The year 2021 was a monumental year for Bangladesh, with Vision 2021 fulfilled, a 13-year-long journey which began in 2008 when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina envisioned the country as Digital Bangladesh. Over the past 13 years, it has achieved numerous milestones, one of which is simplification and digitization of government service delivery, especially for the marginalized, and in the process, saving Bangladeshi citizens billions in terms of time, cost, and number of visits, or as we here at a2i call it, TCV. In the process of delivering services digitally, we have saved 12.2 billion workdays, $16.6 billion, and 7.4 billion visits for the common citizens from the farthest corners of the country.

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Yes, we are proud of what we have achieved. The glass is definitely half full.

No mean feat for a country which, at birth, was christened a “basket case” by Western pundits and was riddled with unbearable “monga” in the North, cyclonic disasters in the South, and floods everywhere. And, to compete with nature, we created man-made disasters in the form of political unrest and hartals that paralyzed the economy and progress.

Today, we have learned to mitigate the catastrophic impact of the natural disasters, adapt to climate change effectively, and curb the man-made disasters consciously.

We boast the largest NGO in the world helping not only tens of millions in Bangladesh but a dozen other impoverished countries. In fact, based on the unprecedented strength of our foreign reserve founded upon our inward remittances from the NRBs and robust export earnings, we just became a financial donor to neighbouring countries. We went from 88% aid at birth to less than 4% at 50.

Our clothes, shoes, medicines, and seafood adorned the global markets for quite some time. But recently, our chanachur and mango drinks are also occupying the precious shelf-spaces of not only the Middle Eastern, but also Western superstores.

So, we have a lot to be proud of. And a lot of positives about the country to communicate.

And yet, Google search communicates a more positive image of the country than our NRBs do.

In no way am I ignoring the part of the glass that is half empty. It’s in the process of getting filled up. We must be humble while filling it up, hitting several future milestones: Graduating from a Least Developed Country (LDC) by 2026, achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, beating the middle-income trap and attaining the developed economy status by 2041, becoming a prosperous country for all by 2071, and finally, establishing a safe delta by balancing economic growth, environmental conservation, and enhanced climate resilience by 2100.

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Who will represent and build this Bangladesh?

Each successive milestone that Bangladesh succeeds in achieving is important, yet, if we are to reach 2041 in a position to be a developed economy, with minimal poverty, no ultra-poverty, and call ourselves an equitable nation, the work begins now.

Bangladesh’s path to where it is now is commendable, but as I noted in a previous column for this newspaper, what got us here in 2021 is not what will take us there in 2041. While there are several components that need to come together if we are to be successful in evolving into the Bangladesh we envision to be in 2041, today’s piece (continued to next week) highlights one of the most neglected and overlooked — the role NRBs must play to build the country of 2041. And, the role of NRBs to brand the country of 2041.

Anir Chowdhury is a US tech entrepreneur turned Bangladeshi government entrepreneur serving as the Policy Advisor of a2i in ICT Division and Cabinet Division supported by UNDP.