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Rich in foreign aid, country remains poor

Published Oct. 9, 2005

This is the capital city of a country so poor it doesn't even have taxis. If you want something quicker and more comfortable than a tin bus packed with sweating, swearing commuters spilling out its doors, stand and yell: "Oi, Baby!"

A sputtering scooter taxi _ known locally as a "baby taxi" _ pulls up. It rattles and heaves through the chaotic streets at 15 mph, leaving black smoke in its wake.

The most remarkable thing about the city's transportation system is the lack of it. Small wonder, then, that most of its 6-million residents seem to mill listlessly on its streets, stupefied by the steamy heat and their country's dim prospects. Even if transportation were available, where would they go?

Unemployment in the United States is 7 percent. In Bangladesh it is 60 percent, according to Raisul Awal Mahmood, an economist at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, a national think tank. Only 7-million of the country's 120-million people have an education beyond the 10th grade.

Most Bangladeshis are illiterate, landless farmers who work as sharecroppers and barely subsist on wages amounting to $120 a year.

The country manufactures practically nothing, except some exports of jute, garments and tea. There is such an acute shortage of jobs that a man seeking an unskilled position as an errand boy has to pay a bribe of 50,000 taka ($1,250) for a job that pays 800 taka ($20) a month. Bangladeshis either can't afford to "buy" the job, which helps explain the high unemployment, or borrow the money and then take bribes to pay off the loan.

The largest employers in the country are the government and aid agencies from foreign countries. Aid agencies have poured more than $25-billion into Bangladesh since 1971, yet the economy seems as moribund as ever. In the 22 years Bangladesh has existed, the number of foreign experts and consultants sent to nurse it out of poverty has swelled to nearly 10,000. Nearly all live in Dhaka in lavish diplomatic neighborhoods, aided in their mission by chauffeured four-wheel-drive cars, duty-free beer and retinues of servants. Their presence boosts the local economy slightly because theycreate a demand for cooks, nannies, watchmen and consultants.

I will be writing more on how aid has help and hurt Bangladesh. There is no doubt the country needs aid. Bangladesh is one of the poorest nations in the world and the most densely populated. Imagine nearly half of the population of the United States squeezed into Wisconsin _ and situated on a low plain constantly beaten by cyclones _ and you have Bangladesh.

In 1974, the newly independent country suffered a famine. Now, it grows enough to feed itself. Ten years ago, most people didn't know about contraceptives. Now, nearly half of Bangladeshi couples use them.

Although aid has helped Bangladesh, it also has made it dependent. It is a 22-year-old toddler that never learned to walk. Blame some of this on the way foreign aid works.

Every year Bangladesh gets more than $2-billion in aid, but most of the money doesn't leave Tokyo, Washington or London. Every donor country places conditions that require aid money to be spent on its own manufacturers, farmers and consultants.

Japan, the largest provider of aid, loves building bridges and donating expensive medical equipment _ not because the Bangladeshis ask for them, but because it boosts the exports of Japanese companies.

The United States sends $95-million a year, mostly in food aid, even though Bangladesh is self-sufficient. That's because America has a food surplus to dispose of, so what is billed as food aid to Bangladesh actually ends up being a welfare program for U.S. farmers.

There are so few economic opportunities in Bangladesh that many of its people leave the country in search of work. About 200 Bangladeshis line up for visas outside the U.S. consulate every morning. Most get turned away, a U.S. official said. They don't have the financial assets needed to convince U.S. officials they are not potential immigrants masquerading as tourists and students.

"The burden is on them to show us that they will return, and the fact is, they don't have anything _ a job, property, anything that would bring them back because it's better than what they'd find (in the United States)."

It's ironic that hundreds of Japanese engineers have contracts from their government to work in Bangladesh, while at the same time hundreds of unemployed Bangladeshi engineers and college graduates are illegal immigrants in Japan, doing construction work _ a job Japanese consider dirty and dangerous _ and making enough yen to send back home.

The congested streets of Dhaka swarm with one breed of worker who is self-employed: thin, swarthy rickshaw pullers who bounce their weight on the pedals of the cycle-drawn vehicles, transporting loads of schoolchildren and sacks of rice. The rickshaw is perfect for Bangladesh: It's simple, cheap, pollution-free and easy to repair locally. It uses manual labor, which is plentiful, and it can ford the streets of Dhaka that become waterlogged during thundershowers.

Yet these rickshaw pullers are so poor that most don't own their own vehicles. A new rickshaw costs $75, so they rent them for about 50 cents a day and take home about $4 at the end of a 12-hour shift. There are no gears in the cycles, and the tires in the rickshaws are crude rubber tubes that make driving hard work.

The pullers keep Dhaka going, but they live day-to-day, barely able to feed their families. Meanwhile, foreign aid projects keep building expensive bridges and TV towers in the countryside that get destroyed every few years in the floods to which Bangladesh is prone. Small wonder, then, that some aid workers here jokingly refer to their ward as "Bungle-a-desh."