Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Bangladeshi heroes in Liberia

When I was a child, East Pakistan became Bangladesh in a terrible civil war. The breadbasket of South Asia became famous for famine and starvation. I was told to empty my plate in sympathy for starving Bangladeshi children (as an adult this makes no sense, but somehow it worked for my mother). A bit later Kissinger called it the "basket case" of the world.

In 1981 I lived for two months in Bangladesh. I was in the latter part of a one year Watson Fellowship focusing on fertility management (I think in 1980 the population was about 93 million, now it's 140 million but the fertility rate is down to 3.15 children/woman and life expectancy now is over 60 years). Bangladesh then was considered almost as much a candidate for Malthusian collapse as Rwanda -- but even then they'd had remarkable success for a poor Muslim nation in encouraging smaller families. (Rwanda went on to have a true Malthusian crisis.)

Of all the remarkable places I visited during that year, Bangladesh was the most surprising and startling. Yes, it was very poor. I recall how startled I was to see domestic fights and spouse beatings take place in public; where else can the homeless fight? There was hunger and beggars and misery. There was also a very beautiful countryside, the world's best fruits in the public markets, fascinating old dusty libraries from the 19th century and quite a bit of energy and hope.

Which is all by way of explaining that I've tracked Bangladesh from afar over the past twenty years, and cheered on the often quiet successes of that nation -- despite immense challenges. I like buying clothing and devices made in Bangladesh, and I like reading this article describing the contribution Bangladesh has made to restoring some measure of hope in a truly desperate place -- Liberia.
Rebuilding failed states, From Chaos, Order

From The Economist print edition

ONE and a half years ago, Liberia was a failed state. Two separate groups of drug-emboldened teenage rebels controlled most of the country. A gangsterish president, Charles Taylor, was losing control even over Monrovia, the capital, where all sides were firing heavy artillery into office blocks and looting strategic spots such as the brewery. In August 2003 (see article), The Economist reported from that unhappy city that “famished townsfolk have already eaten their neighbours' dogs and are reduced to scrounging for snails.”

Today, thanks to the world's largest UN peacekeeping force, Liberia is calm. Some 15,000 blue helmets are keeping the streets more or less safe. There are still road blocks, but not the old sort, where militiamen stretched human intestines across the road as a signal to motorists to stop and be robbed. The UN road blocks are typically manned by disciplined Bangladeshis, of whom the locals vocally approve.

“They are very nice,” says Richard Dorbor, an office assistant in Buchanan, Liberia's main port. During the civil war, rebels looted the town clean: Mr Dorbor points to the dark patch on the wall where the kitchen sink used to be. But then the Bangladeshis came, overawed them and disarmed them, without a single casualty.

“In any group, there are good boys and bad boys,” says Colonel Anis Zaman, the Bangladeshi commander in Buchanan, relaxing in cricket whites on a Sunday. “With the bad boys, you have to be firm. You say: ‘If you want to be funny, look at our APCs [armoured personnel carriers] and machineguns. We can be funny, too. So let's just put down the guns and talk.'”

.... By far the most cost-effective way of stabilising a failed state, however, is to send peacekeepers. Mr Collier and Ms Hoeffler calculated that $4.8 billion of peacekeeping yields nearly $400 billion in benefits. This figure should be treated with caution, since it is extrapolated from one successful example. In 2000, a small contingent of British troops smashed a vicious rebel army in Sierra Leone, secured the capital and rescued a UN peacekeeping mission from disaster.

Not all interventions go so well. But a study by the RAND Corporation, a think-tank, suggests that the UN, despite its well-publicised blunders, is quite good at peacekeeping. Of the eight UN-led missions it examined, seven brought sustained peace (Namibia, El Salvador, Cambodia, Mozambique, Eastern Slavonia, Sierra Leone and East Timor), while one (in Congo) did not. An earlier RAND study had looked at eight American-led missions and found that only four of the nations involved (Germany, Japan, Bosnia and Kosovo), were now at peace, while the other four (Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan and Iraq) were not, or at any rate, not yet....

... The annual cost of all 11 UN peacekeeping operations today is less than America spends in a month in Iraq.

... For an illustration of how utterly the Liberian state has decayed, consider the once-busy port at Buchanan. The railway that once brought iron ore there from an inland mine has been swallowed by the bush. The iron-ore processing depot on the quayside has been stripped to its girders, as have most other buildings. A single ship sits at an odd angle in the harbour, with a tree growing out of its deck. Four swaggering youths in flip-flops accost your correspondent and demand to know what he is doing. They introduce themselves as three majors and a colonel from the Liberian security forces.
Incidentally, the anonymous author of this article (the Economist does not have bylines) is one hell of a journalist. I think I've read other articles by this scribbler -- they often feature brief comments on bone chilling scrapes with near death.

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