In 1976, five years after independence, a book appeared called "Bangladesh: The Test Case of Development."
It was a test, the authors claimed, because the country was such a disaster that if development could be made to work there, it could surely work anywhere. At the time, many people feared that Bangladesh would not survive as an independent state.
One famine, three military coups and four catastrophic floods later, the country that former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once dismissed as "a basket case" is still a test. But no longer in the sense of being the bare minimum that others should seek to surpass. Now, Bangladesh has become a standard for others to live up to.
In the past 20 years, Bangladesh has made extraordinary improvements in almost every indicator of human welfare. The average Bangladeshi can now expect to live four years longer than the average Indian, though Indians are twice as rich. Girls' education has soared, and the country has hugely reduced the numbers of early deaths of infants, children and mothers.
Some of these changes are among the fastest social improvements ever seen. Remarkably, the country has achieved all this even though economic growth, until recently, has been sluggish and income has risen only modestly.
Bangladesh might seem like a special case. Because of its poverty, it has long been a recipient of vast amounts of aid. With around 150 million people crammed into a silted delta frequently swept by cyclones and devastating floods, it is the most densely populated country on Earth outside city-states. Hardly any part is isolated by distance, tradition or ethnicity, making it easier for antipoverty programs to reach everyone. Unusually, it has a culture that is distinct from its religion: although most Bangladeshis are Muslims, their culture and language are shared with the non-Muslim Indian state of West Bengal. Religious opposition to social change has been mild. Not many nationalities have so unusual a collection of traits.
The female factor
That said, the most important of the country's achievements can serve as a model for others. Bangladesh shows what happens if you take women seriously as agents of development. When the country became independent, population-control policies were all the rage (this was the period of China's one-child policy and India's forced sterilizations). Happily lacking the ability to impose such savage restrictions, the government embarked instead upon a program of voluntary family planning. It was stunningly successful. It not only halved the rate of fertility within a generation, but also increased women's influence within their own households. For the first time, wives controlled the size of families.
Later, the textile industry took off -- and four-fifths of its workers are female. Bangladesh was also the home of microcredit, tiny loans for the poorest. By design, these go to women. Thus, over the past two decades women have earned greater influence in the home and more financial autonomy.
And, as experience from around the world shows, women spend their money differently from men: typically, on their children's food, health and education. Child welfare has been underpinned by a quiet revolution in the role of women.
That is not all there was to it. Thanks to remittances from abroad and to the Green Revolution, Bangladesh has done better than most at reducing persistent rural poverty. It has maintained a broad consensus in favor of basic social spending despite military coups and a toxic politics dominated by the bitter infighting of the "battling begums" (the widow and daughter of former presidents, who lead the two main parties).
Bangladesh also has benefited by letting non-governmental organizations (NGOs) get on with what the state itself has been too weak or corrupt to do: experiment with different programs and scale up those that work. Much of its success is attributable to local NGOs like Grameen and BRAC.
Bangladesh has shown that countries can transform the lives of the poorest without having to wait for economic growth. But it does not show that growth is irrelevant. The country surely would have done better still if its economy had expanded faster.
As people's education and expectations rise further, it will be all the more important to provide new jobs and opportunities for advancement.