Tragedy in Bangladesh: Why does it matter?

A building collapses in Dhaka with the loss of hundreds of lives. Why should we care about this disaster which occurred thousands of miles away in another country where disasters appear to be commonplace? We only hear about Bangladesh when there is a disaster horrific floods, famine or more recently fires in factories. It is easy to think that the people living in Bangladesh must be inured to a harsh life with few rewards and significant daily risk of disastrous events. Secondly what can we learn from the collapse of the building in Dhaka? In cases such as this the causes often appear simple corruption and a consequent lack of enforcement of building regulations. However learning a bit more about Bangladesh and the precarious balancing act performed both by the citizens and the government in order to keep the country functioning should both encourage us to engage with the pain of these people and encourage us to learn from their plight.

Bangladesh is located in south Asia and is bordered on three sides by India with the Indian Ocean to the south. As a state Bangladesh is relatively young and came into being in 1971 following a bitter war with Pakistan. Prior to the war Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan and was ruled form Pakistani capital a thousand miles to the west. The reason Bangladesh fought for independence was a lack of interest form Pakistan and a sense that the strong local culture of Bangladesh was not understood by their co-religionists further west. The fact that both populations were Muslim was not enough to hold the two countries together and in the ensuing civil war large numbers of Bangladeshis were killed both through direct military action and through starvation and disease. The former Beatle George Harrison famously performed a concert in aid of Bangladesh marking the beginning of a concept of using music both to raise money and awareness of disasters which was later copied by Live Aid in the 1980’s.

Certainly Bangladesh’s geographical position wedged between India and the ocean and cultural connections following both eastwards to Burma, Thailand, Malaysia and south-east Asia and to the west India and the colonial legacy of British Imperialism. However the overwhelming geographical factor is Bangladesh’s position at the mouth of the river Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, which flows south from the Himalayas pouring tons of fresh but silt laden water into the Bay of Bengal. The river and its numerous bifurcations within the river delta at the coast provide a unique way of life which has traditionally been a plentiful source agricultural resource with the rivers providing both the fresh water and the soil for crops. It is this agriculturally rich environment which has fuelled the population growth in this area so that it now has one of the most densely populated areas in the world with a population of more than 160 million. However the ability to support a large population has also left it vulnerable to natural disasters most prominent of which are flooding and inundation from tsunamis. In recent times Bangladesh’s low lying delta has been a barometer for the effects of global climate change- each 1 degree increase in the temperature of the world’s oceans leads to more ice melting higher sea levels and more flooding.

Against the background of frequent flooding which can result in families having to move several times in one year if they survive at all the collapse of the building in Dhaka may seem like just one more disaster in an already very disadvantaged country. However just as the climate change is overwhelming caused by the profligate consumption of fossil fuels by richer parts of the world- North America, Europe and increasingly the Arabian Gulf- so the disaster in Dhaka is related to the desire of the West to buy cheap clothes to maximise the profits of international companies. It is now generally well known that Bangladesh is used for the production of clothing because labour costs are cheaper than in an increasingly wealthy China. In a sense Bangladesh’s only attribute in winning contracts for clothing is the cheapness of the labour. The role of international firms and their acknowledgement of some responsibility has recently been demonstrated by the fact that the British retailer Primark has agreed to pay compensation to some of the victims who were producing garments for their stores. In some ways it could be stated that Bangladesh is only able to take part in international garment production because the housing, wages and buildings costs are kept well below international standards. Therefore according to this logic some disasters of this kind will be an inevitable price to pay for employment in the Bangladeshis capital.

However such a huge loss of life and human suffering can not be justified by economic arguments and more importantly the loss of life and consequent loss of wage earners can only exacerbate the financial hardship in the city. Put simply the loss of human life is very expensive and will only reduce the economic viability. Far from being a necessary price to pay for a limited industrial income the acceptance of dangerous buildings can only reduce Bangladesh’s competitiveness and impoverish its citizens.

So what is to be done? The first most obvious answer is introduce and more importantly enforce building regulations as well as to implement proper safety procedures. According to the Bangladeshi authorities this eight storey building only had planning permission for five stories and the planning permission it did have was in any case only form a local council and was not from the recognized state authorities. Last November a fire in a textile factory in Dhaka also killed more than one hundred people again because the existing regulations were not enforced. Both these examples- and its clear that there are many more less reported incidents- indicate that whilst there are regulations in place there is a general acceptance that these are not strictly enforced- either because the officials concerned are bribed or because the owners of the factories are too wealthy to be challenged. In essence the state authorities are weak and any consideration of aid should address the issue of how to strengthen state regulation.

Within this generally bleak situation there are however some causes for optimism. For example Bangladesh is the birth place of the concept of micro-credit which is a way of empowering individuals to improve their economic circumstances thorough affordable loans rather aid which has the double advantage of empowering the individuals who are not just the passive recipients of aid and the money paid back can be used to fund further projects. This system which was pioneered by the Nobel Prize winning economist Muhammad Yunus has now been adopted around the world as a model for improving conditions for the economically disadvantaged. Similarly Bangladesh has used education as a means of introducing the idea of population control – numerous studies indicate that when literacy of a society is increased so does the age of marriage and more importantly reduces the number of children which a family will aim for. Both the micro-credit and the education are transforming Bangladesh and enabling its inhabitants to deal with their unstable economic and natural environment. With this in mind it is to be hoped that Bangladesh develops and innovative way for formulating and more importantly enforcing building and safety regulations which will benefit the country both in economic terms and more importantly in the welfare of its citizens.

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    Dr. Andrew Petersen


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