Several weeks ago, a colleague and I were sharing a rickshaw ride home. We conversed on the complexities of development in Bangladesh, of Friendship and of what we had seen and experienced since our arrival. Following the flow of the conversation, I asked: “Well, what is next for Bangladesh? What are their choices, what should they do?”
We started talking about how the Bangladeshi government might plan to shape policy around benefiting and preparing for out-migration. We agreed that this idea is realistic only to a certain degree, but also reflected on how out-migration is almost always associated with brain drain (assuming that those who are higher on the socioeconomic spectrum are usually the ones who have the opportunities to move and live abroad). This association is often one of the first points raised in migration debates, and one that is not really backed by any micro-evidence of what it is these migrants might actually be doing. As in, to what extent does “brain circulation” actually happen, if at all? At what levels do remittances occur? Are migrants actively engaged in knowledge transfer about study and work opportunities abroad?
Perhaps the most interesting part of this is that those countries which keep their best and brightest inside their borders do not necessarily show impressive rates of growth and innovation (North Korea, for example).
Which brings me to my next point – my colleague said that she believes the reason that Bangladesh is and will remain resource-poor is because “there is no innovation here.” My initial visceral reaction to this was pretty intense, to say the least, but I wanted to write just so I could organize my thoughts on why I disagree with this statement.
i) We need to stop defining innovation from our Western point of view. Bangladesh is its own country (and one that is just 40 years old) and will undoubtedly create and shape its own story. We cannot expect our own European and American models for growth to apply to all other countries.
ii) Bangladesh is often referred to as the Silicon Valley of Social Innovation. Think about it – revolutionary organizations like BRAC and Grameen Bank came into the world from this country. The loudest critiques of Grameen’s micro-finance techniques, and thus strongest alternatives, also come from this country. Again leads me to beg the question, by whose terms are we defining innovation? From a public health standpoint, Bangladesh has achieved in just 20 years with its population growth rate what the US and Europe barely achieved in 200 years. This is a result of health marketing campaigns, BCC, IEC, which all requires a certain amount of innovation.
iii) If anything, Bangladesh just doesn’t have the infrastructure necessary to support the mass scale-up of innovations we might envision happening elsewhere. There’s a certain amount of time and energy lost in cultivating the innovation that’s already there, because the fundamentals of statistics, monitoring and reporting are missing. This doesn’t mean say anything about the Bangladeshi people’s ability to innovate, just that the country is in the middle of the taxing and continuous process of building a system to make innovations operational.