Pakistan and Bangladesh, born in 1947 as two wings of a single country, underwent a bloody divorce in 1971. Since then, these two nations – the world's second and third most populous Muslim-majority countries – have followed dramatically different political, economic, and social development trajectories. William B. Milam – a retired American diplomat, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan (1998-2001) and, separately, to Bangladesh (1990-93), and presently a Senior Policy Scholar at the Wilson Center – met with South Asia-watchers at a June 9 workshop organized by the Asia Program, and described his current research activities, which seek to explain why these two countries, possessing a common origin, have followed remarkably divergent paths over the past three decades. Ambassador Milam's research will form the basis of a book on this relatively unexplored topic.

Milam's comments focused on three principal areas. In the political realm, he asked how successful each country has been in achieving a viable democracy. Not very, he concluded; both countries have experienced the heavy involvement of the military in politics, even when civilian governments were ostensibly in power. But this barebones conclusion masks important differences in the records of the two. Most importantly, the Bangladeshi army backed out of politics in 1990, and has stayed out. Not so in Pakistan, Milam noted, where even today, when Pakistan has a civilian prime minister and an elected parliament, the army is universally acknowledged as the country's political power broker.

In the economic sphere, both countries have been chronic underachievers; neither has sustained economic growth rates anywhere near its potential, nor come close to meeting its poverty reduction goals. But here again, the differences are as striking as the similarities. In recent years in particular, Milam observed, the Musharraf regime in Pakistan has produced impressive results at the macro level. But political and economic uncertainties continue to place constraints on Pakistan's ability to perform up to its potential, Milam warned, and its long-term economic future remains problematic because of fundamental problems such as population pressures on water and power. Bangladesh's economic future is clouded primarily by endemic poor governance.

Turning to indicators of social development, Milam concluded that neither nation had achieved a society literate enough, skilled enough, or dynamic enough to fit comfortably into the globalized economy of the 21st century. Nonetheless, Bangladesh has outstripped Pakistan in a number of important areas, including the key area of population growth. At the time of Bangladesh's split from Pakistan in 1971, the fertility rate of the two countries was virtually identical: 7 live births per woman. The fertility rate in Pakistan as recently as 2000 remained a high 4.7 births/woman, whereas in Bangladesh it had fallen to 3.1 births/woman. This one statistical difference between the two nations goes far in explaining why in other key measures as well – such as primary school attendance and participation in the work force – Bangladeshi women are far ahead of their Pakistani counterparts.

Much of the discussion following Milam's opening presentation revolved around the reasons for the different experiences of the two. Bangladesh's far more homogenous population was thought to be one factor. Cultural differences among Bengalis (who comprise 98% of Bangladesh's population), Punjabis (the dominant group in Pakistan), and Pakistan's smaller ethnic groups were cited to explain the two countries' different levels of success in stemming high population growth rates, although a more receptive government attitude in Bangladesh has also been important. The diverse role played by religion and religious leaders was thought to provide a further explanation. Finally, the fact, as one workshop participant put it, that Bangladesh "does not have a Kashmir," nor view itself as a peer competitor of India, has allowed Bangladeshis, over time, to de-politicize their military and to devote a higher percentage of the nation's financial resources to non-military uses.

Drafted by Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program
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