India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan often represent the face of South Asia, and that's not surprising given their strategic importance. But they are not the sum total of what is going on in that part of the world. Indeed, there are untold success stories that deserve telling, and one of them is Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is a country of increasing regional stature and strategic importance for the United States. It has a population of approximately 160 million people, more than Russia or Japan. While more than 30 percent of the population remains below the poverty line, Bangladesh has made impressive progress since gaining independence in 1971.
Bangladesh has reduced child mortality by more than two-thirds, and is on track to meet its 2015 Millennium Development target well ahead of schedule. It has also reduced the number of people affected by hunger from 40 million to 27 million, and reduced gender inequality in schools and in the labor force. Many of these successes have been achieved in part because of the $5 billion that the U.S. government, through the U.S. Agency for International Development, has invested in Bangladesh over the past 4 decades.
Steady economic growth over the last 20 years has been another important factor in lifting millions of Bangladeshis out of poverty. In spite of the global recession, the Bangladeshi economy has continued to grow at between 5 and 6 percent per year for almost two decades and has accumulated eleven billion dollars in foreign exchange reserves. Bangladesh is now the world's third-largest exporter of ready-made garments.
Bangladesh has a female Prime Minister, opposition leader, Foreign Minister, and Agriculture Minister. So, it is not surprising that women's empowerment and girls' education rank high on the nation's list of priorities. The country recently dispatched to Haiti its first all-female police unit of United Nations' peacekeepers.
Today, Bangladesh is a secular democracy, with an active civil society, and a history of religious and ethnic tolerance. The elections that brought Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to power in January 2009 were hailed as the freest and fairest in the Nation's history. Her government has also made improving relations with India a high priority and has taken a strong stand against terrorism.
At the same time, Bangladesh's young democracy requires nurturing, and particular challenges remain in building institutions and ensuring that human rights are protected. The United States commends Bangladesh for its commitment to democracy, development, and good neighbor policies.