COLONISATION, war, and natural disasters have wrought havoc upon Bangladesh, but Henry Kissinger and George Harrison, quips Iqbal Quadir of Lexington, did the most damage to the country of his birth. The former US secretary of state’s infamous description of the South Asian nation as an “international basket case” and the former Beatle’s legendary Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 saddled the war- and flood-ravaged land with an unshakable reputation as hapless and dependent on handouts for survival, Omar Sacirbey writes in The Boston Globe. (Click for full story)
“That has been very damaging to us,” said Quadir, who is the executive director of MIT’s Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship. “Because the country is a so-called basket case, investment never came to us.”
Quadir, 49, doesn’t dispute that Bangladesh has its troubles but rejects the notion that Bangladeshis need to be rescued by rich countries. On the contrary, said Quadir, Bangladeshis are as innovative and hard-working as anyone but until recently have lacked the means to unleash their entrepreneurial spirit and rise from poverty. He proved it with his own company, GrameenPhone, which became the largest cellphone company in Bangladesh largely by selling its phones on credit to poor rural women who in turn rented phone minutes to neighbors, making money for themselves while providing a public service.
This “bottom-up” approach to development, Quadir believes, can work anywhere in the developing world. At the Legatum Center, he is helping a growing crop of entrepreneurially minded students do for other poor countries what he did for Bangladesh.
Although Quadir has spent most of his life in America and considers himself an American, he values his Bangladeshi roots, knows the country’s history, cuisine, and literature, and speaks his native tongue with his children.
“I happen to be Bangladeshi, which is why I had some emotional reason to think about it seriously. I know where the shoe pinches,” he said. Nevertheless, Quadir is driven less by Bangladeshi patriotism than sympathy for the poor. “I’m motivated by creating a level playing field for the world so that the weak have a chance.”
When Bangladesh revolted against Pakistan in March 1971, Quadir and his family fled his hometown of Jessore to escape the ensuing war and roamed the country until the fighting ended with an independent but devastated nation. A decade later Quadir graduated from Swarthmore College with honors and went on to the Wharton School and then Wall Street, where he earned an investment banker’s salary.
But even mighty Wall Street, he learned, was vulnerable to the same obstacles that kept societies like Bangladesh from developing. When his firm’s computer network went down one day in 1992, the communications breakdown meant he couldn’t do his job. It was then that he realized that people in Bangladesh, with no telephones, faced a similar problem. Quadir spent the next few years cobbling together a consortium of banks, telecoms, and other investors willing to risk money and reputation on his idea of creating a cellphone company that would cater to Bangladesh’s rural poor.