Saturday, November 27, 2004

Remembering Dhaka

The early ‘90s were heady times; after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the conclusion of the Gulf War governments raced to cash in the peace dividend while riding an economic recovery powered by the technology boom and steered by the winds of globalization. Buoyed by these forces of prosperity, U.S. companies aggressively reached across borders, continents, and cultures to seek new markets, chase cheaper labor, and expand their economies of scale.

This resurgent economic dynamism in the U.S. had a democratizing effect on the conduct of business: global travel trickled down from the executive suite to the lower ranks, creating a new cadre of international corporate emissaries. Middle managers, engineers, technicians, and support staff were routinely dispatched overseas to assess suppliers, outfit factories, secure logistics channels, and orient new business units, all with only a cursory nod to corporate travel budgets.

Trans-Pacific jaunts became as common and as exclusive as an overnight stay at the Ramada for the regional sales meeting.

My colleagues and I rode this wave with vigor. As mid-level managers in a global shipping firm, we eagerly hop-scotched across the Pacific Rim, throughout Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central and South America, soaking up the hyperactive buzz of global business, and culturally channel-surfing through our frenetic itineraries.

We were the foot soldiers of corporate America’s outsourcing explosion. And we were first-hand witnesses to the socio-economic implications of this burst of global investment.

But, like the rising stock market, we were lulled into believing that these forces were inexorable and accelerating, and we didn’t foresee the cultural fractures and domestic resistance that have come to characterize international trade today.

Global business investment continues apace, but its blinkered innocence of that time is lost in the wake of Islamist terror, the sneering fashion of anti-Americanism, and the grudges of tribal geo-politics.

Puffed up by the deference undeservingly bestowed upon our arrival in-country (back home we were only “staff”), our role as the American corporate representative being hosted by the agent in the developing country was intoxicating, and we adopted an air of authority and a patina of worldly sophistication that allowed us to make decisions and to recommend changes that were informed by our American habits - changes which of course lasted only for the time that we were there.

Always tipping a hat to the local culture, but not overly solicitous, we raced from site tours to conference rooms to customer dinners, never thinking that our personal security was ever in doubt or that our American-ness was begrudged.

In reality we were only doing the necessary drudgework of checking up on the field offices, which just happened to require a passport to visit. But our vantage point would be invaluable in drawing some conclusions as to what this global business phenomenon was all about.

The seeds of globalization had taken root and were branching in many directions, and my assignments left me with vivid memories of its power: from the remote Franklin Mint plant in Malaysia where shrouded Muslim women hand-painted the lips on Marilyn Monroe dolls and polished Spaceship Enterprise models, to the jungles of Manaus, Brazil where this tax oasis for Korean consumer electronics companies churns out stereos and television sets, sending them down the Amazon for the Mercosur countries and providing the only “employment” for jungle inhabitants within hundreds of miles.

And from the Orthodox Jew shopkeepers and traders in the streets of Colon, Panama to the resort-palaces on the Persian Gulf where spoiled oil-princes strutted their wealth, the mechanics of trade and commerce mixed cultures as easily as it exchanged currencies.

But it was Dhaka, Bangladesh that brought the limits and promise of globalization into stark contrast. And my visit to that 83% Muslim, 17% Hindu country resonates today for me in our post-9/11 world in ways that one might not expect.

I’d seen the juxtaposition of shanty towns and five star hotels that were so common in developing cities such as Jakarta and Manila, and I was familiar with the working conditions of the South China garment factory. But there is an oppressive weight in this capital city that strikes you as soon as you arrive, and permeates everyone who lives there. It’s immediately evident upon arrival that those who can get out have already left.

At the northern end of the Bay of Bengal, this Iowa-sized country of 141 million souls is routinely battered by monsoons that tear across the coastal flatlands and deep into the interior, indiscriminately destroying lives, livestock, and crops. With a per capita annual GDP of $1,900, Bangladesh ranks well below its neighbor India and is chronically at the bottom end of global development. The cotton textile and jute industries are its principle exports, and the vast majority of its inhabitants are tied to subsistence agriculture. The famines of the 70s may be in the past but the scarcity remains.

We arrived with the goal of helping our agent obtain more business from the growing textile export trade. And for three days we lived out of the Sonargaon hotel, the preferred hotel in Dhaka for the garment buyers. Taking brief trips across town to visit our agent’s offices, we would be immediately surrounded by a frantic crush of bodies, adult and child, pounding the windows and pressing their infirmities into our field of vision to receive handouts. Maimed children, some intentionally so, are held up for favor in the competition. The street scenes became so overwhelming, and heart-breaking, that our traveling party began a running series of jokes and sarcastic comments at the locals’ expense - cruel words became the only way to disassociate from the human tragedy that engulfed us.

Meeting with the local team of managers in their offices, which required stepping over slaughtered chickens on their building’s front steps, we worked hard brainstorming solutions to a competitors’ service advantage, ran some numbers on alternative pricing scenarios, role-played sales presentations of our newly designed service, and we drew up more flexible contract language for our customers. Our visiting party and the local team both contributed and brought value to the lengthy discussions, and we learned from each other.

In the midst of this deprived environment, a virtual galaxy removed from the office parks of America, we conducted business.

In retrospect this visit wasn’t about providing a specific good, or service, or even money. It was, as trite as it might sound, about disparate people working toward a common goal. Business has a leveling property that helps cut through the cultural differences and focus on the mechanics of daily life: we were on the same team, working to improve both of our lots (however incongruently), and race, religion, socio-economic status, or nationality did not inhibit our interaction. There was a bond developed based on common interest and shared experience. The end of our three-day visit came surprisingly quickly for the Bangladeshis and for us.

Most international flights depart Bangladesh in the early hours of the morning, and driving through Dhaka well after midnight you see motionless, prone bodies asleep on the street sidewalks. At the air terminal, locals mill about, pressing their faces against the windows to see the strange activities of foreigners coming and going. On the tarmac, as the sun begins to rise, a languorous line forms outside the fence to watch the novelty of a large plane up close. That line also expects that it won’t ever ride in the plane.

Businesses and governments may have gotten too far out front during the early ‘90s in their pursuit of profit and advantage, but a process of economic “globalization,” despite its pejorative implications, is the only lifeline for those on the Dhaka tarmac to rise out of their current conditions. It also, if delivered fairly and humanely, can be the bridge across the economic divides and cultural rifts that are making our shrinking world less livable. I viewed our visit as a small piece of that bridge.

We need to remember Dhaka, and other countries like Bangladesh, when we consider the implications, opportunities, and promises of global markets.