Bangladesh was created out of chaos in the early 1970s, at a moment when millions in the country were dying from a combination of war and famine. The future looked exceedingly bleak.
Abdul Majid Chowdhury and Noorul Quader were Bangladeshi businessmen who wanted to help their country. “We asked ourselves, ‘What the hell do we want?’ ” Chowdhury recalls. The answer he and his friends arrived at: “We need employment. We need dollars.”
Their solution involved Richard Nixon, an obscure but hugely influential trade deal, and a cultural struggle over kimchi.
At the time, Bangladesh had no modern economy to speak of. The country’s main export was jute, a fiber used to make burlap sacks. So Chowdhury looked to textiles, an industry that had been a first step out of rural poverty for dozens of countries, stretching all the way back to the Industrial Revolution in England. One problem: Chowdhury didn’t know the first thing about the textile business. “I did not know how many buttons I had in my shirt,” he says.
A few decades earlier, South Korea had also been a largely rural country that was devastated by war and written off by much of the world. But, partly by learning to make clothes and sell them to the world, South Korea had climbed the ladder out of poverty.
Chowdhury and a few of his colleagues went to South Korea and toured a clothing factory full of women working at sewing machines, and he knew instantly that women in Bangladesh could do the work. He managed to get a 45-minute meeting with the head of Daewoo, the giant company that owned the factory, and talked to the guy for 10 hours, until 2 in the morning. The meeting worked. Daewoo agreed to invest in a clothing factory in Bangladesh.
Help came from an unlikely source: President Richard Nixon. In the early ’70s, clothes and textiles were pouring into the U.S. from South Korea and other countries and were threatening U.S. textile jobs. European countries were having the same problem. In response, Nixon worked with European leaders to create a global agreement called the Multifiber Arrangement. The boring-sounding deal reshaped much of the global economy.
Top: There are more than 4,000 garment factories in Bangladesh. One way or another, most of them trace their lineage to Abdul Majid Chowdhury, Noorul Quader and the 128 Bangladeshis who traveled to Korea 30 years ago. (Kainaz Amaria/NPR)
Bottom: Workers sew together the Planet Money t-shirt in Chittagong, Bangladesh. (Kainaz Amaria/NPR)