Bangladesh takes center stage with Subir and Malini Chowdhury Center

April 21, 2014
By: Kathleen Maclay

Bangladesh may be known mostly for its poverty, environmental vulnerability and deadly factory fires, but the new Subir and Malini Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, is ready to prove that this South Asian country of over 160 million people has a lot more to teach the rest of the world.

Subir Chowdhury and Nicholar Dirks sitting at table with documents in front of them.  Dirks is signing a document.
Subir Chowdhury (left) and UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks (right) made the new Subir and Malini Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies official.

Born in Chittagong, Bangladesh, Subir Chowdhury is a leading quality management thinker and chairman and CEO of ASI Consulting Group, LLC. The Subir and Malini Chowdhury Foundation has provided $1 million in seed funding to help the center move well beyond the headlines to support research that will improve lives in Bangladesh and showcase the country’s culture, history, talent and resilience in the face of intense trials.

The center will emphasize: 

  • Exchange and scholarship programs to take UC Berkeley student and faculty researchers to Bangladesh to study, work and exchange ideas.
  • Academic partnerships like one in the works with Bangladesh-based BRAC University, which is funded by the largest international, non-governmental development organization.
  • The study of Bangla culture, history and language.
  • Support for graduate students through two annual graduate fellowships focused on the quality of life in Bangladesh and pursuing Bangladesh studies, and for undergraduates through one annual scholarship studying South and Southeast Asian Studies.
  • Development of a Bangladesh component that can be incorporated in other courses in areas ranging from public health to engineering or metropolitan studies.

“It’s my dream come true,” said Chowdhury.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, an internationally renowned anthropologist and scholar of Indian ethno-history, said the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies is a perfect fit with UC Berkeley’s aspirations.

“The  Subir and Malini Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies underscores UC Berkeley’s commitment to provide our faculty and students with expanded options for engagement with global issues,” Dirks said. “We have a great deal of expertise to share, and much to learn from others as we confront challenges that know no national border.”

Highlighting progress

It has been over 40 years since the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden raised awareness about Bangladesh and relief funds for those hurt by the war for independence and the 500,000 killed by the strongest cyclone ever recorded. Chowdhury wants to raise the country’s profile again, but this time, around its successes. For example, the World Bank just recognized Bangladesh for its economic progress and the country will co-host a global meeting on migration April 28-29.

simple map showing placement of Bangladesh.The center, the first of its kind in the United States, will heighten awareness about globally important work being done by Bangladeshis in the United States, and by Americans in Bangladesh.

As an example, Chowdhury noted UC Berkeley professor and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientist Ashok Gadgil, whose work on a treatment system to remove deadly arsenic from drinking water can save millions of lives in Bangladesh and worldwide.

International research hub

Ahmed Badruzzaman, an energy scientist and a visiting scholar at the center, said his home country of Bangladesh in the low-lying Ganges Delta is in a unique position to share lessons from its experience dealing with critical issues such as climate change, economic sustainability, natural resource stewardship and maintaining a democracy. 

He said the country has made great strides and has even surpassed its better endowed neighbors in many measures of development. But whether Bangladesh will overcome its challenges, sustain its growth, and “remain a beacon for underdeveloped countries” are questions scholars will debate for years, said Badruzzman. “The  Subir and Malini Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies will be a major hub of such deliberations.”

Lawrence Cohen, CSAS director and a social anthropologist with extensive experience in India, said the new center will highlight and enhance the significant research contributions and partnerships already underway in this developing region, while likely spurring new efforts.

Capitalizing on campus expertise

Chowdhury said UC Berkeley is well suited to the task. He said that its Center for South Asia Studies (CSAS) is a leading South Asia research institute and since 2005 has boasted a thriving beginning and intermediate Bangla language program, with support from both West Bengal and Bangladesh expatriates. The program  will now become permanently endowed due to the recently concluded fundraiser by the Bangladeshi community. It also has about 50 affiliated faculty and more than 200 courses on issues concerning South Asia and Bangladesh. In addition, CSAS co-hosted a 2013 international conference on Bangladesh development. The  Subir and Malini Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies will host the event in 2015.

Woman standing in waist deep water filling plate from well.
Several UC Berkeley faculty members are involved in research dealing with a lack of clean water in Bangladesh.

Many center-affiliated faculty are experts in topics important to Bangladesh. Chowdhury singled out sociologist Raka Ray, who he met 15 years ago when first introduced to Berkeley; Ananya Roy, an authority on global poverty and microfinance; Isha Ray, who studies sustainable rural development and access to safe drinking water; development economist Pranab Bardhan; and  Subir and Malini Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies Director Sanchita Saxena, an expert on the textile and garment industry.

Chowdhury said the UC Berkeley faculty’s quality and passion are impressive.  “When you have that kind of energy, there’s no doubt that we will have more Bangladesh success stories,” he said.

Student opportunities

Students are enthusiastic too.

About 20 people standing together.
Nafisa Akbar, a Ph.D. candidate in political science, stands with arms folded at a peaceful rally held in Dhaka’s Shahbagh Square, historically a place of protest.

Caitlin Cook, a public health master’s degree candidate, just received the Subir Chowdhury Quality of Life Fellowship to further her research with Bangladeshi mothers and infants to learn more about antibiotic resistance in a pandemic. Nafisa Akbar, a Ph.D. candidate in political science and the new Malini Chowdhury Fellow, is investigating why political parties in Bangladesh use violence as a campaign strategy.

Akbar said election violence by political parties happens in Bangladesh and other countries, such as Kenya, India and Nigeria.

“If we can identify the motivations behind why political parties use violence as a pre-election repertoire, perhaps we can determine solutions to deterring parties from doing so,” said Akbar. “Such solutions may be the key to changing what we consider ‘weak’ democracies into ‘strong’ democracies that function more along the lines of what we see in the U.S.  Perhaps then voters in these countries can vote freely and without fear of repercussions, which is one of the basic requirements of a democracy.”

“Bangladesh is ripe with research questions waiting to be addressed,” said Saxena. “Our hope is that through the wide range of activities of the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies, students and scholars will recognize that the study of Bangladesh’s economy, society and culture is a critical part of their education and future career paths.”

The Subir and Malini Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies at UC Berkeley will formally launch in fall 2014.