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The Paradox

Bangladesh's Surprising Success

The Idea of Bangladesh

Bangladesh leaves but a light imprint on the international imagination. 'Bangladesh—Sheikh Mujib', said the middle-aged republican in Northern Ireland, when I explained my ethnic origins. 'Bangladesh—Muhammad Yunus', said the young imam in South Sumatra, Indonesia, to the same. Yes, in both cases. Also floods and climate change, Rana Plaza and that disposable shirt you have on, labour migrants, and an increasingly impressive cricket team. This may be changing, but few people without a Bangladesh connection will know more about the world's eighth largest country.1

Relatively unimportant for politico-religious extremism, uninteresting from a geopolitical point of view, and not famous as a tourist destination either, Bangladesh punches well below its weight in terms of recognition value. And yet the country has played a major unacknowledged role in the world order as we know it. This role is ideological: the story of Bangladesh's development is told as a parable of the success bred by an early and sustained commitment to economic liberalism. A poor, populous country chooses the path of global capitalist development, resisting many of the temptations of dirigisme opted for by so many power-happy post-colonial elites. A particularly dominant retelling of this is a fairy tale of female empowerment that has helped amplify and reinforce powerful messages about the essential rightness of global capitalist development. That Bangladesh—that notorious basket case, with its hungry millions, that byword of bywords—has dragged so much of its population out of poverty is surely proof the development experiment works. If Bangladesh can do it, anywhere can.

Many countries, in particular but not only in Asia, have enjoyed sustained economic growth rates, transforming their economies from populous resourceless [1]

backwaters into export-oriented powerhouses, in the decades since the Second World War. Those who have visited Malaysia or Mauritius may scoff at the idea of Bangladesh's 'success'. But success there undeniably has been. As with other poor countries that relatively early on established the market-friendly economic reforms that laid them open to the boons of global economic integration, Bangladesh has seen sustained economic growth and significant structural transformation from a substantially agrarian base to an economy dominated by exports, chiefly of readymade garments and labour services. Through strategy, circumstance, and perhaps a little luck, these transformations from agrarian to export-oriented and industrial societies have been more pro-poor and less unequalizing than in some other countries that developed quickly. This propoorness is partly explained by a second feature of Bangladesh's surprising achievement, which is its pronounced gains in the domain of human development: Bangladesh does far better on key health, education, and gender equality indicators than its income and stage of economic development would suggest. People live longer, healthier lives; have fewer children, more of whom survive to adulthood; and school more of their sons, and in particular their daughters, than in other countries at comparable levels of economic development or with similar social structures. There has been some interesting discussion of how this has come about, but to date none of why.[2]

The idea of Bangladesh's development success remains contentious in some circles, not least because deprivation, ill-being, and oppression remain significant problems: almost fifty million Bangladeshis still live below the ungenerous national poverty line (BBS 2011). Yet the successes—lower infant and maternal mortality, childhood disease, and hunger; gains in mass education, women's rights, and managing disasters—are real enough, and they made the country stand out in the international race for the Millennium Development Goals (Bhattacharya et al. 2013). They are all the more remarkable because the country started from such a low base and with such limited resources of its own. The 'basket case' label (famously but wrongly attributed to Henry Kissinger) may have been unkind, but it was not an inaccurate assessment of the new nation's prospects in the aftermath of its bloody war of liberation from Pakistan in 1971.

Development success is also, in the Bangladesh case, paradoxical: its chronically unsettled politics and corrupt, captured state foretell fragility and division, not shared progress. Some scholars explain this success by showing that 'bad' governance can be fully compatible with economic growth if contending elites can at least hold off on disagreeing about the basis for growth and the distribution of its rewards (Khan 2013; Hassan 2013). Others argue that there remains a puzzle, because that growth was pro-poor and accompanied by effective public and private investments in human development (Asadullah etal. 2014; Mahmud etal. 2008). It has never been obvious why an elite known best for corruption and violent winner-takes-all politics should have committed its country to a progressive, inclusive development pathway. Key questions for scholars and practitioners of development in the past decade have been: how did Bangladesh achieve human development with such weak governance? If Bangladesh did, can other countries, too?

This book argues that Bangladesh's successes, as well as its signal governance failures, must be understood in the light of its political economy conditions. Both are best understood as the outcome of an interlocking set of agreements or contracts between key actors. This book departs from other analyses by extending the analysis downward and upward: it is not only the national elite whose interests and ideas and institutions matter, but also their relationships with the masses over whom they rule, and with the international community, on whom they depend for recognition and aid resources. The Aid Lab also departs from other analyses by historicizing the political economy of Bangladesh's development, showing how these agreements emerged or were crafted in the aftermath of the critical event in its history. Perhaps the most important insight of the book is that this critical event was not, as might reasonably be assumed, the traumatic liberation struggle that founded the country. Instead, the origins of Bangladesh's innovative pro-poor public action can be traced to the devastating famine it suffered in 1974, only three years after independence: as many as 1.5 million people—2 per cent of the total population, overwhelmingly the rural landless proletariat—died in this catastrophe, having already been starved, displaced, terrorized, and otherwise harmed during the liberation war of 1971.[3] Shortly after, the once-heroic nationalist leader Sheikh Mujib was brutally assassinated alongside his family, and fifteen years of military rule followed. The fallout from the famine reset the terms of the development project in Bangladesh, making gross failure too costly and too painful for the ruling elite and their allies in the aid complex to countenance.

In the shadow of the 1974 famine, the agreement on development came to include, first, a ruling class consensus that their own survival depended on human development and basic social protection. This ensured that protection against natural disasters and food shocks was institutionalized as a state priority, helped protect key policies to transform the population through health and education against political competition and corruption, brought poor rural women to the forefront of development, and ensured the elite policed themselves to deliver these essential public goods.

Second, a social contract between rulers and ruled committed the former to providing at least a basic minimum protection. This recognized the unusual degree of exposure faced by the rural landless masses to the elements, the volatilities of global markets, and the general vicissitudes of life. Basic protection meant not only support in times of crisis but also particular efforts to reach poor rural women, to raise their capacities to protect themselves. In exchange for basic protection, the masses granted legitimacy and authority— the foundations of rule. For reasons of political history and social structure, the ruling class in Bangladesh derives its legitimacy not from traditional status, religious leadership, cultural superiority, or even adherence to democratic process. A regime that fails to deliver basic protection against crises of food, flood, cyclones (and so on) lacks legitimacy, rapidly loses authority, and is vulnerable to plotting and overthrow by contending elites. At the same time, development could not proceed without the basic protections being in place in this acutely ecologically fragile and globally exposed setting. These were the lessons of the famine.

The third part of the agreement was to pursue broadly pro-market, pro-poor economic and human development strategies in return for recognition and resources from the international community. Because failure was not an option, pride in national self-determination—in a home-grown development ideology that resisted global economic integration—became an unaffordable luxury. The contending elites in the driving seat of development policy agreed their political (and actual) survival depended on making development work: ideology, political process, even culture could be jettisoned in the pursuit of growth and human progress. Whatever seemed to work could be policy. The challenges were large, numerous, and often reversible, but a clear-eyed view of what needed doing and how held across regimes of all political stripes. This included accepting aid conditions and creating space for the nongovernmental action for which Bangladesh is now so feted.

In accepting its role as the international experiment in aid, Bangladesh fulfilled its side of the development bargain with the international community. This book's title, The Aid Lab, serves as a reminder that for the international community, Bangladesh functions and has primary purpose as a colossal human experiment in development models. In providing resources, technical knowhow, and discipline, the international community has met its part of the development contract with this least developed country, and is largely satisfied with the result. It is not only in the big question of its choice of development model that Bangladesh serves as a laboratory for aid, but also in its actual experiments with delivering services to people in great need. Bangladesh has some of the most admired and emulated approaches to public health and fertility control; providing basic education, social protection, and credit; and tackling hunger. Because it serves as the world's aid lab, and no doubt because its human subjects are so numerous, Bangladesh's many innovations and experiments have been much pored over and dissected. We know a great deal about what happened here, but understand little about why.

  • [1] By population. At an officially estimated 160 million, Bangladesh ranks after Nigeria but aboveRussia. (accessed 25 July 2016).
  • [2] For instance, Asadullah, Savoia, and Mahmud (2014);Chowdhury etal. (2013).
  • [3] I cite the mortality figure considered most authoritative in the scholarship of the famine(Alamgir 1980). Other estimates of famine mortality are available and are used (including byNobel Prize-winner Amartya Sen), but with less or no discussion of methodologies and provenance.
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