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About This Book

Motivations, Approach, Politics, and Positionality

I wrote this book as part of a continuing conversation with colleagues and friends—experts in development and on Bangladesh as well as others—about what has changed in Bangladesh and why. I wrote it partly with the aim of puncturing the unwarranted air of self-congratulation in the aid industry discussion of the Bangladesh 'paradox'. It is unwarranted first because the methods used on Bangladesh and Bangladeshis were often illiberal and unethical. A laboratory mentality continues to justify practices in Bangladesh (and elsewhere) on the basis of the ends. Certainly the population may benefit when these experiments go well. But does that justify means that would not be used on a more powerful country, a less impoverished people? What happens when the treatment of nations and their people like subjects without regard to their rights becomes institutionalized as public (aid) policy—worse still, marketed as a recipe for development success? Part of my concern here is to remind practitioners and scholars of the need for vigilance against the suggestion that a 'state of exception' prevails which permits abrogation of national sovereignty and human rights on the grounds of some greater good. The 'triage' to which the Bangladeshi people were in effect subjected around the time of the 1974 famine should never be repeated, even if the effects of the shock had positive final fruits. The costs, in human life and misery and political violence and disruption, were immense.

A second reason why the aid industry (in which I include NGOs) should not credit itself for Bangladesh's success is that this depended more fully on the politics being right than has been acknowledged to date. Other countries without geopolitical significance have also had large amounts of aid poured into them, without similar human development success. Many have been smaller and less challenged by ecology than Bangladesh. Others have found less grudging patrons among the aid donors. Many countries have had NGOs, big, small, international, innovative, and otherwise. The reasons Bangladesh succeeded ultimately owed to the powerful political imperative to do so, because the process of national liberation and its aftermath built a social contract to protect the population against subsistence crisis, and it was on this foundation that human development could proceed. It was this contract—a contract of domination, it is true—that permitted aid and its organizations to work alongside and with the state. It is understandable that the technocrats and bureaucrats that manage aid should sideline the significance of messy political struggle in explaining development outcomes. But I worry their hubris will catch them up if they expect to replicate the Bangladesh success in other, less politically receptive, settings.

Many readers of this book will, I expect, have a personal or professional link to Bangladesh, and be familiar with these debates. Some will have firsthand or scholarly knowledge of these events. They may disagree with my approach or my interpretation; they may think I have left out crucial facts that bias me one way or another. However this book is received, I anticipate debate. One possibility I have considered is that some may view my work as partisan, as giving succour to an 'anti-liberation' agenda which seeks to blacken the name of the 'Father of the Nation' Bangabandhu, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the nationalist hero who led Bangladesh's liberation struggle—and whose party, the Awami League, was in power at the time of the famine. Bangladeshi scholarship can be highly politicized along partisan lines, particularly with respect to contentious matters in the early part of our short history as an independent nation. Any mention of the 1974 famine may be seen as potentially taking a position against the Awami League, the party in power at the time. It is true that as a study of politics this is necessarily a political book. But I refuse a partisan position. Nationalist and domestic party politics matter, but they are hardly central to the argument. Nor—and it may be prudent to make this plain from the outset—does my argument lay blame for the pivotal famine squarely at the door of the government of the time: I believe, and show, that the tragedy was all but inevitable under post-war conditions, and that aid donors played a distinctly murky part in establishing those conditions, and in the famine itself.[1] In fact, I conclude that the distinguishing feature of Bangladesh's one and only famine is that the political leadership did not try to conceal it: by contrast, they publicized the crisis in a vain effort to get help. Mujib was personally devastated by these events, as were others among the political and policy elite. This is why the famine played the role of immediately orienting Bangladesh on a human development pathway—a role comparable events arguably failed to play in the Ethiopia of the time, for instance. And so this is less an analysis of parties and political leaders than one of global aid relations, class, and the politics of ecology. None of Bangladesh's human development successes would have happened without national liberation; that it took a further phase of violence and struggle for the social contract on which that success rested to emerge does not make that any less true.

Some readers may suspect my personal motivations for writing a book likely to reopen old sores, so let me put them out there. I bring to this story the biases, experience, insight, and shibboleths of twenty years of working on and living in Bangladesh, all as part of the aid industry. I have been a consultant, an NGO (BRAC) staffer, and a researcher, in and outside of Bangladesh. I draw on a great deal of my primary and secondary research, as well as my experiences and observations, in the argument constructed here. At some times I write as an analyst and a scholar, but at others I write about things I have seen or heard or done. My role in the industry means I have had a ringside view of the changes, but also that I am bound to some parts of the story of Bangladesh's development success more than others. I do feel that I have an unusual perspective on these matters, having worked closely and extensively with people from all walks of life in those twenty years—farmers; ministers; industrialists; members of Parliament; beggars; traders; journalists; factory workers; rickshaw-pullers; aid bureaucrats; NGO staff; teachers; nurses; policemen; doctors; landless labourers; market stallholders; activists; military leaders; writers; religious leaders; district, upazila, and union officials; chairs and members; and so on. I have personally spoken with several hundreds of people in Bangladesh about the issues I cover here. And I have spent time thinking about what they told me, and analysing what it all meant. I draw on those twenty years of research and publication in this book.

I deliberately chose not to conduct additional research for this book, because I had accumulated more opinion and material than I could ever write about. I also knew that there was already a vast body of literature, most of it by Bangladeshi scholars, most of it ignored in development research and writing, on which to draw. As the bibliography indicates, I have drawn freely on all sorts of published material about Bangladesh without feeling confined by discipline or domain. I have not used Bangla-language secondary sources (apart from a small number of newspaper articles) largely because (as my Bengali is self-taught) key English-language sources on which I have drawn have parsed them better than I ever could. I have, however, used United States Government State Department and similar official declassified sources. This has led to an apparent anti-American bias in the book, which I am unable to correct. By this I mean not that I would remove any of the critical reflections on the role of the US government, but that I wish I could also have included similar critical reflections on the role of the UK, Canada, and other aid donors, including those from the Gulf states, in directing Bangladesh's domestic policy. But there are few states as transparent as the United States, and indeed as powerful as it was during the 1970s. All the material I cite is freely available online. This is quite remarkable given that I have not even cited some of the most inflammatory commentaries by US government officials regarding the new nation of Bangladesh.

Some people feel that non-Bangladeshis, and people of Bangladeshi extraction living elsewhere, have less right or place to comment on the place than those who stay. There is something in that; there is an innate authority to authenticity that I cannot claim. But proximity does not always make for the most objective analysis, and distance has its benefits. In fact, I first conceived of this book when I was living in Indonesia. Researching the risks Indonesians faced in their lives, I was amazed by the number and severity of disasters people there pack into a lifetime: volcanoes, earthquakes, droughts, tsunamis, pestilence, colonialism, war, famine, economic crisis... It was clear that local societies, informal governance, public policy, as well as economic, cultural, and religious behaviour, were all closely structured to respond to the risks people faced. After several years of travelling around Java it struck me that the only other place I could think of where the people faced so many external shocks was the country I knew best. My distance-proximity has helped in other ways. I am part-Bangladeshi, enjoying the advantages of an insider and few problems of over-identification with the society I study. I often misunderstand things because my Bangla is rough, but people are always happy to correct me. I expect they will continue to do so after they have read The Aid Lab.

On the title: most people dislike it. I do myself. But the story I am telling here is not a pretty one. I have called it The Aid Lab despite very good alternative suggestions because of the difficult fact at the core of the narrative: that Bangladesh's development history—indeed, its very existence—hinged upon its precarious and clientelistic relation to (chiefly) western aid donors. With this title, I want us to keep in mind that whatever the power of its national politics in bringing about positive change at home, Bangladesh is located, on historically adverse terms, in a global political economy with vast power and influence over its pathways to human progress. Bangladesh has been disciplined accordingly. If anything, this makes its achievements all the more remarkable. It is with great satisfaction that I show in the final chapter how Bangladesh now markets itself as a sophisticated model of development, poised not only to resolve the thorniest future challenges of human existence but also to instruct others on how to do so.

  • [1] A role which has never been given the close scrutiny it deserves. A group of scholars iscurrently developing research plans to study the role of the US Government and other aspects ofthe famine in detail, to ensure the lessons are not lost to posterity.
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