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The 'Test Case for Development'

Nature was always cast as an enemy of Bangladesh's development in the authoritative external framing, in contrast to the Bengali cultural ideal of Sonar Bangla or golden Bengal, rich with fertile natural beauty. The aesthetics of landscape may feature in nationalist ideology but they have limited significance in development discourse. Instead, nature was seen as unpredictable and violent towards the humans that sought to extract a living from the land. The agricultural livelihoods and nourishment of the majority depended—and continue to depend—on the annual flooding that keeps the soil rich and the main rice crop watered, so in a key respect, the precarity of the population with respect to nature is also the reason for its settlement in these parts, and why it thrived to the extent it did.[1]

Despite the frequency with which natural disasters have caused social, economic, and political crises, the intimate relation between ecology and social and state formation in East Bengal has often been ignored or treated as an add-on to historical and social-scientific analyses (Iqbal 2010). Within development, an influential assessment of Bangladesh typified Malthusian views of the relationship between people and nature:

It must be the fond hope of most educated people that man can control events and his own future. There is little to give credence to that view in the situation of Bangladesh. There can be little prospect of a spontaneous movement to reduce the increase in population and it is impossible to see how a much larger population can be given any prospect of attaining the type of living standards to which the Western world has become accustomed. Nature, not man, is in charge of the situation in Bangladesh. (Faaland and Parkinson 1976, 1)

These statements from the former Resident Representative (chief) and Senior Economist at the World Bank Mission in Dhaka in the early 1970s set out the idea that Bangladesh's lack of resources and ample development challenges made it the 'Test Case for Development'. With nature 'in charge of the situation', the 'prospect of attaining a spontaneous movement' to stem population growth was, these World Bankers argued, dead in the water. In this authoritative early expression of 'the development problem' there is a morbid note to the view of the relationship between man and nature: absent a 'spontaneous movement' to address human over-reproduction, and the certainty that more Bangladeshis will never attain Western living standards, what might happen?

From the point of view of international development, ecology is unkind both in its lack of natural resources and in its hostility to human progress:

All of this would not matter if Bangladesh were rich in natural resources and underpopulated, if it were effectively governed and if its social order and economic system were geared to growth, but none of these things obtain. The terrain, in relation to the number of people that inhabit it, is inhospitable and often hostile. It is dominated by mighty rivers which in depositing silt both form and flood the territory over which they flow; in the monsoon the rainfall is intense and unpredictable; the one certainty is that much of the land will be covered with water, and loss of life and interruption to production from flooding may be considerable. Even more dangerous are the cyclones which unpredictably can inundate vast areas of land and cause great damage and loss of life. (Faaland and Parkinson 1976, 3)

Forty years on, this statement is of interest because of what has not changed in Bangladesh's favour. The population has almost doubled; the country's reputation for corruption leaves it bouncing along the bottom of governance indices; and nature has become more hostile, with a rising number of climate change-related events.[2] Nor have natural resources been found on any important scale. This lack is significant, because it helps to explain why the project of national development came to depend so entirely on investing in its potential human wealth. Some of Bangladesh's leadership appeared to have hoped they were sitting on undiscovered unearned riches of oil and gas, although prospecting dates back a century in the region (Van Schendel 2009) and to date, no viable oil fields have been found. Nevertheless, in its early years, and particularly at the moment of its most acute economic crisis in 1974, the possibility of oil and gas appeared to be held out to foreign powers as a reason to stay engaged in a desperate Bangladesh (see Anderson 1976).

The terms of the aid quid pro quo can be read in an exchange between Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and President Gerald Ford in late 1974. In this conversation, Mujib has come seeking urgently needed food aid, with famine conditions peaking at home:

Mujibur: [Following a statement about the floods and the global commodity crisis]

If we could control the floods, we could be self-sufficient in five years. We produce rice, jute, wheat, and tobacco. We have big gas deposits—10-20 trillion cubic feet. We were almost self-sufficient in fertilizer but our plants were damaged. With our own gas and fertilizer plants we could begin to export fertilizer, except for inflation. (US Department of State 1974)

As busy world leaders, both men cut to the chase—the country's geostrategic significance. For Mujib, the point is the urgent need for food aid, and, knowing that US interests centre on the crisis price of oil, he moves swiftly on to the possibility that Bangladesh may have reserves of the precious resource. Ford sizes up Bangladesh as a potential participant in a 'despairing chorus line' of low-income countries praying for OPEC to lower oil prices at the height of the first oil crisis of the 1970s (Rothschild 1976, 296). He makes no effort to hide the limited strategic value of Bangladesh. After brief enquiries into membership of the international financial institutions and population size, the meeting ends with Ford assuring imminent food aid. In fact, the aid was delayed further, until after Bangladesh made its final shipment of jute sacks to Cuba, for which reason the US had delayed its food aid in the first place.

Bangladesh continues to explore the possibility of the natural resources it is hoped will assure its national prosperity (Prasad 2014). In the meantime, the propositions of fiscal sociology[3] suggest that the absence of natural resource wealth or a prosperous population to tax could well be reasons why Bangladesh's development policies turned towards earning 'strategic rents' as a 'test case for development', an international laboratory for the testing of aid models and theories. Opening itself to the ideas of foreign aid earned it that aid, but also led it to develop the economy and population in ways that could be taxable (see Moore 2004). In the medium term, the continued flow of foreign aid depended on the pursuit of economic and human development policies in line with the dominant development paradigm. This, as we will see presently, included pro-economic growth policies of openness to global markets, and investments in the health, fertility control, education, and food security of the poor masses.

  • [1] On ecological history, see Iqbal (2010). Bose (1986) maps the settlement of the region acrossits agro-ecological zones. See also Van Schendel (2009) for an overview.
  • [2] See Dastagir (2015). Bangladesh was ranked fifth among the countries experiencing the effectsof climate change in the period 1993-2011, with 242 events in that time (Kreft and Eckstein 2013).
  • [3] 'Fiscal sociology [is] a macro-historical paradigm that captured, embodied, and laid bare thedominant drivers of societal, economic, and political change' (Moore 2004, 298) by uncoveringhow states' dependence on their sources of revenue shapes their formation, including theeffectiveness and reach of their bureaucratic organization and the nature and quality of thestate-society relationship.
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