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A Development Success: The 'Positive Deviant'

From this unlikely start, Bangladesh emerged as a development success within a few short decades. The pace and extent of its achievements are unexpected because of the low base and fast progress that mean it even outstrips comparators on some indicators (see in particular World Bank 2003; Ahluwalia and Mahmud 2004; Asadullah et al. 2014). And those achievements appear to have come about despite weaknesses in its governance that by conventional wisdom should have impeded economic growth and public service delivery, limiting gains in human development (World Bank 2006; IGS 2006; Lewis 2011). The record of Bangladesh's achievements was set out for inspection by the World Bank in a text box recording the 'phenomenon' in no less a document than its own Annual Report:

Bangladesh is 1 of only 18 developing countries with an annual growth rate that has never fallen below 2 percent. Since the 1990s, economic growth has been steady at 4 to 5 percent annually, with relatively low inflation and stable domestic debt, interest, and exchange rates. Its gross domestic product growth rate has accelerated by 1 percentage point every decade, despite floods and other weather-related catastrophes. This growth, coupled with an impressive decline in population growth rates, has led to a doubling of annual per capita growth from 1.6 percent in the 1980s to 3.3 percent from 1990 to 2004. The country has achieved universal primary education and has an equal number of girls and boys in secondary school, and it is on track to reach the Millennium Development Goal in child mortality.

These growth and development gains have taken place despite widely held perceptions of weak governance, a phenomenon referred to as the Bangladesh conundrum. If not addressed, poor governance will be a growth constraint, particularly in critical areas such as power and transport. (World Bank 2006, 40)

This description of Bangladesh's development success focuses on macroeconomic fundamentals. It does not specify how growth put children in school or stopped infants from dying, but in the omission by implication indicates that modest but steady economic growth is the source.

Labour-based growth may have been the only real possibility for a resource- poor country, but it was also one which contending elites came to be capable of sharing the benefits of (on which latter point, see Khan 2010; Hassan 2013). And it can be argued that the badness of Bangladesh's governance has been overstated, at least to the extent that it limits growth: endemic corruption is characteristic of early stages of economic development (Khan 2002). But Bangladesh's (human) development successes do not owe chiefly to its economic growth, whether or not it was consistent with weak governance. Poverty reduction and human development have not owed exclusively to growth (see, for instance, Sen and Hulme 2004). Bangladesh has done better on human development than its (actually quite modest) economic growth would predict: given its low average income levels, its human development and social indicators are relatively strong (Mahmud et al. 2008; Asadullah et al. 2014). Bangladesh is famous for its service delivering development non-state organizations, but its 'positive deviance' does not owe exclusively to these large and innovative programmes. Instead, the gains in public health, education, food security, and other domains owe to a potent mix of public, donor, and private for-profit as well as non-profit providers in the achievement of public goals (Chowdhury et al. 2013).

As early as 2010, the World Bank concluded that the paradox was resolved and that the answer to Bangladesh's surprising successes in economic development lay in the actions of a strategic (or lucky) state, which ensured governance was functional in six key areas. Successive governments, it was argued,

  • • developed 'sound' macroeconomic policies that created space for the private sector to flourish;
  • • improved disaster-management capacity, 'reducing considerably their macroeconomic impact';
  • • took 'wise public expenditure choices within a limited fiscal envelope', for example, on rural infrastructure, public health, and education;
  • • created space for and partnerships with NGOs and the private sector on public service delivery;
  • • supported family planning, girls' schooling, and women's employment, '[unleashing the development potential of half its population';
  • • encouraged and enabled labour migration and remittances. (World Bank 2010, 7).

These are indeed some key areas of policy success (see also Sen et al. 2007), and many of these achievements depended on both macroeconomic and social policies and programmes. This in turn implies a degree of political will and state capacity not usually associated with Bangladesh. Why were these, and not others, the protected domains of 'good enough governance' (as Merilee Grindle has put it)? Under a political settlement characterized by authoritarian and later competitive clientelism, why did 'successive governments' behave in this way? This book addresses these questions.

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