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The MDG Consensus

Most recently, Bangladesh's image in the aid world has been associated with its successes on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These have proven the perfect vehicle for Bangladesh's development ambitions, allowing political leaders to showcase achievements to a world audience that knew it only as the basket case, and on whose financing its development project still depended to a significant (but fast declining) degree. By 2015, Bangladesh had partly met goals on poverty and hunger, and on universal primary education; it had met the goals on gender equality (probably) and on both maternal and child mortality; it had also made progress on the other goals on environmental sustainability and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases, but was behind on some nutrition, and on water and sanitation, targets (GED 2015a). Among the Least Developed Countries, only Rwanda ranks higher in terms of its MDG performance, and Cambodia ranks alongside Bangladesh (Bhattacharya et al. 2013). Bangladesh has done well enough to be spoken of as a 'role model' (Imran 2015). The international recognition this has earned is important to the political leadership. The Minister for Planning saw fit to occupy much of his preface to the last MDG progress report with listing six recent prizes and other recognition for the Prime Minister's leadership of the MDG challenge (GED 2015a, preface).

Less widely remarked upon is the political consensus on which these achievements rest. Much is made, particularly by donors with short memories, of differences in the public policies of the ruling coalitions or parties. But these differences pale into insignificance compared to the vast swathes of common ground on the MDGs, an invisible consensus. All three ruling groups (the Awami League, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party or BNP, and the military- backed caretaker regime of 2006-7) issued reports over the last decade of the MDGs which all made similar points about the achievements; the need to address lagging areas; connections between economic growth, poverty reduction, and human development; the need to fill financing gaps (with more aid); and the government's strong and continuing commitment to the MDGs. The first MDG report was issued jointly with the UN, but from then on it has been issued by the government.

There are shades of difference in the ways in which these commitments are justified, and these take on the colour of ideological distinctiveness. In 2005, a time when economic debate in Bangladesh was centring on the country's position vis-a-vis world trade, then-Finance Minister Saifur Rahman ended his preface to the progress report with a stern reference to unequal trade rules:

For countries like Bangladesh to meet the MDG commitments made at the 2000 Millennium Summit, industrialised countries must honour their commitments to finance development in developing countries. Trade barriers must be lifted and both the rich and the poor must be allowed to benefit from globalization so that we can all move towards a more equal world. (GED/UNDP 2005, preface)

The pro-globalization and free trade inflection is consistent with the then- ruling party BNP's historical alignment with trade and industrial interests, and its stewardship of the early shift to pro-market policies. By contrast, in her speech to the High Level Plenary Meeting on the MDGs, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina explained the state commitment as follows:

During my last tenure as Prime Minister, our government took steps to mainstream MDGs in our national development plans. The aim was to ensure national ownership of the MDGs, and to demonstrate our commitment to achieve them, within the stipulated timeframe of 2015. The planning and budgeting process since 2001, thus: sought to achieve the MDGs as part of our national development. During our present tenure, we have set a Five Year Plan to achieve the MDG targets, as a step towards making our country a middle income and a 'Digital Bangladesh' by 2021, the Golden Jubilee Year of our independence. This is on way to achieve finally 'Sonar Bangla' or 'Golden Bangladesh' as dreamt by my father and Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. (Wazed 2010, 1-2)

This personalization of the political will to develop is characteristic of Awami League political discourse, as is the use of socialistic-sounding 'Five Year Plans' and reference to the cultural ideals of the nationalist struggle. The lessons of history echo in the Prime Minister's reflections on the factors retarding progress:

[T]he world food and energy crises of the past year, the ensuing global economic recession, world trade decline, dismal investments and the impact of climate change have retarded our pace for achieving the MDGs. Yet Bangladesh has been able to achieve satisfactory progress, with the support of the UN system, and bilateral and multilateral partners. (Wazed 2010, 1-2)

The old problems of commodity shocks, vulnerability to world trade fluctuations, and 'natural' disasters recur, as does the issue of reliance on external aid. But this is no longer Sobhan's 'crisis of external dependence'; the agenda is now broadly agreed between donors and the political elite. In the main, and indeed in the detail, the differences between the rules of the political parties with regard to how they approach development are almost undetectable. And that consensus arose out of a painfully learned understanding of how Bangladesh is positioned vis-a-vis global commodity and trade markets, ecological disasters, and aid financing.

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