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The Political Economy of Large Populations

It is well known that a fear of exponential population growth drove much of the expansion of public services in the early years, but the overwhelming push on population institutionalized an enduring instrumentalism in the design and delivery of social policies and programmes. Improvements in health and education mattered, at least at first, mainly to the extent that they contributed to population control. The strong focus on population control was not limited to Western donors, but they, in particular the US, pushed forcefully on this issue, without regard to human—and, in particular, women's—rights (Akhter 1992; Hartmann 1987). The intellectual heritage of donor thinking about population control derived from pop-demography and right-wing treatises on the world food supply, as we saw previously (Paddock and Paddock 1968; Hardin 1974; see also Singer 1972); at the height of the world commodity crisis in 1973-4 there is little doubt that the idea of a population crisis (or 'Bomb', according to Paul Ehrlich) enabled a view that a 'state of exception' prevailed in hungry, populous countries, in which the law of human rights could justly be suspended for the greater good. Among other effects, these ideas gave theoretical respectability to the use of food aid for policy purposes, often specifically on population policy but also, as we saw in Bangladesh, on a country's economic and political directions. The food commodity crisis was believed to be contributing directly to the production of revolutionary hordes (CIA 1974). Armed, hungry, post-war Bangladesh, with its 6.7 babies per mother, could provide an unwelcome test of the thesis. As a policy solution to the food crisis everywhere, and in particular in one of the most densely populated countries in the world, population control was a priority goal (see also Rothschild 1976; Gerlach 2015). The Bangladeshi elite in power during the military decade and a half were largely in line with this thinking, perhaps particularly after the refugee and food crises.

Despite the coercive means with which much social policy was introduced, the aspirations of the national elite and the needs of the rural landless were often aligned towards the ends of basic social provisioning: healthier, more productive, and secure lives. The elite has itself recently arisen from the mofussil middle and landowning class, and continues to relate closely to rural life and relations. This proximity made it possible to identify the difference between their own (rational, modern) behaviour and the superstitions of the masses as in the latter's lack of awareness, or chetona, in turn a function of an absence of basic education. Without schooling, educated people believed, the masses would continue to be fatalistic, superstitious regarding life and death, resistant to modernity, impervious to good social policies like fertility control. People had to be made 'aware' or 'conscious' of their problems and the options available before any lasting development could be had. Mass basic education was the means (Hossain 2010a). This recognition that people needed to be 'primed' for development through social policy became a significant part of the 'will to improve' here (Li 2007). The larger agenda was an emerging elite consensus on development that drew elements from the 'Asian Tiger' success stories such as the need for economic openness, a shift to export manufacturing industry, and investment in human capital. These were ideologically acceptable broad policy parameters for donors; East and Southeast Asian success offered a suitable (and suitably non-Western) model for Bangladeshi elites. In my interviews with the national elite I recall that Japan was often a touchstone, notable in particular for similarities of ecology, ethnic homogeneity, and population density.[1]

The advantages of a large but slower-growing population now capable of reproducing itself to a reasonable standard continue to accrue to the economic elites of Bangladesh in the twenty-first century. This means that there is little political urgency with regard to further rises in the quality of the population or its skills (or human development) that might permit the labour-rich economy of Bangladesh to compete on a higher growth pathway. The population is still viewed as a potential resource, but the economy and the economic elite in

The Aid Lab particular reap good returns with the current low levels of investment. The political imperative to provide basic services to the masses is consistently stronger than any to raise the standards of those services. This can be seen in the contrast between the lower priority given to what children learn in class compared to the political energies expended getting them into the classroom, as well as in the contrast between highly effective protection against food shocks and the neglect of nutrition and chronic hunger. A population capable of reproducing itself in a more controlled way, preferably to a standard that is improving, is, politically at least, sufficient for now.

  • [1] I discuss both these points about fatalism and the need for 'awareness' among the masses, andthe introduction of the 'tiger' development models, in Hossain (2005), chapters 3 and 4.
 
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