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The Population Problem

At 1,222 persons per km2, Bangladesh is the eighth most densely populated country, preceded only by small islands and urban trading posts and financial centres like Monaco, Hong Kong, and Bahrain; none of these are agrarian societies (which require land and tend to produce low-value products in bulk), and none rank in the top ten largest countries by population.[1] The allegedly comic right-wing writer P. J. O'Rourke noted that at independence 'Bangladesh had only two international distinctions—being the world's largest poor country and the world's poorest large one' (2007, 34); donors certainly saw it that way, but the question of how to deal with a population whose needs were vast, severe, and urgent was uncharted territory, lending itself to urgent measures. From the point of view of those doing the developing, poverty could not be addressed if the numbers of the poor grew so far. But soon enough, population growth was under control (see Figure 7.2), starting to decline in 1979, and mostly continuing to do so since.

Debates about how this rapid decline in population growth came about are particularly telling about the epistemologies and ethics of the Aid Lab. But both sides of that debate agree that population was a clear political priority for donors and the government. Discussion of the urgent measures needed to put an emergency brake on population growth started immediately after the famine. The very first point of discussion in the very first meeting between the US Ambassador and the man who now ran Bangladesh was reported back to Washington as a conversation about population control:

General Zia and I were able to have several minutes of private conversation at a dinner Saturday night. Uppermost on his mind, evidently, was a desire for us to understand that they had registered our concern that a really effective attack on Bangladesh's population problem was long over due ...

Making Bangladeshis

Population growth rates in South Asia (%)

Figure 7.2. Population growth rates in South Asia (%)

Source: World Development Indicators. Accessed 2 January 2016. data/reports.aspx?source=world-development-indicators.

Zia opened our conversation by referring to the points Senator McGovern had made to him last week about Bangladesh's urgent population problem and said he wanted us to know that they understood this was their top priority...

I said I was pleased to hear this as both here and in Washington during my recent consultation I had been hearing more and more expressions of concern about what had been considered, quite frankly, an unsatisfactory record. Questions were being raised about the purpose of the enormous amounts of aid we are putting into Bangladesh if there was so little to show in the way of checking population growth. (US Ambassador to Bangladesh Boster, US State Department Telegram, January 19, 1976;US Department of State Office of the Historian 1976)

With the state now prioritizing population control, personal behaviours that were proscribed by religion were sanctioned by the highest levels of state, and religious institutions and leaders were successfully conscripted in the struggle. Mujib was said to have been reluctant to push against religious sentiment, sensitive as he was to the charge of being un-Islamic. But Zia had covered his Muslim bases by declaring Islam the state religion, and with strong backing, or pushing, from the donors, was willing to make fertility control a priority

(Franda 1981c). It also seems likely that the religious leadership were as aware as the aid donors and the national and local elite of the mismatch between resources and population, and put up little resistance. A series of highly successful advertising campaigns was sufficiently powerful and/or attuned to mass feeling to defuse any serious resistance, and to increase popular acceptance of contraception (see Sultana 2015). The first Five Year Plan (1975-80) put population control on an equal footing with food security, combining fertility reduction schemes with maternal and child health and public communications efforts to create a broader family planning programme, which, with astute handling of the religious leadership, faced little opposition (Lewis 2011). It was a policy that would continue into the Ershad period, and, with less urgency as women had ever fewer babies, into the democratic era.[2]

Academic debates over fertility decline illustrate the instrumental treatment (by some influential actors) of Bangladeshi women as objects of public policy. In one of the early constituent arguments for the 'Bangladesh paradox' idea, researchers at the World Bank sought to explain the surprising fact of rapid progress in fertility control. Live births dropped from seven to below five by 1994 and continued falling to 2.3 births per woman, while contraceptive use went from 3 to 40 per cent in the twenty-odd years after independence. Theory did not predict such a rapid decline: as the largest of the twenty poorest nations at the time, 'Bangladeshi society remains predominantly conservative, traditional, and agrarian' (Cleland 1994, 1). This was important because, as the largest recipient of foreign aid and of aid to population control specifically, Bangladesh presented 'the most challenging test of what can be achieved when strong government commitment confronts complex population problems with sustained resolve'; the implications were to be mined for their lessons for other countries. The authors paint a rich and detailed picture of the recent crises and social, economic, and political changes that could potentially explain the fertility decline, speculating that 'the disruptions and misery of the early 1970s' may have been a critical juncture. But if so, it was as a political more than a societal trigger: 'The specter of a Malthusian deterioration certainly appears to have stiffened political resolve to address the population problem. The genesis of the current family planning program can be tracedbackto 1975' (Cleland etal. 1994, 69).

The authors persist in a view of the essential resilience of the patriarchal model in which fecund wives receive protection in a situation of acute human insecurity. Based substantially on quasi-experimental evidence a) of latent demand for contraception, b) that offsetting the costs of fertility control helped, and c) that 'doorstep' services reached women in seclusion, Cleland and colleagues argue that 'program effects', the delivery of family planning services in a context of 'unmet need', drove the fertility decline (1994).

That high-level political and bureaucratic commitment, external resources, and an innovative strategy bringing village healthworkers to women played a major role is likely. But Cleland and colleagues dismiss their own analysis of social and economic change in favour of a truncated conclusion about the genius of programming. This is an early example of 'magic bullet' solutions tested on Bangladeshi soil, in which simple explanations enable outsiders to make sense of the complexities of what has gone right in an unpromising setting. In these accounts, the nature of the social and political consensus on economic growth and human development—a settlement over which generations of the population of East Bengal struggled—is disregarded, or reduced at most to shadowy 'political will'. The emphasis on the organizational details of bureaucratic-managerial projects reflects the bureaucratic-managerial nature of the aid agencies that specialize in such analytical products.

Other close observers countered the 'programme effects' thesis, identifying more evidence of change in Bangladeshi gender relations than Cleland and colleagues treated as admissible. Caldwell and colleagues concluded that whether or not other determinants of fertility decline could be decisively pinpointed, Bangladesh was most certainly not the 'controlled experiment testing the program's effect the researchers have been seeking' (1999, 81). Kabeer re-examined the question from a historical, culturally and class- differentiated standpoint, finding that fertility decline most likely pre-dated the crisis period of the 1970s, as the relative material benefits of children had declined for landless families (2001b). As Chapter 4 argued, the crises of the 1970s crystallized and made visible, but did not cause, the breakdown in the patriarchal bargain. At the same time, variations in rates of fertility decline across cultural and economic contexts, despite the same family planning programme being in place, meant that 'ideas and economics' had to be factors, each coming to the fore in different ways and at different moments (Kabeer 2001b). The programme mattered, but it was the receptiveness of the setting in which it intervened that let it work—or not. Women's agency may have been constrained, but instead of subjects in a maternal health laboratory experiment, they were decision-making actors in a fast-changing world. The programmes were well-designed interventions, but less the drivers of social and economic change than the passengers in a vehicle that was already going that way.[3]

  • [1] World Development Indicators, (accessed 31December 2015).
  • [2] Just as the first discussion between Zia and the US Ambassador zeroed in on population, Ershadused his first discussions with the US Ambassador of that period to assure her that within thedevelopment field, 'very high on his priority list [were] accelerated efforts in the field of familyplanning' (ADST 1986, 97).
  • [3] It should also be kept in mind that Bangladesh was one of several countries which sawrelatively rapid fertility rate declines starting in this period, and that in global perspective, its
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