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Home arrow History arrow The aid lab: understanding Bangladesh unexpected success

Post-Malthusian Futures. Towards a New Social Contract

Nationalizing the Aid Lab

In 2015, as the 6th FYP [Five Year Plan] draws to a close, Bangladesh has accelerated the pace of socioeconomic transformation—in many instances surpassing its targets—even in the backdrop of a global recession during this period. In that respect, Bangladesh is a 'development outlier' to its credit. The 7th FYP has been formulated with full recognition that the 'outlier' phenomenon is not merely a blip on the development path but rather a sustainable occurrence chartering a new development trajectory. Lauded as a 'Development Surprise' by prominent international media, Bangladesh has emerged as a shining example for countries throughout the world as it continues to defy traditional, linear development models and innovate a novel, alternative pathway for socioeconomic progress. (Government of the People's Republic of Bangladesh,

Seventh Five Year Plan, 2016-2020;GED 2015b, xxx-xxxi)

Once the world's laboratory for experiments with human life and society, Bangladesh has reclaimed its own development project, retooling it as an engine for generating a particular model of high-value development, one in which the progress of people outstrips the advance of economies. It has cast off its 'basket case' label, and has now started on its career through middle- income status. It is by any stretch an impressive achievement in a short space of time with a great many challenges to overcome. There remains much to be done, and the second generation of challenges may be more complex than the first—it is easier to build schools and enjoin children to attend them, for instance, than it is to ensure that they learn something useful once there. But the foundations are in place. Protection against disaster makes human development at least possible. And the population that once grew so rapidly in size now raises its expectations at a similar pace, transforming the state-society relations on which its unexpected development success to date has rested.

Among the emerging and new challenges are those of raising the skills and productivity of Bangladesh's population. Further growth and development entail moving up the global value chain, and fast. It is clear that this requires both substantial additional investments in human development, and a political governance system capable of overcoming the old weaknesses of corruption and inefficiency so those investments can bear fruit. Bangladesh must gear itself up to equip its people for a far higher standard of education, health, and social protection, one fit for the middle-income country it has become. But this depends on the political economy being right: business and industrial elites need to recognize and act upon their material interests in a smarter, stronger, well-nourished population. It is in their direct economic interests that, for example, the masses have access to safe water and sanitation; their teachers and doctors are in attendance; workers have safe passage to work, fair and enforceable contracts at home and abroad, decent shelter, and good food. And when labour and commodity markets and political democracy fail to ensure such good things are affordably and fairly available, workers must have the organizational means with which to argue for such reasonable claims. The sweatshop era is not gone, but after Rana Plaza, it is no longer an assured means of making a profit. The business elites and the labouring classes have a mutual interest in higher standards of human development, but while a smarter, more globally oriented generation of business leaders increasingly recognizes the imperatives of the quality of the population, this has not yet found its political expression or policy space.

While Bangladesh looks to the future, it is crucial to reflect on the lessons of the past. This book has argued that a people-oriented approach to development was set on its pathway by the human, economic, and political fallout of the 1974 famine. That approach jettisoned a broadly leftist-statist ideology inherited from the liberation struggle in favour of a pragmatic 'try anything' market-driven model, in which the method was constantly judged against the results. Often with their partners—aid agencies, NGOs, civil society, the business community, and even the rump of the old left—successive governments of all political stripes put in place or created space for policies and programmes that were sometimes mould-breaking and frequently untested, retaining and protecting what seemed to work, and abandoning the rest. It was often, but not always, consistent with a neoliberal ideology favouring free markets. The state always intervened or allowed intervention to make food markets functional for hungry people, make credit available to those without insurance or capital, advance the interests of labour-intensive industries, and subsidize family costs of school attendance. An active, politicized population kept watch, legitimating what worked, sanctioning (if only in the withdrawal of their consent) the failures. In this formula, the country broke with patriarchal tradition by drawing women's issues out of the private domain and into the public; the public sphere became feminized in key respects, and gender issues became core problems for public policy. In its attention to 'the woman issue' in particular, Bangladesh was a pioneer.

The higher-order aim of these policies was always clear and always the same: to protect the masses against the kinds of crises of subsistence and survival that had scarred their pre-Liberation history, and to which they were prone because of their ecological, economic, and social characteristics. To do that it was essential to transform those economic and social characteristics, and manage the ecological risks. It meant transforming the Bangladeshi population into people capable of rearing and socializing healthy and capable children, and enabling them to enter into the world economy as the sole available means of absorbing the growing millions of 'surplus' labour.

This achievement is politicized in the Seventh Five Year Plan, an achievement framed by an Awami League government as the realization of the nation's founding father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib's dream of a '"Shonar Bangla" (Golden Bengal) where the common citizens of the country live in prosperity and have equitable access to quality education, healthcare, rule of law and employment opportunities'. Those alert to the divisive party politics of the country will read in this politicization an attempt to capture the gains of development as a partisan triumph. Certainly the achievements of the Awami League government since 2009 merit their own analysis; that has not been provided here, concerned as this book has been with unearthing the political history of this development success. But those achievements, too, are latter- day extensions of a core project whose foundations were in place from the mid-1970s. National development was always a nationalist project, and protection of the population, not least from the tidal bores and torrents which many of those on its ecological frontline faced, always the raison d'etre for the state of Bangladesh. It is fitting to situate this success as the achievement of the goals of the national liberation struggle—albeit not of a single party, however central to that struggle that party may have been. It should be clear from the thrust of the argument that the apparently different nationalisms of the polarized political parties share far more than divides them, at least with respect to the development project. Elite consensus has been central to Bangladesh's unexpected development success.

In the dominant World Bank rendering of 'the Bangladesh paradox', the success owes substantially to the early embrace of market forces as the driver of development, with the supporting action of non-state actors. This is only true to a limited extent, and it conceals more than it reveals. The turn to the market depended fundamentally on politics. It needed the achievement of a political settlement founded upon an effective elite consensus about the vital challenges of subsistence and survival. It meant that—whatever else the elite got up to and however else they sought to accumulate capital and prestige and rewards—they backed an agreement with the masses and their aid donors about the bedrock requirements of a functional state.

Several of the arguments in this book have been made in different ways and with different emphases by others. But the important contribution here is to trace the specific of this subsistence crisis contract to the aftermath of the third terrible disaster in the early history of the country: the famine that should never have happened, which demonstrated so acutely and painfully the risks of a state that lacked the power to keep its population alive. Although this is difficult to prove in any empirical sense, this event appears to have left an indelible scar on the national psyche, rarely mentioned except as a positive expression of the consistent and still-present priority to protect against such disasters. Recent conversations with senior government officials have re-affirmed this sense that lurking beneath the surface of governmental logic is an awareness of that terrible moment, with its terrible political and human consequences. Certainly it is from the political aftermath of that event—and the brutal murder of the nationalist hero and founding father of the country and his family to which it must be connected—that the violent, winner-takes-all politics takes its cue. Some of the wide lessons from this account are also of relevance to theorizing the effects of famine, an area of analysis only now beginning to generate attention.

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