Bangladesh: Out of Fragility?

By Yiagadeesen (Teddy) Samy, Associate Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University

This essay, along with the ones by Sajjad Rahman and by Stephen Baranyi and Alicia Dobson, arose out of the Bangladesh: Out of Fragility symposium held at the University of Ottawa on November 26, 2013.

Bangladesh’s weak democratic institutions are once again being exposed. The boycott of the recent January 5th 2014 general election by the main opposition party, and widespread electoral violence, give us a sense of déja vu in a country with a long history of political unrest since becoming independent in 1971. The current political turmoil is characteristic of a state that has yet to transition fully out of fragility.

This latest episode of political instability is perhaps more surprising than previous ones, however, because it comes at the end of an impressive decade that saw average annual economic growth of more than 6%, and a short-term decline in fragility. And although growth was not as spectacular during the first two decades after independence, the country has managed to make huge gains in several socioeconomic indicators such as life expectancy, infant mortality and literacy. Indeed, Bangladesh is no longer the “basket case” that Henry Kissinger infamously described it as.

One can only hope for a quick resolution to the current political impasse before it begins to have wider negative impacts on the country’s performance.

The recent strong growth performance is in turn related to export growth (especially in the garment sector) and increases in remittance flows. The latter have been six to eight times higher than aid flows to the country in the last few years, reaching US$ 14 billion (more than 10% of GDP) in 2012.

When it comes to fragility, whether one looks at the Failed States Index of the Fund for Peace, the Country Indicators for Foreign Policy (CIFP) fragility index from Carleton University or the State Fragility Index from the Centre for Systemic Peace, they all show that Bangladesh’s fragility scores have improved since 2004.

While the Fund for Peace and the Center for Systemic Peace placed it in the ‘alert’ and ‘serious’ categories respectively in 2012, CIFP ranked Bangladesh as a ‘moderate’ performer. As I have argued elsewhere, fragility indices are highly correlated because they are based on partially-overlapping definitions and data sources. However, the lack of consensus on what a ‘fragile’ state is means that each index tends to favor certain characteristics more than others, which explains the difference in categorizations. It is still comforting that all of them indicate an improvement over the short-term.

The CIFP fragility index (which is the only one that goes back to the 1980s and thus allows for more robust trend analysis) shows that Bangladesh exited the top 40 fragile states for most of the last decade, and that both its ranking and fragility scores have improved in recent years. However, the data since the early 1980s reveal a cyclical pattern. Although the net trend for the last three decades shows a long-term improvement, fragility improved from 1980-1993, deteriorated from 1993-2004, and has improved since 2004.

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In addition to the fragility index, the CIFP ranks countries along different characteristics of ‘stateness’ and different clusters. In the case of Bangladesh, an examination of long-term trends shows that while authority (ability to enact legislation and control the territory) and capacity (ability to mobilize and use resources for productive ends) scores have improved, legitimacy (the extent to which a particular government commands public loyalty to the governing regime) has worsened. An analysis based on the different clusters shows that governance and the environment are areas of concern, having both deteriorated over the long term.

The improvement in capacity is not surprising, as it is largely related to the impressive growth performance and improvements in broader development indicators. However, Bangladesh is still classified as one of 36 low-income economies by the World Bank, with more than 40% of its population living in absolute poverty.

One can only hope for a quick resolution to the current political impasse before it begins to have wider negative impacts on the country’s performance. The challenges currently being posed to democracy and the deterioration of good governance are key issues that need to be addressed.

If there is one important lesson that we have learnt from fragile states, it is that fragility tends to be persistent and that quick gains can be easily wiped out by political turmoil.

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