Out of Fragility: Evidence from Bangladesh, Part 1

Out of Fragility: Evidence from Bangladesh, Part 1
Poster of Freedom Fighter from 1971 Liberation War displayed at the Liberation War Museum in Dhaka, Bangladesh.Photo by Adam Jones

Almost 50 years ago, Bangladesh emerged as a new nation in 1971 out of a bloody war of independence with Pakistan that left three million dead and ten million refugees. It then found itself caught in a fragility trap with its economy in a total shambles and administration and governance non-operational. Initial chaos and resource constraints in the immediate post-conflict period severely limited the capacity of the new state to deliver public services and good governance and hindered the establishment of governing authority across the country.

Yet today, assessing the fragility trends in Bangladesh using the Funds for Peace state capacity measures and Country Indicators for Foreign Policy (CIFP), leaves little doubt that Bangladesh — scoring high in authority, legitimacy, and capacity — has exited fragility.

What factors rendered this transition possible? Several internally and externally driven factors combined to develop Bangladesh’s capacity to govern with authority as a sovereign power, earn legitimacy, and carve a path out of fragility.

The total defeat and official surrender of Pakistan (then West Pakistan) to the liberation fighters of East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh) and the Pakistan army’s full departure from Bangladesh, under the supervision of the Indian forces, facilitated an immediate secession of the conflict.

No indicators pointing to the potential for conflict recurring could be traced. No paramilitary or private militia groups ever operated in the territory that became Bangladesh; there were no warlords, no proliferation of arms and ammunition. An astonishing response to the call by the inspiring leader of Bangladesh, Shaikh Mujibur Rahman, for the surrender of small arms by civilian liberation fighters achieved total disarmament within weeks. The slate was clean with little prospect of any insurgency contesting the authority of the new state of Bangladesh.

The quick withdrawal of Indian troops that had assisted the liberation fighters ensured no long-term presence of any foreign power on Bangladeshi soil to hinder the assumption of authority by local leaders, who easily gained full territorial control.

A strong sense of national identity, engendered by the war of independence, kept the people united behind the leaders and helped build legitimacy for the government of the new nation. Along with this Bangladeshi nationalism, the absence of divisions along ethnic lines and the homogeneity of culture, tradition, and language unified the country, preventing tension and conflict.

A secular constitution was established to promote religious harmony. Discrimination against the Hindu minority was not unheard of, but religious tension has not plagued this vastly Muslim country to threaten state legitimacy. Over the years, these background factors helped to promote the effectiveness and capacity of a state with somewhat dysfunctional politics.

Since its birth, the political history of Bangladesh has been marked with vicious fights between two political parties and regimes of elected governments, interrupted by army coups and periods of military rule. Yet, under successive governments (democratic or military), the state’s capacity to exercise control over its territory and its monopoly on the use of force were always restored, after only brief disruptions. Ultimately, the population’s support helped extend this authority. Bangladeshi nationalism and the absence of divisiveness united the people in support of the state, lending it a certain degree of legitimacy.

Over the years, each successive government diligently pursued an outreach agenda, connecting the state with the people, to the benefit of both. State initiated administration restructuring had deconcentrated power flowing from the central to the sub-national levels to ensure efficient delivery of the rule of law and other administrative and security services at district, sub-district, and village levels. Such devolution of power, in effect, strengthened the visibility and authority of the central government at the local level.

Boosted by the support of the people, the state’s capacity steadily increased. A prime example is strengthened tax administration and revenue mobilization, as reflected in tax receipts and total revenue.

The capacity of the state machinery in formulating and implementing sound development policies for service delivery remained constant as well. This is reflected in the country’s surprising advances in addressing the Millennium Development Goals. The services delivered helped earn people’s support and government legitimacy.

Rural credit programs (microfinance) contributed to raising the incomes of rural families. Investment in agricultural research, making improved seeds and fertilizers widely available, increased the overall level of food production and security. Access to farm inputs raised the incomes of large and small farmers alike.

Free family planning services reduced the size of families, also contributing to household poverty reduction. Over 10% of public spending goes to support social safety nets protecting the poorest through food for work, direct cash transfers, and feeding programs. Over the years, the government has successfully mitigated the impacts of devastating natural calamities, ensuring not only the continuance of safety net programs but also expanding the geographic area of coverage and the number of beneficiaries.

For further clues about how Bangladesh has achieved its steady transition, read part 2 of this blog, which looks at both the pathway to success and ongoing challenges.

Dr. Nipa Banerjee’s career in international development spans four decades at the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the University of Ottawa. She is a Senior Fellow at the School of International Development and a Principal Researcher at CIPS. Both an academic and a practitioner with almost two decades of field experience, she has managed Canadian aid programs in Asia and advised developing country governments.

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