The Bangladesh government’s significant strides in delivering basic services to the population, thus reinforcing its legitimacy, discussed in part 1 of this blog, have been enhanced by an extraordinarily strong civil society — a unique community of non-profit, non-governmental organizations.
With a history of slow economic growth and low GDP per capita, Bangladesh has made substantial gains in improving the basic conditions of people’s lives with the active support of a vibrant civil society. Delivery of basic services to the people would have never reached the level it has without civil society planned and implemented programs. These have reduced poverty, provided access to food, health, and education, and empowered women by making them central to development and promoting social change.
The lead NGO, BRAC, has unique program interventions in social sectors that have provided the most valued ingredient behind Bangladesh’s move out of poverty and the fragility trap. Fortunately, the government and the country’s educated elite maintain consensus in supporting the social programs delivered by civil society.
Of the factors that influenced Bangladesh’s transition out of fragility, the external factor of effective foreign aid has been a major driver. The assistance of the international donor community supplied the resources required in the short and medium terms for the new nation’s engagement in delivering services to the public. With its economy in shambles, paltry growth, and inadequate resource mobilization in the earlier years of the post-conflict period, the policies formulated (no matter how sound) could not have been implemented without this financial backing.
It was not only the quantity of aid but its quality that made a difference. Aid was timely, needs-based, well-coordinated and harmonized by donors, and planned and delivered in consultation with the government, engendering state ownership of the development programs and projects.
The government’s heavy dependence on foreign aid, even in the immediate post-conflict period, never adversely affected its legitimacy in the eyes of citizens since the government, not the donors, were always seen to be at the helm of service delivery. Because of this effective pattern of aid delivery, Bangladesh has been able to avoid over-dependence on aid in the long term. The ratio of aid to GDP currently stands at less than 2%, a tangible sign of the government’s ability to lead a successful development process.
Has high growth been a factor behind Bangladesh’s exit out of fragility? Historically, Bangladesh has made disproportionate development gains for the size of its growth. An upsurge in growth, however, marked the last decade, with export earnings from the garment industry and remittances from six million citizens working abroad. This growth spurt pushed Bangladesh from the rank of low-income country (LIC) to that of lower middle-income country (LMIC). The UN has announced that Bangladesh will graduate in 2021 out of the ranks of least developed countries (LDCs). Bangladesh is predicted to be a growth outperformer over the next decade, which will definitely help sustain its march forward on the path out of fragility.
The message is that Bangladesh, a development disaster in 1971, is well on its way to recovery. But these gains will not be sustainable unless Bangladesh addresses some formidable challenges.
First, higher levels of public investment will be required. Vision 2021 — the 6th five-year plan of the government of Bangladesh — has set solid targets to meet this challenge. These targets, if achieved, will help transform the socioeconomic environment for the longer term.
Tougher challenges stem from the dysfunctional power politics currently plaguing Bangladesh. Nasty partisan politics generates instability that adversely affects the machinery of governance and state authority. This political instability has fuelled serious security challenges — a new phenomenon in the last few years.
Since its birth, Bangladesh has embraced a nation-building agenda based on secular Bengali nationalist principles, providing the base of its rapid progress. A number of violent incidents perpetrated by extremist groups, allegedly supported by political parties, indicates that Bangladesh’s moderate Islamic tradition is being challenged. This wave of extremist belief encroaches on Bangladesh society, especially in urban areas, dividing the population.
The government has taken some measures to address these security challenges. But only time will tell if the tide of fundamentalism, with the associated threats to security and authority, can be successfully stemmed.
This brief assessment of a new nation’s journey from post-conflict, through the fragility trap, and out the other side, raises some interesting questions. Are there lessons to be found in Bangladesh’s journey from fragility to stability? Yes, there are. Can these lessons be transferred to other fragile states? Yes, they can, with the proviso of taking specific contexts into consideration.
Let us hope that these lessons from Bangladesh can inspire and instruct other states facing conflict and disaster so that they too can have a future worth uniting for.
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.