Exceptionalities of Bangladesh development: What are the contributing factors?

N N TARUN CHAKRAVORTY 12 August 2019

For two reasons development in Bangladesh has received
applause from the global community: improvements in its human/social
development indicators are exceptionally higher than the same income-level
countries’ including India and Pakistan, and this development has been achieved
despite its poor governance.  It is
surprising because its GDP per capita remained low still below Pakistan’s in all
World Bank measures although it has entered into Lower Middle Class in 2015.
Comparison of Bangladesh’s achievement with Pakistan’s makes much sense because
Bangladesh started from a much lower position in terms of economic,
developmental and social indicators with an economy devastated by the Pakistani
army during the war of independence in 1971. As a new country, it lacked basic
infrastructure and institution.

To understand how Bangladesh has performed, it’s a good
idea to look at a number of individual development outcomes rather than just
looking at the HDI; otherwise, we may miss some interesting details. Bangladesh
stands out in terms of progress in female secondary schooling, fertility
decline and two health indicators, namely infant mortality and child
immunization, which, if compared with India and Pakistan, looks extra-ordinary.
In secondary school
enrolment of female
Bangladesh was far below in 1980 but has
surpassed the developing countries’ average in 26 years while its per capita
income has remained below India, Pakistan and developing country average.  Over 1981-85, infant
mortality in Bangladesh was much higher than that in India and Pakistan but it
fell from the percentile rank of 92 to 54 in cross-country data in 2010
while it rose in Pakistan from 80 to 85 and it fell in India only slightly (77–75) in
the same period. Bangladesh surpassed India in infant mortality by the end of 1990s when
per capita income and rate of growth were much higher in India. The
immunization rate in Bangladesh increased from 1% in
the early 1980s to over 70% within ten years. Dramatic increase in contraception
prevalence (from 10 to 60 over 1980-2010, which became 30 for Pakistan
and 53 for India in 2005) has been
followed by a sharp decline in female fertility.
Bangladesh development described above is exceptional also because its government
expenditures on health and education
as percentage of GDP have
remained low— lower than India and Pakistan.

For a country to achieve such social and human
development, good governance is essential because delivery of services in health
sector, utilization of funds in health, education and family planning are
directly related to the quality of governance but governance in Bangladesh has
remained extremely poor.

In an effort to find the factors which have contributed
to this surprising development some
scholars
put forward the fact that no other countries have such wide
and extensive community-based NGO programmes as Bangladesh has, which offer
free and/or low-cost education, healthcare, low-cost solutions (to diseases)
such as ore saline,  natural birth
control technique. The dissemination of this knowledge has been expedited and
spread by the improvement of transportation (e.g. significant increase in paved
road coverage) and communication
(e.g. extensive use of cell phone) creating a multiplier effect. Health
outcomes and reduction in fertility have been accelerated by exceptional increases
in literacy rate and school enrolment of female which are much higher than the
same income level countries. Women empowerment which played a key role in
development, has transpired through NGOs which target mainly women, expansion
of garments industry where 80% are women, election of larger number of females
as people’s representative in all layers. 
Awareness programmes on health, education, birth control, women’s rights
launched by the government and NGO’s through various media, have contributed to
the development outcomes.

Rapid urbanization taking place in Bangladesh, has
promoted a huge migration from villages to towns.  According to an estimate of Bangladesh
Institute of Labour Studies, as of 2007 there are 2 million domestic workers
working in cities and towns. These workers 83% of which are females, come from
Villages. These workers living in an educated family atmosphere, learn the
modern way of life in terms of health & safety, receive education from
watching cinema, drama, awareness programmes on television and develop a desire
for better life. They disseminate this knowledge to family members and others
in villages and inspire and finance their younger siblings for schooling. This
process is even wider and stronger in garment sector where more than 5.1 million
rural workers work in towns.  

How has it been possible for Bangladesh to gain such
development outcomes with such poor governance? The view that corruption may
have positive effect on economic growth, does not fit here because here we
consider development outcomes (not economic activities) to which causality
might run to.  Now, what happened in
Bangladesh is: delivery of services and to some extent goods bypassed the
corrupt bureaucracy because the job was done by NGOs; therefore, poor
governance could not prevent development in Bangladesh. Bangladesh expert, Geof Wood   describes it as ‘franchising out’ of
government responsibility. Another example provides support to this view: to
facilitate and expedite the activities in garment sector Bangladesh Garment
Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) opened an office inside its
corporate building, which has been delegated power by the government to issue
and deliver all documents required for manufacturing and trading. It has been
possible by an agreement between the association and the government. Here BGMEA
office has been doing what was supposed to be done by a government office
bypassing regulatory burden and corrupt bureaucracy. When Avinash
Dixit
suggests that if private sector investors were united, they
would be able to get around the corrupt bureaucracy if they wished, he actually
emphasizes the necessity of reducing reliance on bureaucracy.

To overcome the problem of poor governance and corruption
is not easy— not possible in a short time. Therefore, as long as
bureaucracy remains inefficient and corrupt, involving NGOs and private sector
in the delivery of certain services and public goods may be a short-term
solution.  However, at the same time, it
should be noted that NGO
involvement does not address the structural
causes of poverty, deprivation and inequality
, which is reflected in
the fact that there has been the highest
rate (17.3) of growth of ultra-rich
people in Bangladesh from 2012
to 2017 in the world while Bangladesh
is still having 24.1 million ultra-poor
people who fail to earn even
$1.90 a day.  NGOs
have not enabled peasants to shift
significantly to a new (non-firm) sector and develop new occupations, and thus
have not done much in reducing structural
unemployment
. Therefore, reducing reliance on NGOs and developing governance
and institution, and reforming political and economic structure is a must for
sustaining growth and development in Bangladesh in the long run.   


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Author: N N Tarun Chakravorty

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