The Bangladesh paradox: why has politics performed so well for development in Bangladesh?

The Bangladesh paradox: why has politics performed so well for development in Bangladesh?

Bangladesh is widely seen as a ‘paradox’ in terms of governance and development because of the apparent imperfections of its political institutions and its leading players. It scores low/very low on many indicators of the quality of governance. It is close to the top of the global league table for corruption. But, over the last quarter of a century, it has maintained economic growth around a steady 5 to 6% per annum, has out-performed India on most social indicators and has brought down its fertility rate from more than 6 to around 2.2 births per woman. It has made great progress with the Millennium Development Goals, especially with poverty reduction but also in fields seen as especially difficult for a Muslim majority country – maternal mortality has dropped dramatically and girls match/outnumber boys at primary school level. Its government disaster management programs have reduced deaths from super-cyclones by more than 99% (they used to drown up to 500,000 people in the 1970s but now mortality levels are well below 5000).
 
This briefing paper examines why and how political processes in Bangladesh have performed so well when the main theories of governance and development would predict economic and social stagnation. Using the lens of ‘political settlements’ ‘... the balance or distribution of power between contending social groups and social classes, on which any state is based’ ESID’s work has analyzed the country’s recent experience in education, health, women’s empowerment and economic growth.
 
The paper explores the way in which three areas of elite interaction – competitive politics, the pursuit of economic opportunities and social provisioning – have created formal and informal institutions and public policies that have supported social progress and economic ‘deals’ that have ensured growth. Political and economic alignments across competing elites have often meant that interests and ideas have supported national advancement. While the actions (and/or inactions) of Bangladeshi leaders and political and business elites are at the heart of these processes, transnational influences and external actors – aid agencies, investors, businessmen and INGOs – have proved important in several fields at key moments.
 
However, since 2013 there has been a shift in the political settlement away from the multi-party competitive form, in which goods and services are exchanged for political support, towards a dominant party form. This means there are no grounds for complacency. Whether the contemporary dominant party model can continue to achieve the governance-development paradox that has seen the country make economic and social progress is a major cause for concern. Politics in independent Bangladesh have always been imperfect: but, can the post-2013 forms of political imperfection continue to deliver national development?
 
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