By Geof Wood and Eep-Shiree
(This blog is a repost – originally written for the Daily Star)
As I write this, the monsoon in Bangladesh is well established delivering floods in the north of the country and threatening the main traditional rice crop for thousands of cultivators. If the floods persist it will be too late for new seedlings to be transplanted in time to mature for the harvest, even if seedlings were available. This will be a crushing blow for poor subsistence farmers and agricultural labourers in the region, alongside the probable rise in local cereal prices due to seasonal scarcity. These normal annual events, rather than specifically associated with climate change, are a sharp reminder of the ongoing vulnerability of 25 million poorest families all over the country who will lose employment opportunities.
This is now the fortieth anniversary of my first time in Bangladesh. A roller coaster experience. Much has changed, and some of it undoubtedly for the better. The country was in a parlous state in 1974, gripped by widespread floods and famine which persisted well into 1975, contributing to the violent political events which replaced the struggling democratic government of the Awami League with military rule. The army remained in power, de facto, until the end of 1990. With some interruptions (2006-8), civilian governments have remained in control for almost 25 years, despite the challenges of a growing population, rapid big city urbanisation and continuing widespread poverty. In response, agricultural production has significantly increased due to the introduction of late winter irrigated boro rice cultivation, a high investment but much more stable crop which has contributed strongly to food security for millions of families. This crop has thus also created millions of jobs for agricultural labourers, which, according to a recent World Bank analysis, contributes most to poverty reduction across the country. Alongside this core development, there are other more controversial sources of income and employment via the garments industry and shrimp production with attendant problems, respectively, of labour rights and environmental pollution. This participation in global markets via garments and shrimps internationalises the responsibility for these problems through the relentless demand for cheap, often quickly disposable, clothing and the fashion for international cuisine, with company representatives failing to redistribute fairly between poor producers, rich often violent middle men and their relatively rich consumers. Never was there a better case for state regulation of these industries at both ends of the supply chain.
But with this mixed picture of technological progress, and underdevelopment when in contact with the global economy, Bangladesh can also be proud of successes. It is doing well on several MDG indicators, perhaps ahead of other countries in the region. It has a rising, educated middle class searching for new standards of public conduct. It has a free and vibrant press as well as critical TV debates. The macro-economy is well managed with inflation brought down from 12 to 7%. Although a climate of political vindictiveness prevails, there are some improvements in governance and the accountability of state officials and market rent seekers with more corruption cases pursued. But perhaps above all, Bangladesh can be proud of being a development pioneer, innovating with social mobilisation through NGOs, acting as a tutor to the generations of visiting aid officials, and through the work of key public intellectuals and think tanks.
There are clearly ongoing challenges. The liberation of the country from Pakistan was a quest for a truly Bengali society, continuing its beautiful cultural and linguistic conditions and representing the aspirations of millions of poor peasants and landless labourers through a mix of state leadership and market opportunities. I recall the core principles which articulated this mix, and which advocated a secular state, while the people of Bangladesh could worship their respective faiths in the private sphere. In other words a tolerance of diversity. Obviously there are other agendas being pursued in Bangladesh, connected to wider movements elsewhere in West Asia and the Middle East. Since liberation there has been an ongoing struggle for the soul of Bangladesh in which international players have allied with their respective clients within the country. Colleagues and friends in Bangladesh have, for years, foreseen that this struggle would have to be resolved, as a precondition for the country moving forward into middle income status. From my perspective, we should be keeping the issues of rights, justice, fairness (including for women), well-being and poverty firmly in the spotlight during this present phase of that struggle. Surely, ultimately, anyone laying a claim to the soul of Bangladesh should not forsake these values. I believe they were the core motive of liberation, and I look forward to their pursuit by the present government. For me these values comprise the criteria by which any government performance should be judged. Of course in a complex society like Bangladesh, undergoing all kinds of transitions, there remain problems of rent-seeking and corruption, but there is enough evidence that a corner is being turned. In making presentations to MPs in the JS in recent years on the problem of extreme poverty in the country, I have witnessed a strong concern about poverty eradication among cabinet members and ordinary Members. Naturally there are differences of opinion about how this should best be done and in what time period. If I have learned anything from many happy but challenging times in Bangladesh, there is no single fix or panacea. A solution does not just lie in growth and trickle down via employment generation and market in-filling, not just in targeted support for small scale entrepreneurialism, not just in programmes of social protection, not just in rapid safety net responses. Blended policy is required, and different blends for different parts of the country and different types of poverty. This requires much more local, disaggregated analysis of regions of the country. It requires having that analytic capacity distributed more evenly across the country. I would like to see the regional universities playing a much stronger role in the analysis of their local environments, and applying their knowledge to disaggregated forms of blended policy. And finally, a particular hobby horse of mine, can we look afresh at the patterns of agrarian change in the country—away from the traditional farmer/sharecropper/labourer model towards more appreciation of land fragmentation and its implications for new forms of contract farming with implications for the inclusion of the poor into agricultural services markets. If we correctly understand that well-waged agricultural labour is the main key to poverty eradication, then we should focus more creative thinking in that direction.
I cannot promise another 40 years of association with Bangladesh, but I hope for a few more years at least, and to see the glass more than half full.