The country has come a long way since the 70s
It is not often that Bangladesh is mentioned in international media. If there is news about the country, it is usually about a political crisis, natural disasters, or spectacular accidents.
This is unfortunate since Bangladesh has enjoyed steady and strong economic growth in recent decades which has benefited a large proportion of the country’s 165 million inhabitants. Within a few years, Bangladesh is expected to become a middle-income country.
When Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan in 1971, it was one of the poorest countries in the world. What are the reasons for the strong economic growth that has benefited broad strata of the population?
I have been following the development in Bangladesh for over 40 years. During the latter half of 1970, I worked as a visiting research fellow at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies in Dhaka and participated in a major national poverty study.
I was a social anthropologist and did fieldwork in a typical village for weeks and months at a time over a 4-year period. People in the village were impoverished and were depending largely on employment and income from the agricultural sector.
This was the case for most people in the country’s 60,000 villages at that time. The agricultural sector was characterized by simple technology and the output was very low. There were few jobs outside agriculture.
In the 1970s, the World Bank estimated that 70-80% of the population of Bangladesh lived below the poverty line. What characterized the poverty situation in the country more than 40 years ago?
I saw poverty daily in the village where I lived among my closest neighbours. It was primarily lack of food.
Many poor families only ate one or two meals a day for long periods of the year. Few people could afford to buy chicken, meat, or fish. The nutritional situation was very bad, and many people became weak and ill. Child mortality was high and life expectancy short.
One did not have to look far to find other evidence of deep poverty. Many people did not have access to clean water and the sanitary conditions were miserable. The poor had only a few worn clothes, and the utensils and furniture were of the simplest kind.
The public health and education services in the village were very bad. Almost no girls attended primary school.
The international aid organizations and the Bangladesh authorities were pessimistic about the future for the country. This made Bangladesh one of the countries in the world that received most international aid during the 1970s and 1980s.
After many years of absence from Bangladesh, I returned in 2009 to the country and the village I had lived in during the late 1970s. I was very happily surprised to see the positive economic and social transformation that had occurred in the village.
I decided that I wanted to do a restudy of the village and during the period between 2010 and 2016, I again conducted fieldwork in the village on various occasions. I interviewed the same families I knew from the 1970s.
Many of the old and grown-up people I knew from the past were dead, but I talked with their children who all recognized me. All families had a significantly higher standard of living.
A green revolution had taken place in agriculture and a new winter crop of rice was grown where the land had previously been lying fallow. The daily wage for an agricultural worker had increased by 5-10 times since the late 1970s.
Nobody starved anymore and the poor and landless ate three meals a day and there was money left after the food had been purchased.
The increased material standard in the village was easily visible. The houses that people lived in were built of corrugated aluminium sheets or brick, not bamboo and straw as before. People had enough clothes and much better tools and equipment in their homes.
The village had received electricity and all the families in the village were connected. Half of the families had bought televisions, and almost everyone had a radio and a mobile phone. Many families had their own water pump and the sanitary conditions had improved.
In their homestead plot, many families in the village had several cows, goats, chicken, a vegetable garden, and fruit trees. Women earned their own income by selling milk, fruits, and vegetables in the market.
Not at least, many people in the village benefited from the new job opportunities that had been created outside agriculture. One-third of the men in the village worked, or had worked, in the Middle East and sent money back to their families.
Many young women worked in the textile industry in the capital -- Dhaka -- and contributed to the family’s economy.
The public education and health system had also improved significantly. The village school was nicely refurbished. All the children attended primary school and most completed and continued to secondary school.
A few decades ago, women moved little outside the home. Much of the family’s honour was linked to keeping women and young girls in purdah, tucked away from public space. Today, girls and women have become far more “visible” and active in new areas of the village.
In the morning and afternoon, the roads in the village were full of girls in fine school uniforms with books under their arms. This was an unthinkable sight 40 years ago. Many girls received scholarships paid by the government and international donors to attend school.
Health professionals visited the village regularly. All children received a vaccination book. One nurse told us that 80% of young married couples in the village used family planning methods.
In addition to the delivery of public services, the large NGOs (voluntary organizations) were present in the village. Grameen Bank, which together with its founder Professor Muhammed Yunus received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, gave micro-credit to poor women.
BRAC -- the world’s largest NGO -- provided education to adult illiterates and work for women, including clothes sewed for the national market. Much of the progress of women is due to their participation in training provided by the many voluntary organizations in the village.
How representative is the development of this village compared to what is currently 88,000 villages in the country?
All national statistics confirm that the changes I saw in the village I studied have to a large extent occurred in most of the villages in Bangladesh.
The green revolution has taken place across much of the country. Total rice production has increased from 12 million tons in the 1970s to 36mn tons today. Bangladesh is more than self-sufficient in grain and can today export rice.
The daily wages in agriculture in 2019 have multiplied in most places in the country. Most people eat three meals a day throughout the year. The textile industry with its associated subcontractors employs many millions, especially women.
Within a few years, Bangladesh is expected to pass China and become the world’s largest exporter of textiles.
Today, 10 million people, mostly young men, are migrant workers and send back $15bn a year to their families. Most work in the Middle East. Life expectancy in Bangladesh has increased from 59 years to 72 years over a 40-year period.
Now, women give birth to an average of 2.3 children compared to 6 children in the 1970s. Almost all children are vaccinated, and all go to school. Bangladesh reached most of the Millennium Development Goals set by the UN.
Infrastructure has improved across the country. Huge bridges are built across the great rivers, Brahmaputra and Ganges, and link the country together. Bangladesh has become a large construction site.
No other developing country has given the voluntary organizations so much room for action. The large NGOs, Grameen Bank, and BRAC implement their development programs in most of the 88,000 villages in the country; 20 million women participate in micro-credit programs.
The traditional money lenders in the villages who operated with usury rates belong to the past. In addition to the large NGOs, there are many thousands of other NGOs that play an important role in providing various services in education, health, awareness-raising, technical knowledge, and micro-credit across the country.
In no developing country have the NGOs played such an important role in the development of a country.
NGOs in Bangladesh have become a model for NGOs in other countries and the NGOs of Bangladesh export their ideas and working methods to NGOs worldwide. Not at least, the status of women has changed as a result of NGO work.
What is the reason Bangladesh has largely succeeded in its development over the last decades?
Many would argue that an important reason is that the country has been integrated into the international labour market and that international companies are now investing in the country and creating millions of jobs for poor people.
Another reason is that the most important development actors: Government, NGOs, and international donors have managed to cooperate well.
The government of Bangladesh, unlike many other developing countries, has allowed NGOs to operate in many sectors across the country and international donors have provided financial support to many of these programs.
What role have foreign donor organizations played in Bangladesh? After independence, international donors poured much money into the country with the WB in the lead. For many years, much of the country’s development budget was funded by aid.
The assistance went to agricultural development, infrastructure, health, education, and large voluntary organizations. There is little doubt that aid mainly played a positive role. A lot of expertise was created, and many investments were made during the 1970s and 1980s.
As economic growth accelerated, aid declined. The voluntary organizations are today largely self-financed. Western embassies, formerly mainly engaged in development assistance and development programs, are now mostly engaged in creating business cooperation between their own country’s business companies and the companies in Bangladesh.
Is the development in Bangladesh a sunshine story? To a large extent it is, but not only: The WB has estimated that in 2019, 9% of the population, approx 15 million people still live in extreme poverty (income below $1.90 per day) and still tens of millions of people live close to the poverty line.
Bangladesh is also facing great challenges: The country is located in the world’s largest delta region and is already strongly affected by climate change. Corruption in the country is still widespread at all levels.
There has been a long time since the country has had free political elections and there are many cases of human rights violations. It is mainly these issues we learn about Bangladesh from the international media.
But, as this article has shown, Bangladesh has achieved very much for its population during the last decades. This development also deserves attention and recognition in the international media.
Eirik G Jansen has a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Oslo. He has worked as a researcher and development aid administrator in Bangladesh for many years. He has written several books about the country. His latest book is: Seeing the End of Poverty? Bhaimara Revisited published by the University Press Limited, Dhaka in 2019. This article was first published in a major Norwegian newspaper, Klassekampen, on September 28, 2019.