Why you shouldn’t get riled up about The New York Times op-ed on Bangladesh
The NY Times opinion piece written by Nick Kristof came out on March 10 and it has already caused a stir. Whereas the regime loyalists are considering it as an indication of success of the current government, others are reacting in a different way -- some of them are angry, frustrated, and are trying their best to reject the overall message of the article without even understanding its basic premise and key arguments.
To them, any success of Bangladesh should not be celebrated because that may legitimize the current regime and, from that perspective, opposing or denouncing the regime is the key, even if that requires ignoring or discarding the country’s achievements.
Understanding the argument
To understand why people from different political spectrums are reacting differently, let us first consider Kristof’s argument. He touted Bangladesh’s success in poverty reduction (especially in child poverty), talked about the country’s economic growth, pointed out its achievement in different social and human development indicators, and identified two key reasons behind these successes -- education and women empowerment.
Overall, it is difficult to disagree with Kristof. Yes, there are questions about the country’s economic growth -- there is concern about the quality of data, and most economists have already pointed out (and agreed) that the pathway Bangladesh has taken to ensure its growth is not sustainable, the foundation upon which the economy is striving (apparently) is extremely weak, institutions are faltering, and everyone needs to be concerned about the state and future of the economy.
Therefore, it is logical to question the NY Times story of economic growth and, if the story was only about economic growth, it was logical to ignore it completely.
But the piece is not about that. It is about something more and that “something more” is the story that explains the success of Bangladesh. The important thing to consider is this -- for this “something more,” all the political parties of Bangladesh can and should claim credit. It probably tells you something not only about the nature of political culture or the parties but also about their supporters and “thinkers,” when they decide to focus more on assigning blames, rejecting the article, or completely ignoring it.
Just the basic facts
Whether we like it or not, poverty reduction has indeed taken place. Just look at the data: Poverty headcount ratio (upper poverty line and % of population) has decreased steadily from 48.9% in 2000 and 31.5% in 2010 to the current rate of 24.3%.
The lower poverty line head count ratio also went down from 17.6% in 2010 to 12.9%. If data doesn’t satisfy you, if you need anecdotes, some pictures or images, either talk to the development workers (working in the field), the development partners, or go to the remote villages. You will see the change.
However, we need to be careful. After everything, after all our efforts, about one-third of our total population is still poor, inequality is on the rise, and a weak governance structure where political space for opposing voices has disappeared is threatening our achievements in poverty reduction.
However, one can of course argue about the pace and nature of poverty reduction. It is logical to suggest that we could have done more. We can argue that what we have achieved so far has nothing to do with the political actors or their policies, or more specifically, the current regime.
One may also claim that our current state of poverty reduction is the outcome of “natural progression” -- it would have happened even if we did nothing. All are good points, arguments that should be considered, but none of these can deny the fact that we have made progress.
A multi-sectoral approach for a multi-dimensional concept
And I would vehemently oppose any assertion that says that the political actors have nothing to do with it. Anyone who studies development knows or understands that poverty is a multi-dimensional concept, and reducing or tackling poverty requires a multi-sectoral approach -- actions/activities/programs directed at different sectors, be it health, nutrition, education, child development, trade, commerce, or employment.
And here is where the political parties’ contribution over the last 50 years stands out -- we could not have been where we are if the current (and the previous) governments did not come up with the necessary policies and programmatic interventions.
Without the National Drug Policy (designed and developed during the Ershad regime), our drug prices would have skyrocketed; without the Compulsory Primary Education Act of 1990, we could not have achieved what we have (and something that Kristof pointed out); without BNP’s decision to liberalize and privatize the economy, without its emphasis on the VAT policy, our economic turnaround would not have started.
And without the Awami League’s focus on social safety net (National Social Security Strategy in 2015) and nutrition (Food Security and Nutrition Policy of 1997 followed by National Nutrition Policy of 2015), we would not have been here, doing well in different social development indicators. Let’s not also forget how different non-state actors have worked with the government to make this success happen.
For example, let us consider the case of nutrition. In the 90s, Bangladesh was considered the “Asian Enigma” -- a country with an alarmingly high rate of stunting, referring to the state of being underweight among children under five years old. In 1996-97, 55% of children under the age of five were stunted. The development partners, the NGOs working at the grassroots, and the academics managed to draw the attention of the government, and finally, the Food Security and Nutrition Policy was developed in 1997.
In line with that particular policy (Food Security and Nutrition Policy of 1997), Bangladesh performed well. The stunting rate continued to decline. But by 2007, it became clear to many that the policy had run its course. The nutrition question and equation changed, and the policy (and resultant interventions) was not addressing that.
Consequently, the academics, the development partners, and the NGOs started pushing for a new policy which they argued should focus not only on food availability but also on “utilization,” dietary diversity, women empowerment, awareness raising, and others. Today, Bangladesh is considered as the “Other Asian Enigma” -- a country that has made a turnaround in just 20 years, reducing from a stunting rate in the high 50s (55%) to a stunting rate in the high 20s or low 30s (31% as per NIPORT and 28% as per MICS).
Now, here is the question: Is that enough? No.
Around one-third of our children under five still suffering from stunting is not good, but it is still progress made from a period when half of them were stunted. Should we be happy? We should but not complacent as we have miles to go.
Who should claim credit? Well, who shouldn’t?
The academics, who wrote in the mid-2000s that nutrition is not about food availability only but also about food utilization and dietary diversity should claim credit. The NGOs who worked in the field and saw how dietary diversity and women’s empowerment are changing dynamics of nutrition should claim credit.
The NGOs and research think-tanks that produced the necessary evidence to point out the limitations of the existing policy and identify possible interventions should claim credit. The civil society organizations (CSOs) and the development partners (DPs) who created pressure on the government about changes in policies and approaches should claim credit.
The political party that responded to the pressure should do the same and so should the other political parties that decided to continue with the previous policies and approaches while understanding their significance.
And more importantly, credit should go to that mother who decided to diversify her household’s diet, defying her husband or in-laws when she got some money in her hand. And this is not the case for nutrition only -- this has happened in education, social safety net, child mortality, maternal mortality, and in different other domains.
It is important to note that Kristof, in that particular op-ed, completely ignored the contribution of political actors and parties. In fact, he made it clear when he said, “Bangladesh hasn’t had great political leaders.” Kristof clearly did not acknowledge the contribution of the political actors in making the “Bangladesh case” happen and he did not take under consideration the policy climate of Bangladesh. In my opinion, these two are the key defining factors in explaining Bangladesh’s success and these are the very reasons the US or many other countries would not manage to replicate Bangladesh’s success.
Acknowledge the government machinery
The thing is, we can give credit to all the NGOs and the CSOs or the DPs but we need to acknowledge the contribution of the government machinery, ie, the bureaucracy.
We, those of us who do always consider the government (of both the parties) to be wasteful, problematic, and corrupt, need to understand something -- without a policy and political environment enabled by the government, we could not have achieved anything. All the NGO and CSO efforts would have been “case studies” or “pocket success” stories until and unless they were picked up by the government, scaled up, and implemented at the national level.
And here is where Bangladesh’s story is different to the US and here is why, the US cannot follow Bangladesh’s model -- in Bangladesh, whereas significant disagreements are there among the political parties (or between the two key parties) about identity politics, cultural issues, or some specific economic issues, in general, there is a broad agreement about the role of the state, the state’s responsibility towards citizens, and state intervention.
Both the parties largely agree on the necessity of welfare policies, both consider the state’s intervention useful for making lives easier, and in the social and welfare policy domain, you will not find significant differences.
Let me just give one example: The scale and scope of social safety net programs (which has played probably the most important role in poverty reduction) have always expanded in Bangladesh even when alternation of power has taken place. When the AL introduced elderly allowances in 1997/98, BNP did not end it after coming to power, instead it expanded its coverage and diverted more resources.
There is, of course, a certain “politics of social provision” involved in this, but the bottom line is that both the parties agree about the role of state in poverty reduction and addressing social and human development. Without this agreement, Bangladesh would not have been here.
The thing is, at the end of the day, supporters of the opposition parties should not try to reject this op-ed. Instead, they can acknowledge what the country has done, what it has achieved, and then can point out how they have made a contribution.
We need to understand something. When we talk about democratic deficit, we do consider the history and the pathway that different political parties took at different points in time which brought us here and in that same tune, we need to consider the contribution of successive governments in helping us reach here.
Only then, it would be possible to identify the limitations of our current policies/ interventions and look for better policies.
Asif M Shahan, PhD is an Associate Professor, Department of Development Studies, University of Dhaka.