How Bangladesh is developing without riches

TOPSHOT - A man wearing a facemask amid concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, rides a motorbike through a street, in Dhaka on March 15, 2020. / AFP / Munir Uz zaman

The country's political turbulence and lack of resources have not stopped it from achieving major improvements in quality of life

On March 26, Bangladesh will celebrate its independence, marking the day in 1971 when the government of President Yahya Khan in Islamabad launched a murderous total war against his citizens in what was then East Pakistan.

That war ended almost exactly nine months later, with a new country emerging with the help of Indian and the newly created Bangladeshi forces. Unfortunately, the new country was so utterly ravaged by man-made and natural disasters that it was regarded for decades as the textbook case of chronic poverty and underdevelopment in the global south.

Yet, Bangladesh today is one of South Asia's development success stories, with sustained growth of more than eight per cent and social indicators that are beginning to outstrip the rest of the region. It is also a country where more so than anywhere else in the region the independent press and opposition parties have withered away into near irrelevance.

So the question is, has Bangladesh left the "South Asian model" of intensely competitive politics and religious passions, and embraced a "Chinese model" of one-party rule and performance-based legitimacy?

The short answer is no. Bangladesh continues to wrestle with the question of whether it wants to be a secular or religious nation-state, and does not have an outstanding record on minority relations. The various periods of de jure or de facto single-party rule have all eventually collapsed. Meanwhile, the idea of democracy remains deeply rooted even when individual governments have their mandate revoked. But what Bangladesh also has is a tradition of unapologetic and unpredictable rebellion from any quarter of society that feels let down by its rulers.

It is worth remembering the legacy that Bangladeshis have overcome. Bengal was where the British East India Company first got into the business of empire in the 1750s, creating one of the most cruelly extractive corporate regimes the world has ever witnessed. The lives of Bengal’s small and landless peasantry, often Muslim, mattered little to successive ruling classes, whether British or South Asian. They died by the nameless millions in famines brought on by drought, flooding and war but most of all by over-taxation and contemptuous neglect.

Unsurprisingly, Bengal is also where modern republican ideas first arrived in South Asia more than a century ago – the belief that the power belonged to the people, and that all people deserve equal rights. Close on their heels came revolutionary militancy – a belief in the legitimacy of any action by the people to seize those rights from the rulers.

Bengalis at Kushtia, East Pakistan on April 8, 1971. Kushtia is 30 miles east of the Indian border and 105 miles northeast of Calcutta, where East Pakistan Liberation Forces appear to be controlling much of the area. (AP Photo/Michel Laurent)

These ideas might have started out circulating mostly among bomb-throwing upper-caste university students in the early 1900s. But by 1968, even the poorest members of society were ready to stand up en masse against the government of Field Marshal Ayub Khan. Mass-mobilisation was achieved on a scale that made the province ungovernable, ending technocratic rule in Pakistan and forcing its first ever general elections. And when Pakistan’s government refused to honour the results of those polls, the Bengalis of East Pakistan revolted.

So it has gone ever since. Bangladesh has lurched between civilian- and military-led autocracies since 1971, with periods of genuine competitive multi-party democracy in between.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina flashes a victory sign as she speaks to the media persons after casting her vote in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018. Voting began Sunday in Bangladesh's contentious parliamentary elections, seen as a referendum on what critics call Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's increasingly authoritarian rule. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

Unlike Iran, for instance, no single group in Bangladesh has ever truly been able to appropriate the authority of the revolution. As a result, while rulers have been often able to suppress their political rivals for long stretches, they have had far less luck with the people. Whether from the street or the lower ranks of the state, Bangladesh has faced uprisings and disorder when governments have failed to govern effectively or equitably. Some convulsions, such as the February 2009 mutiny by the Border Guards' enlisted men in the heart of Dhaka, have been both extraordinarily violent and opaque in its exact causes – even to Bangladeshis.

During this same turbulent period, Bangladesh achieved truly outstanding improvements in quality of life indicators such as female literacy, child and maternal mortality despite only modest increases in wealth. In fact, the results have been so good that social scientists have struggled to account for it.

DHAKA, BANGLADESH - MARCH 08: Women attend a candlelight vigil in the early hours of March 8, 2020 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. International Women's Day is observed on March 8 every year, celebrating the achievements of women around the world. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images) *** BESTPIX ***

The best explanation available is that whether out of self-preservation or popular solidarity, Bangladesh’s governments since independence have been sensible enough to get out of the way of the international community’s efforts to help the Bangladeshi people help themselves.

Perhaps it has also helped that Bangladesh lost much of its rural landlord class during Partition in 1947, unlike Pakistan and India; perhaps it also helped that it had a smaller, less entrenched business caste. This is of course changing with the success of the textile and garment industries in the global marketplace. Under such circumstances, the emergence of the country's very first billionaires is as much of a cause for caution as it is celebration.

As inequality and expectations grow, the state will increasingly be expected to do more. Simply facilitating international donors will not be enough. And of course for the state to do more, especially if it is to meet the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, it will have to develop the political will to tax its newly wealthy and spend on health, education and general welfare. If it does not, the notion will take hold that the government has failed its people. If that were to become the case, it is more than likely that Bangladesh’s history of people power, celebrated so passionately every March 26, will repeat itself.

Johann Chacko is a writer and South Asia analyst

Johann Chacko

Johann Chacko

Johann Chacko is a writer and South Asia analyst