The Financial Express


Reflections on Bangladesh's development journey

Reflections on Bangladesh's development journey

In order to commemorate the birth centenary of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) has published two volumes of Readings in Bangladesh Development. It is a set of selected research papers, written over the past 50 years after Bangladesh independence, on many critical aspects of the country's development journey.

The volumes are edited by Dr K.A.S. Murshid, former Director General (DG) of BIDS along with Dr Minhaj Mahmud and Dr Kazi Iqbal, two senior research fellows at the country's leading think tank. The editors explain the objective of their tribute-based venture by saying, "As a development research organisation engaged in academic and policy-oriented work, the choice seemed obvious. The greatest honour that we as researchers could think of was to dedicate our hard labour to the memory of the Father of the Nation."

In the foreword, former DG of BIDS, Professor Rehman Sobhan reminds us of the importance of policy-oriented research for a nation and BIDS's contribution to that endeavour. The eminent economist writes, "The research capacity generated by BIDS over the last 50 years is itself a measure of the significant accumulation of intellectual capital within an independent Bangladesh. While our political leaders and policymakers may measure significant growth and structural change realised in an independent Bangladesh, we should keep in mind that the enhancement of knowledge and skills through research is no less important in the course of our development journey."

The volumes contain seminal works done by BIDS alumni which were published in peer-reviewed journals. The articles are relevant towards addressing the development challenges faced over the years. The authors of the Volume-I are: Mohiuddin Alamgir, Lodwijk J. J. B. Berlage, Swadesh R. Bose, Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, Chowdhury Anwaruzzaman, Nurul Islam, Abu Abdullah, Sultan Hafeez Rahman, Mahabub Hossain, M. Asaduzzaman, Rehman Sobhan, Abu Ahmed Abdullah, Wahiduddin Mahmud, S. R. Osmani, M. R. Khan, K.A.S. Murshid, Atiqur Rahman, Nuimuddin Choudhury, Omar Haider Chowdhury, Simeen Mahmud, K.M. Matin, Zaid Bakht, Debapriya Bhattacharya, Rushidan Islam Rahman, Shahidur R. Khandker, Ben Crow, Raisul Awal Mahmood, Rita Afsar and Kazi Ali Toufique.

Thus the Volume-I contains 25 articles contributed by BIDS' first generation of scholars beginning with the post-Liberation period and extending up to the year 2000. The selected papers in this volume primarily focuses on food, agriculture, and rural development; manufacturing industry; population studies; migration; and domestic and external resource management.

Under the theme of food, agriculture and rural development, S R Bose (1973) focuses on the alarming price spiral that transpired in the aftermath of the Liberation War. He investigates the extent of price destablisation and the main reasons behind such a phenomenon, i.e. 'scarcity premia' or rising costs. Mohiuddin Alamgir and Berlage (1973) examined the implications for (aid) imports and food price policy while attempting to anticipate the evolving food situation and proposing policies to stabilise cereal prices amidst uncertain supplies.

K.A.S. Murshid (1986) focuses on an important aspect of food policy, i.e. cereal output fluctuations. In his research, three specific questions were investigated, including the magnitude and trends of instability, their variation over space and by crops, and whether these processes were random. Substantial variations by crops and districts were identified along with some evidence of non-randomness especially in the case of HYV rice. In 1994, Murshid along with Ben Chow identified the abiding power relationships at the local level that is likely to hinder policy processes subsumed under the structural adjustment reforms.

The efficacy of the public food distribution system (referred to as rationing erstwhile) during the eighties and nineties was evaluated by Nuimuddin Choudhury (1989). He argued that the urban rationing during that time was mainly beneficial to the non-poor. Hence, he recommended the abolition of these programmes. He concluded, "The paper argues that the economic mobility, frequently founded on tacit governmental "subsidies" of upper and middle-classes has led to fallouts to the benefits of low-income households too, in the SR areas. Hence, the observation that statutory rationing in Bangladesh mainly caters to the non-poor." (p 486)

Under the theme of the manufacturing industry, four papers were selected. Among them, two focused on the seventies, one on the eighties and the nineties each. After the nationalisation of the major industries in the aftermath of the Liberation War, there was a paradigm shift in the manufacturing sector. This new status quo needed to be carefully examined. Q.K. Ahmed and Chowdhury Anwaruzzaman (1973) reports inefficient use of resources and poor productivity in jute, cotton textiles, cigarette manufacturing and manufacturing of matches. The plight of the manufacturing sector from the seventies-nineties is analysed by Rehman Sobhan in two of his articles.  He calls for an environment for change: "We need to ensure that entrepreneurs who invest their own funds and demonstrate initiative are not hindered in their enterprise and are aided by public resources. In contrast, rent seeking operators who seek to appropriate public funds but do not repay it are made accountable to the people." (p 603)

The Volume-II of the publication covers the twenty-first century. The selected papers focus on the micro evidence related to the drivers of Bangladesh's development, including manufacturing performance, investments in infrastructure and ICT, NGOs and microcredit, women empowerment and social outcomes. The papers also focus on the importance of good governance, issues of political instability, urbanisation, climate change risks etc.

The authors of volume II are Atiur Rahman, Abdur Razzaque, Paul A. Dorosh, Quazi Shahabuddin, Muhammad Saifur Rahman, Hossain Zillur Rahman, Simeen Mahmud, Binayak Sen, Rehman Sobhan, Sajjad Zohir, Anwara Begum, Jean-Paul Faguet, Zulfiqar Ali, Nazneen Ahmed, Jack H. M. Peerlings, Mustafa K. Mujeri, Sayera Younus, Zaid Bakht, Tatsufumi Yamagata, Mohammad Yunus, Shahidur R. Khandker, Gayatri B. Koolwal, Omar Haider Chowdhury, S.R. Osmani, Naoko Shinkai, Monzur Hossain, Sarah Bridges, David Lawson, Sharifa Begum, Kazi Ali Toufique, Ben Bolton, Minhaj Mahmud, Yasuyuki Sawada, K.A.S. Murshid, Nadine Shaanta Murshid, Azreen Karim, Ilan Noy, Reshad N. Ahsan and Kazi Iqbal.

The trajectory of poverty reduction of the country was investigated by Binayak Sen (2003) in his paper. He shows that poverty reduction has not been linear. He argues that defining poor and non-poor in a static sense often overlooks the inherent dynamics that can lead to systematic swings in well-being. He identifies crop intensification, agricultural diversification, off-farm activity, and livelihood migration to be the drivers of poverty reduction. Besides, he observes that shocks such as illness and natural disasters are responsible for pushing people below the poverty line. Poverty reduction has occurred because the ascending forces of poverty reduction have been dominant.

S.R. Osmani and Binayak Sen (2011) delve into the reasons behind the rising trend of inequality in rural Bangladesh during the first decade of the century. They find that distribution of income has become more unequal while consumption distribution has remained largely unchanged. They provide the following explanation for this phenomenon: "So far, widening of income inequality has not posed an obstacle to poverty reduction in rural Bangladesh because microcredit has served to decouple consumption distribution from income distribution by increasing the scope of consumption smoothing, and it is the distribution of consumption that matters for poverty." (p 551)

The paradox of strong growth amid weak governance has been an important aspect of development discourse. Rehman Sobhan (2004) focuses on the structural dimension of governance and highlights the problems embedded in social and political forces. He emphasises the importance of building a just society for good governance: "At the end of the day, the most potent weapon for promoting good governance lies in building a more just society, which democratises economic as well as political opportunity and thereby provides a stake for the most deprived to participate in the benefits of development and of better governance."

These two volumes document the crucial aspects of Bangladesh's development journey since its independence. The volumes are insightful towards understanding the challenges of different eras. The lessons learnt from the analysis of the papers also have resonance for policy formulation going forward. Hence, the collection is an appropriate tribute to the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on his birth centenary.


Tanjim-Ul-Islam is an Outreach Team Member of The Financial Express.

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