The Aid Lab

Elite commitment matters

If we really want to understand why Bangladesh sets the global standard for poverty reduction we need to properly understand the role of politics — not only as a fig leaf for when times are hard, but also to explain what has worked. More specifically, we need to make sense of the political settlement, or effective agreements between the elites as to how to share the spoils of power, and what those mean for poverty and inclusive development. As Mushtaq Khan has convincingly argued, Bangladesh’s development success owes much to how the elites managed to coordinate enough to permit broad-based economic growth.

But Bangladesh’s pattern of development has been poverty-reducing, partly because of its strong emphasis on human development, particularly for women. And to explain that, we have to understand why Bangladesh’s elites agreed that it was so vital to tackle poverty head-on, and to ensure that the poor rural masses got at least some modicum of protection against the elements and the vicissitudes of life on the Bengal Delta. I tell the story of this elite settlement in my book The Aid Lab: Understanding Bangladesh’s Unexpected Success, available from Oxford University Press.

The emergence of the aid lab

My own analysis of the politics of Bangladesh’s unexpected development success is less congratulatory of the aid industry and its clever prescriptions. It is also an altogether uglier story of how the international community applied “lifeboat ethics” to justify their neglect of the 1.5 million victims of the 1974 famine in Bangladesh, and of the violent aftermath of that particularly tragic period in Bangladesh’s history.

My reconstruction of the political history of that time concludes that an elite consensus emerged that committed the Bangladeshi ruling class to protecting the rural masses against the crises of subsistence and survival that so frequently swept their way. This elite consensus included accepting the painful conditions that came with foreign aid, because without external support, the short-term survival of the country, let alone of the political elite, looked bleak.

And it meant letting aid experts treat Bangladesh as a kind of laboratory for aid, in which they often treated as the targets and objects of development, instead of as people with rights, agency, and autonomy. It may have got the Bangladeshi people into the global market, but it has done so on terms that are precarious, at best.

And so the World Bank, and the aid community in general, has little to congratulate itself for treating Bangladesh as the world’s aid lab. It should instead look again at the politics that underpin successful transitions. And it should take more seriously not only where development is taking us, but the ethics of how we are to get there. If Bangladesh was really the test case for development, what does that say about development?

Schooling the Poor

Thanks to Naila Kabeer who got me interested in the issue, I ended up doing a lot of research on the surprising successes of mass education in Bangladesh. In the 2000s, this was a lot about why and how the Government and the mega NGOs like BRAC managed to get so many poor kids into school, in particular girls, when other places, including many richer and better organised than Bangladesh, did less well. These are some of the papers I wrote with or based on work with Naila and Ramya Subrahmanian:

The Politics of Educational Expansion in Bangladesh (2003)

Achieving universal primary education and eliminating gender disparity (2004)

Expanding access to education in Bangladesh, chapter in Ending Poverty in South Asia: ideas that work (edited by D. Narayan and E. Glinskaya, 2007)

I later worked on the more nitty gritty issues of the governance of educational expansion in Bangladesh, including a couple of very good rich multi-sited case studies that looked at accountability and performance in close detail.

School choice in Bangladesh (2008) made a close study of the implications of the growing range of availability of school types, and of why people choose the schools they do for their children.

Governance, management and performance in health and education facilities (2006) was an in-depth study of how schools and clinics were being managed and governed, a qualitative component of a larger Public Expenditure Tracking Survey of government services in Bangladesh. This study’s important finding that in the absence of much formal good governance, informal accountability mechanisms were how people tended to hold public services accountable got me started thinking about rude accountability in the first place.

In 2006, with support from Lamia Rashid then at Save the Children UK in Bangladesh, and with colleagues at BRAC Research and Evaluation Division I led a study called Inheriting Extreme Poverty on how children inherit their parents’ poverty, and the role of communities, social institutions and education systems in making that happen. I remained interested in the politics of child labour, and worked with Sheikh Tariquzzaman (now at BRAC International research unit) on this issue, including on a (2009) paper called The Boys Left Behind: where public policy has failed to prevent child labour in Bangladesh.

More recent work on education in Bangladesh has involved analysing the conditional cash transfer schemes as a species of governmentalism (School exclusion as social exclusion: the practices and effects of a CCT for the poor in Bangladesh (2009)). This was part of a comparative research project led by Sam Hickey at the Chronic Poverty Research Centre. We’re currently working on another comparative study looking at education in Bangladesh, this time trying to solve the puzzle of why quality reforms have proven impossible to implement, and the role of the political settlement within that.

The Good Wife of Development

Participation, Power and Social Change Research at IDS

Naomi HossainNaomi Hossain

After a long day slaving over a warm laptop, Rosalind Eyben’s, Fellow Travellers in Development published in Third World Quarterly, dropped into my inbox. It is both charming and appalling. Read it as a specimen of aid industry history and you will see why.

Fellow Travellers in Development follows a group of Western women now reaching retirement age through their careers in ‘development’. Most didn’t think ‘development’ was what they were doing, and didn’t ‘career’ so much as tumble through an unwelcoming profession (then a job for white men only – Rosalind gets her career break ghost-writing a report for a dyslexic aid agency head). It gives an account of the macho early aid industry, filtered through the official end of white rule and the rise of ‘women’s lib’. It traces genealogies of contemporary aid thinking and practice into the present day, showing how social development ideas –…

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