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The Aid LabUnderstanding Bangladesh’s Unexpected Success$

Naomi Hossain

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780198785507

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2017

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198785507.001.0001

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Bangladesh’s Surprising Success

Bangladesh’s Surprising Success

(p.3) 1 Bangladesh’s Surprising Success
The Aid Lab

Naomi Hossain

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Bangladesh plays an important ideological role in the world order: the story of its development is told as a parable of the success bred by an early and sustained commitment to economic liberalism. Bangladesh is now fêted for its advances in human development that far outstrip its meagre natural resource endowment. Chapter 1 of The Aid Lab sets out an argument about how this came about, arguing that its politics, and not its open-market policies, were central. Early on, a social contract between the elites, the masses, and their aid donors prioritized protecting the population against crises of subsistence and survival. On these foundations, human development policies and engagement in the global and local economy enabled its vast impoverished population to build more resilient livelihoods. But while the outcomes of this nation-sized experiment are celebrated, the means were not always pretty.

Keywords:   the Bangladesh Paradox, human development, economic development, politics of development, aid dependency, subsistence crises, famine, globalization

1.1 The Idea of Bangladesh

Bangladesh leaves but a light imprint on the international imagination. ‘Bangladesh—Sheikh Mujib’, said the middle-aged republican in Northern Ireland, when I explained my ethnic origins. ‘Bangladesh—Muhammad Yunus’, said the young imam in South Sumatra, Indonesia, to the same. Yes, in both cases. Also floods and climate change, Rana Plaza and that disposable shirt you have on, labour migrants, and an increasingly impressive cricket team. This may be changing, but few people without a Bangladesh connection will know more about the world’s eighth largest country.1

Relatively unimportant for politico-religious extremism, uninteresting from a geopolitical point of view, and not famous as a tourist destination either, Bangladesh punches well below its weight in terms of recognition value. And yet the country has played a major unacknowledged role in the world order as we know it. This role is ideological: the story of Bangladesh’s development is told as a parable of the success bred by an early and sustained commitment to economic liberalism. A poor, populous country chooses the path of global capitalist development, resisting many of the temptations of dirigisme opted for by so many power-happy post-colonial elites. A particularly dominant retelling of this is a fairy tale of female empowerment that has helped amplify and reinforce powerful messages about the essential rightness of global capitalist development. That Bangladesh—that notorious basket case, with its hungry millions, that byword of bywords—has dragged so much of its population out of poverty is surely proof the development experiment works. If Bangladesh can do it, anywhere can.

Many countries, in particular but not only in Asia, have enjoyed sustained economic growth rates, transforming their economies from populous resourceless (p.4) backwaters into export-oriented powerhouses, in the decades since the Second World War. Those who have visited Malaysia or Mauritius may scoff at the idea of Bangladesh’s ‘success’. But success there undeniably has been. As with other poor countries that relatively early on established the market-friendly economic reforms that laid them open to the boons of global economic integration, Bangladesh has seen sustained economic growth and significant structural transformation from a substantially agrarian base to an economy dominated by exports, chiefly of readymade garments and labour services. Through strategy, circumstance, and perhaps a little luck, these transformations from agrarian to export-oriented and industrial societies have been more pro-poor and less unequalizing than in some other countries that developed quickly. This pro-poorness is partly explained by a second feature of Bangladesh’s surprising achievement, which is its pronounced gains in the domain of human development: Bangladesh does far better on key health, education, and gender equality indicators than its income and stage of economic development would suggest. People live longer, healthier lives; have fewer children, more of whom survive to adulthood; and school more of their sons, and in particular their daughters, than in other countries at comparable levels of economic development or with similar social structures. There has been some interesting discussion of how this has come about, but to date none of why.2

The idea of Bangladesh’s development success remains contentious in some circles, not least because deprivation, ill-being, and oppression remain significant problems: almost fifty million Bangladeshis still live below the ungenerous national poverty line (BBS 2011). Yet the successes—lower infant and maternal mortality, childhood disease, and hunger; gains in mass education, women’s rights, and managing disasters—are real enough, and they made the country stand out in the international race for the Millennium Development Goals (Bhattacharya et al. 2013). They are all the more remarkable because the country started from such a low base and with such limited resources of its own. The ‘basket case’ label (famously but wrongly attributed to Henry Kissinger) may have been unkind, but it was not an inaccurate assessment of the new nation’s prospects in the aftermath of its bloody war of liberation from Pakistan in 1971.

Development success is also, in the Bangladesh case, paradoxical: its chronically unsettled politics and corrupt, captured state foretell fragility and division, not shared progress. Some scholars explain this success by showing that ‘bad’ governance can be fully compatible with economic growth if contending elites can at least hold off on disagreeing about the basis for growth and the distribution of its rewards (Khan 2013; Hassan 2013). Others argue that there (p.5) remains a puzzle, because that growth was pro-poor and accompanied by effective public and private investments in human development (Asadullah et al. 2014; Mahmud et al. 2008). It has never been obvious why an elite known best for corruption and violent winner-takes-all politics should have committed its country to a progressive, inclusive development pathway. Key questions for scholars and practitioners of development in the past decade have been: how did Bangladesh achieve human development with such weak governance? If Bangladesh did, can other countries, too?

This book argues that Bangladesh’s successes, as well as its signal governance failures, must be understood in the light of its political economy conditions. Both are best understood as the outcome of an interlocking set of agreements or contracts between key actors. This book departs from other analyses by extending the analysis downward and upward: it is not only the national elite whose interests and ideas and institutions matter, but also their relationships with the masses over whom they rule, and with the international community, on whom they depend for recognition and aid resources. The Aid Lab also departs from other analyses by historicizing the political economy of Bangladesh’s development, showing how these agreements emerged or were crafted in the aftermath of the critical event in its history. Perhaps the most important insight of the book is that this critical event was not, as might reasonably be assumed, the traumatic liberation struggle that founded the country. Instead, the origins of Bangladesh’s innovative pro-poor public action can be traced to the devastating famine it suffered in 1974, only three years after independence: as many as 1.5 million people—2 per cent of the total population, overwhelmingly the rural landless proletariat—died in this catastrophe, having already been starved, displaced, terrorized, and otherwise harmed during the liberation war of 1971.3 Shortly after, the once-heroic nationalist leader Sheikh Mujib was brutally assassinated alongside his family, and fifteen years of military rule followed. The fallout from the famine reset the terms of the development project in Bangladesh, making gross failure too costly and too painful for the ruling elite and their allies in the aid complex to countenance.

In the shadow of the 1974 famine, the agreement on development came to include, first, a ruling class consensus that their own survival depended on human development and basic social protection. This ensured that protection against natural disasters and food shocks was institutionalized as a state priority, helped protect key policies to transform the population through health and education against political competition and corruption, brought (p.6) poor rural women to the forefront of development, and ensured the elite policed themselves to deliver these essential public goods.

Second, a social contract between rulers and ruled committed the former to providing at least a basic minimum protection. This recognized the unusual degree of exposure faced by the rural landless masses to the elements, the volatilities of global markets, and the general vicissitudes of life. Basic protection meant not only support in times of crisis but also particular efforts to reach poor rural women, to raise their capacities to protect themselves. In exchange for basic protection, the masses granted legitimacy and authority—the foundations of rule. For reasons of political history and social structure, the ruling class in Bangladesh derives its legitimacy not from traditional status, religious leadership, cultural superiority, or even adherence to democratic process. A regime that fails to deliver basic protection against crises of food, flood, cyclones (and so on) lacks legitimacy, rapidly loses authority, and is vulnerable to plotting and overthrow by contending elites. At the same time, development could not proceed without the basic protections being in place in this acutely ecologically fragile and globally exposed setting. These were the lessons of the famine.

The third part of the agreement was to pursue broadly pro-market, pro-poor economic and human development strategies in return for recognition and resources from the international community. Because failure was not an option, pride in national self-determination—in a home-grown development ideology that resisted global economic integration—became an unaffordable luxury. The contending elites in the driving seat of development policy agreed their political (and actual) survival depended on making development work: ideology, political process, even culture could be jettisoned in the pursuit of growth and human progress. Whatever seemed to work could be policy. The challenges were large, numerous, and often reversible, but a clear-eyed view of what needed doing and how held across regimes of all political stripes. This included accepting aid conditions and creating space for the non-governmental action for which Bangladesh is now so fêted.

In accepting its role as the international experiment in aid, Bangladesh fulfilled its side of the development bargain with the international community. This book’s title, The Aid Lab, serves as a reminder that for the international community, Bangladesh functions and has primary purpose as a colossal human experiment in development models. In providing resources, technical knowhow, and discipline, the international community has met its part of the development contract with this least developed country, and is largely satisfied with the result. It is not only in the big question of its choice of development model that Bangladesh serves as a laboratory for aid, but also in its actual experiments with delivering services to people in great need. Bangladesh has some of the most admired and emulated approaches to public (p.7) health and fertility control; providing basic education, social protection, and credit; and tackling hunger. Because it serves as the world’s aid lab, and no doubt because its human subjects are so numerous, Bangladesh’s many innovations and experiments have been much pored over and dissected. We know a great deal about what happened here, but understand little about why.

1.2 Bangladesh as Cinderella

The idea of Bangladesh as a development success is a twenty-first-century trope, a deliberate and striking contrast to its 1970s role as the poster-child for Malthusia. Chief of the cheerleaders for international aid, Jeffrey Sachs, spotlighted Bangladesh’s development success as early as 2005:

Bangladesh was born in a war for independence against Pakistan in 1971. That year, it experienced massive famine and disarray, leading an official in Henry Kissinger’s department to famously label it ‘an international basket case’. Bangladesh today is far from a basket case [He provides illustrative statistics of human development progress]…Bangladesh shows us that even in circumstances that seem the most hopeless there are ways forward if the right strategies are applied, and if the right combination of investments is made. (Sachs 2005, 10)4

Rock star Bono wrote the foreword to Sachs’ book, which was published by Penguin and has been cited several thousand times, so let us assume his view is influential. Contrasting Bangladesh with also very poor Malawi, both of which Sachs had recently visited, the author describes a dawn vision in Dhaka of long lines of garments workers en route to the factories. He suddenly realizes they are all young women. Rich country protestors campaign for better working conditions, but they would do better to protest the trade protectionism at home that prevents more such garments jobs from being created:

These young women already have a foothold in the modern economy that is a critical, measurable step up from the villages of Malawi (and more relevant for the women, a step up from the villages of Bangladesh where most of them were born). The sweatshops are the first rung on the ladder out of extreme poverty. They give lie (sic) to the Kissinger state department’s forecast that Bangladesh is condemned to extreme poverty. (Sachs 2005, 11)

He is not unaware of the hardships these young women suffer: a newspaper article contained ‘poignant, fascinating, and eye-opening’ stories of long hours, harassment, lack of rights in the factories. But


what was most striking and unexpected about the stories was the repeated affirmation that this work was the greatest opportunity that these women could ever have imagined, and that their employment had changed their lives for the better.

Nearly all of the women interviewed had grown up in the countryside, extraordinarily poor, illiterate and unschooled, and vulnerable to chronic hunger and hardship in a domineering, patriarchal society. Had they (and their forebearers (sic) of the 1970s and 1980s) stayed in the villages, they would have been forced into a marriage arranged by their fathers, and by seventeen or eighteen, forced to conceive a child. Their trek to the cities to take jobs has given these young women a chance for personal liberation of unprecedented dimension and opportunity.

(Sachs 2005, 12)

Sachs also visited a group of rural women members of a credit group run by the non-governmental organization BRAC (formerly the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee). With their tiny food-trading businesses and beautiful saris, these women ‘presented a picture every bit as dramatic as that of the burgeoning apparel sector’ (Sachs 2005, 14). None of these women wanted more than two children, a remarkable change from the fecund situation in the 1970s, when six or seven were normal. He concludes:

Bangladesh has managed to place its foot on the first rung of the ladder of development, and has achieved economic growth and improvements of health and education partly through its own heroic efforts, partly through the ingenuity of NGOs [non-governmental organizations] like BRAC and Grameen Bank, and partly through investments that have been made, often at significant scale, by various donor governments that rightly viewed Bangladesh not as a hopeless basket case but as a country worthy of attention, care, and development assistance.

(Sachs 2005, 14)

Bangladesh is powerful as an aid-justifying idea partly because its unpromising start made any success so entirely unlikely. But the idea of Bangladesh is so powerful in the twenty-first century partly because its successes satisfy both the soft-hearted liberal and the gung-ho neoliberal. Those on the political left remain largely unconvinced, but as they play such a minor and specialized role in contemporary debates about economic development, they do not spoil my point. Despite its continuing troubles—and there remain many and new ones to come thanks to climate change—Bangladesh provides the photo op that convinces sceptical taxpayers in the West that development works and the aid flows should continue. Bangladesh is the smiling, more often than not sweetly female, face of global capitalist development. Better yet—she often wears a headscarf as she goes about enjoying her new economic and political freedoms, signalling that moderate Islam can couple with global capitalism. What’s not to like?

It is well to be wary of self-aggrandizing stories of success, in the aid industry or any other. Yet like all myths, this one gets much power from core truths. (p.9) Early entry into global markets was vital in a densely populated place with no resources other than its rural masses. Innovative social entrepreneurs devised clever ways of reaching those people at scale and sustainably, even figuring out how to bring millions of secluded, unschooled, traditional village women into markets from which they were traditionally excluded. Aid donors did a lot. They provided finance and technical assistance; they documented, analysed and evaluated, learning about what was working; and they granted Bangladesh’s development project the international community’s seal of approval. The way the average Bangladeshi lives now is vastly different—and, in respect of basic securities and freedoms, particularly for women and girls, measurably better—than forty years ago.

So Sachs’ narrative contains many truths. But like most development blueprints it is a caricature, exaggerating and minimizing for effect (Roe 1991). What stands out most here is the emancipatory potential for women of the flourishing non-profit sector and the unstoppable transformative forces of export industry. Sachs invests the promise of low-paid jobs for the girls in the global economy with a particular moral power, an example of what Nancy Fraser calls the ‘new romance of female advancement and gender justice’ (Fraser 2012, 10). There is all the charge of the attraction of opposites in this romance: custom, parochialism, and the chains of patriarchy meet the white-knuckle pace of change in the globalized fast-fashion industry. And the moral power of anything that promotes female advancement packs an even greater punch at a time when gender equality has become a tenet of, a motive for, and a motif of the war on Islamist extremism.

But after the excitement of having ‘stepped up’ into factories and credit markets subsides, the downsides of being the cheapest industrial workforce in Asia and in collective micro-debt to the tune of USD 4.2 billion give pause.5 Is this what empowerment looks like? It no longer feels like enough, if it ever was. But perhaps that is what empowerment does—raises expectations so just the chance to earn some cash, what once felt like such a step up from the village, stops being enough; you start to want rights, to secure those earnings, to organize if not, and to do so in safety. The largest and most visible effort by women to empower themselves, the garments workers’ struggle for basic workers’ rights, has happened with neither moral nor actual support from the aid industry. Its clear implications are that workers cannot live on the wages that the global economy is willing to offer them. But political and collective forms of empowerment may not be consistent with the fairy tale.

(p.10) There are other silences in this idea of Bangladesh’s success. You would be forgiven for forgetting that Bangladesh’s gains were ‘partly through its own heroic efforts’. Sachs’ respectful reference to the role of a sovereign state in directing its own development is drowned out by the role of NGOs and donors, whom it is clear have full freedom to operate in this space. It is a fair sketch in a way. In drawing a positive image of Bangladesh, it makes intuitive sense to minimize the role of a state which it is difficult to characterize other than as chronically corrupt, driven by a violently divisive politics and a venal, pathologically mutually antagonistic leadership.6

1.3 The Political Economy of Development Success

Scholars and aid donors increasingly recognize that a country’s development pathways are determined less by the technical correctness of its policies than by its political economy conditions, and specifically the nature of its main political settlements or agreements among elites.7 For Bangladesh, it has been convincingly argued that sustained, broad-based development was the fruit of an elite agreement to enable economic growth through openness to global markets, accepting that even political opponents would need to be able to benefit. Khan (2013) shows how the institutions and incentives to make growth possible emerged after its initial ‘failed populist authoritarianism’ generated political crisis and anarchy following an all-out grab for national resources by politically connected elites in the early 1970s. The idea of a political settlement on growth through business-friendly policies is backed by the simple fact that more than half of Bangladesh’s Members of Parliament had business or industry as their primary occupation throughout most of the 2000s (Jahan and Amundsen 2012; Jahan 2015).

Hassan (2013) argues that the elite agreement to let growth happen was one of three lower-level bargains on which the overall political settlement rested. The second was an unstable but occasionally functional agreement on the rules of the political game that emerged out of the fifteen years of military rule (1975–90). This was to adhere to multiparty elections and democratic competition to share political power, in order to gain the internal and external legitimacy of an elected regime. The elite took this so seriously, even while recognizing their own inability to police themselves and their faction followers, (p.11) that for more than a decade after 1996, a non-party caretaker institution was constitutionally mandated to oversee political transitions. The third bargain was a ‘social provisioning contract’, in which the state committed to at least basic service provisions for the masses. This ‘triple-lock’ political settlement, Hassan argues, is the key to Bangladesh’s relatively inclusive development success (Hassan 2013).

While these accounts of the political settlement are correct in essence, both grant somewhat too much autonomy to the elite. Both neglect the relational and negotiated nature of the political settlement and the role of both external actors and the Bangladeshi masses in their explanations. To the extent that the broad-based growth pathway adopted by Bangladesh after its brief and disastrous flirtation with state ‘socialism’ was pro-poor, they do not convincingly explain why the elite needed this to be the case. This book shows how the political fallout from the 1974 famine, hard on the heels of the 1970s cyclone (the neglect of which turned popular opinion against West Pakistan rule), reasserted the social contract between rulers and ruled. It put in place a contract of basic protection against the ecological disasters and global economic volatilities to which the rural proletariat had been exposed for at least a century (Bose 1986). That contract in turn depended on an agreement with the international community to provide the aid resources and knowhow needed to transform the population in order to prevent subsistence crises along the lines of 1974 (or 1970, 1943, etc.).

In signing up to aided development Bangladesh was required to open itself not only to global markets, but also to a range of experimental policy and programmes in the name of poverty alleviation. Both Khan and Hassan implicitly assume that choices of the pathways of development were clear-cut and given, and that ideas played no important role in how interests were conceived and institutions evolved. But there are reasons to believe that the motivations for going down this path included not just growth, but an inclusive, labour-intensive variant of the model. This was the obvious choice from a limited menu, but acutely low levels of human development meant it was not necessarily easily achieved. Ideas about development matter in their own right, and Bangladesh has hot-housed and showcased many. This is both because its options were initially so limited that new ideas urgently needed to be tested in this difficult environment and because in opening itself to aid and development, Bangladesh found itself exposed to a rapid and rich traffic in liberal development thought and practice. Both the relationships within which the elite found themselves and their ideas about the appropriate models of development mattered to how the political economy functioned.8

(p.12) 1.3.1 The Domination/Development Contract

There are many problems with the idea of a social contract, not least that in liberal political philosophy it assumes autonomous actors freely choosing to be rulers in a nation-state setting. The use here departs from liberal social contract theory in two ways. First, by extending it to transnational relationships and institutions of aid. It is not usual to see international parties as part of the social contract establishing the state, but nor is it unheard of. Rawls’ ‘law of peoples’ sets out the principles of a supra-national social contract in which aid, human rights, and famine relief are instances of the kinds of exchange the contract may entail (Rawls 1993). The content of the mutual obligations and expectations in this instance has to do with aid programmes to reduce poverty, accelerate growth, and speed global economic integration.9 Hickey’s caution about where the social contract stops being a useful concept for development is instructive, pointing to the need for more transformative and politically empowering forms of public action than donors can manage (Hickey 2011).

Second, the social contract is acknowledged to be a relation of domination: power always permeates the contract, establishing the unequal terms on which parties are contracted and the unequal costs of breaking it (Pateman and Mills 2007). The acute dependence on aid with which Bangladesh was born sharply reduced the range of possible pathways of development to those which were minimally acceptable to its donors (Sobhan 1982). As for the masses, it is all but impossible to conceive of their participation in this contract as voluntary, free, or autonomous. Following Pateman (1980), we can ask—can consent be said to have taken place in any meaningful sense of the term? Has granting ‘consent’ made it possible for the developed to hold their developers to account? Or is consent beyond the scope of a population facing Malthusian annihilation?

To avoid making the social contract metaphor work harder than it can, note that consent may amount to little more than agreeing not to resist (Lipset 1959). But that does not make it meaningless: not resisting is not the same as actively rejecting. The legitimacy of a regime depends not on continual active support, just on it not being withdrawn. And unlike in the established democracies of the West, it is possible to observe moments in a post-colonial country’s history when the contract is actively renegotiated or reset. The idea of consent may mean more in developing countries precisely because the nation (who is in it, what it stands for) is a relatively recent construction, (p.13) as is the polity that will distribute its power and the state that will administer it. In the writing of new constitutions, mass migration, major insurgencies, and significant declines in political trust (Norris 1999), it is surely possible to read something very like acts of mass assent or dissent.

And in understanding the times when the contract was broken, as this book does in its discussion of the famine of 1974, we start to see why consent matters. The silence about this time is too heavy to explain without delving into its psychology. But it leaves an impression of a nation that learned the hard way why protection against crisis had to be hardwired into its system, protected against political regimes, open to others to help. To fail again as in 1974 would in future be known to spell the end not only for a ruling fraction, but for the class more generally. So the social contract is a useful device, because the mechanics of the contract can be discerned empirically, if not with ease. There is enough evidence to make sense of the mechanisms through which contracts have been broken or honoured in the early part of Bangladesh’s development, and to make sense of the costs and consequences of broken contracts for elite groups at different levels. Take, for instance, the effects of the broken patriarchal bargain for poor and landless women household heads, forced into manual labour on public works schemes, against all their society’s rules and norms. When contracts break, and parts of society are no longer protected or supported, there is a clear role for the state.

1.4 The Aid Lab and Its Ethics

Visitors to Matlab in Chandpur, southern Bangladesh—the ‘world’s longest running health project’ (source: Wikipedia)—are said to be surprised when they learn the name is a real place-name, and not a contraction of MATernal and Child Health LABoratory. They are surprised because Matlab has been at the heart of advancements in our understanding of, precisely, maternal and child health, and is internationally renowned as a large human laboratory. Appropriately enough, Matlab actually means ‘plan’ or ‘idea’ in Bangla; it therefore refers not to the science of the foreigners but to a clever scheme in the vernacular.

It is as the international experiment in aid, the aid lab, that Bangladesh has fulfilled its side of the development contract with the international community. The idea of the aid lab helps keep in focus some of the defining features of Bangladesh’s development journey, but it is a troubling label. It prioritizes an outsider’s view of Bangladesh, from the not-always-pleasant gaze of the development industry. It suggests a treatment of human beings as scientific subjects—as means and not as ends. And it seems to negate the point made above—that politics and the state have mattered in these achievements, (p.14) suggesting instead the insulation of the clever scientist, toiling away at her experiments under ‘lab conditions’ without hindrance from the real world.

As we have already seen, Bangladesh’s status as the Aid Lab reflects its lack of alternative geostrategic significance and the terms of its incorporation in a developmental social contract. This deliberately problematic metaphor makes us keep in mind that the country’s geostrategic and ideological role in the world is as the ‘test case’ for global capitalist development (Faaland and Parkinson 1976). A flat, small space with an accessible and homogenous population, the country has many qualities suited to social experimentation. Many experiments with poverty reduction have been tested on its soil. Bangladesh’s status as aid lab has several implications for its place in the world, and is a reminder that comparatively small, less developed, aid-dependent countries are shaped by their place in a larger whole in a way that a Brazil, China, or India never could be. For Bangladesh, global connections and global perceptions matter a great deal. This is true whether you stitch jeans for America, build stadiums in Qatar, buy banks or telecoms, or send your kids to the Ivy League or the LSE.10

When aid officials and diplomats come to Bangladesh they seek not minerals or land or geopolitical advantage, but to demonstrate that the social, economic, and political model they promote works. The country’s greatest product is ideational, an idea of Bangladesh. The key point here is that external intervention in this misbegotten Malthusia has been motivated by something close to altruism. It is the gift of the scientist who wants to learn the truth, the visionary that desires to share her vision—not of the colonialist grabbing your wealth. If aid is about making the world safe for capitalism to enter, it is not clear that anyone has been particularly desperate to get into Bangladesh. Because it lacks any obvious material benefit to the donor, the contract endows its donors with a particular kind of power: the gift that is not returned, leaving the recipient in permanent debt.11

As an aid lab, the inner workings of Bangladesh’s policies and projects are exposed—global public property for researchers and aid missionaries and media. The bell jar hothouses some ideas; others, less easily marketable in a policy and intellectual space crowded with free market doctrine, have withered. But the experimentation has produced many justly celebrated successes that Bangladesh has gifted back to the world. Among the pioneering development (p.15) NGOs that eventually grew so large, the most successful had actual laboratories: research centres that tested emerging ideas about what worked. A famous example is BRAC’s Research and Evaluation Division, which works in close partnership with the International Center for Diarrhoeal Diseases Research Bangladesh (ICDDR,B), one of the world’s largest applied public health research institutions. Together they pioneered major innovations in oral rehydration therapies, maternal and child healthcare delivery, and tuberculosis treatments that have saved unknown millions of lives.12

The experiments in the aid lab have been real as well as metaphorical, and the ethical standards of the science have often been low. In its large numbers, densely situated and affordable to reach, the Bangladeshi population has often been an inviting prospect for testing risky initiatives, and the pressure to take interventions ‘to scale’ has resulted in disasters where a more cautious respect for human life and rights would have put a stop to matters. A UNICEF/World Bank project celebrated for delivering ‘safe’ water to 80 per cent of the population by promoting shallow tubewells in the 1970s turned into ‘the largest mass poisoning of a population in history’, having failed to test the groundwater for arsenic (Smith, Lingas, and Rahman 2000, 1093). An estimated seventy-seven million Bangladeshis have had heightened risk factors for cancers and other diseases as a direct result (Argos et al. 2010). To date, there has been no accountability for the ongoing disaster, and a 2003 lawsuit against the British Geological Society for not testing for arsenic in the preparation of the project failed.13

Another notorious instance was the testing of the fertility control implant Norplant during the 1980s. In the 1995 BBC Horizon series documentary ‘The Human Laboratory’, the activist director of UBINIG, Farida Akhter, described how the implants were being marketed to uneducated slum women to control their fertility without informing them that the drugs were unapproved and experimental. Potential side effects were not explained to the women, nor, once they were experienced, recorded in the data. Women reported having been coerced and threatened to keep the implants in. The United States Agency for International Development, USAID, defended the ethical standards of these drug trials it had sponsored in the slums of Dhaka and in conflict-ridden, deeply poor Haiti, denying all wrongdoing. The dark side of the aid lab comes into focus. Women’s health rights activist Nasreen Huq said:

When you conduct a trial in this sort of setting, you are simply taking advantage of them being poor. You’ve access, cheap access, to subjects, and you can write it up as a successful trial. You’re not in any way advancing science, you’re taking (p.16) advantage of a situation in which women are poor and they don’t want to have more children, and by providing this method, or conducting this trial, you are not in any way letting them out of their desperate situation. I mean, I have been trained in science and I’m sorry, this is not science. (BBC 1995)

For Farida Akhter, Bangladeshi women were preferred because they were cheaper and more easily controlled than guinea pigs. Betsy Hartmann, another researcher familiar with the aid discourse in Bangladesh, argued that ‘the population bomb’ was seen as the biggest threat in Washington: ‘now we’re fearing these Third World peoples. Does this mean that you promote Norplant like a weapon in the war against population growth?’ (BBC 1995).

The militant Malthusianism that drove American attitudes in the 1970s and 1980s has faded, at least in respect of the bodies of Bangladeshi women. But there is a residual utilitarianism in development-think in this context that makes interventions like the Norplant ‘weapon’ and poisonous groundwater sources likely. Utilitarianism is a pragmatic response to the fear of large numbers, the logical implication of the knowledge of quite how many people are crowded onto a sinking, eroding piece of land. F. H. Abed, the founder of BRAC—an organization famous worldwide for its ability ‘to scale’—has as his mantra ‘small is beautiful, but big is necessary’, a gentle mockery of the alternative economics popularized by E. F. Schumacher at precisely the same time he was founding BRAC. Abed believes in the need for small-scale innovation, but only if it can be blown up to reach millions: there can be no laurels for tiny perfection in a place where tens of millions have desperate need now. The failure to treat each human as an end in her own right is justified thus: when fifty million have been pulled out of poverty, what does it matter if two or three or ninety have had their rights and dignity trampled on to achieve this end?

People who know Bangladesh know why this makes sense as a rough-and-ready moral philosophy of development. But it is a crude utilitarianism that justifies the trampling of human rights and permits fascistic tendencies, the suppression of dissent and competition included. Under emergency conditions of ‘triage’, such errors are understandable. One of the conclusions of this book is that a utilitarian calculus that neglects human rights no longer suits a country at the stage to which Bangladesh has advanced. It is time—long overdue, some would argue—to negotiate a new social contract for development.

1.5 About This Book

1.5.1 Motivations, Approach, Politics, and Positionality

I wrote this book as part of a continuing conversation with colleagues and friends—experts in development and on Bangladesh as well as others—about (p.17) what has changed in Bangladesh and why. I wrote it partly with the aim of puncturing the unwarranted air of self-congratulation in the aid industry discussion of the Bangladesh ‘paradox’. It is unwarranted first because the methods used on Bangladesh and Bangladeshis were often illiberal and unethical. A laboratory mentality continues to justify practices in Bangladesh (and elsewhere) on the basis of the ends. Certainly the population may benefit when these experiments go well. But does that justify means that would not be used on a more powerful country, a less impoverished people? What happens when the treatment of nations and their people like subjects without regard to their rights becomes institutionalized as public (aid) policy—worse still, marketed as a recipe for development success? Part of my concern here is to remind practitioners and scholars of the need for vigilance against the suggestion that a ‘state of exception’ prevails which permits abrogation of national sovereignty and human rights on the grounds of some greater good. The ‘triage’ to which the Bangladeshi people were in effect subjected around the time of the 1974 famine should never be repeated, even if the effects of the shock had positive final fruits. The costs, in human life and misery and political violence and disruption, were immense.

A second reason why the aid industry (in which I include NGOs) should not credit itself for Bangladesh’s success is that this depended more fully on the politics being right than has been acknowledged to date. Other countries without geopolitical significance have also had large amounts of aid poured into them, without similar human development success. Many have been smaller and less challenged by ecology than Bangladesh. Others have found less grudging patrons among the aid donors. Many countries have had NGOs, big, small, international, innovative, and otherwise. The reasons Bangladesh succeeded ultimately owed to the powerful political imperative to do so, because the process of national liberation and its aftermath built a social contract to protect the population against subsistence crisis, and it was on this foundation that human development could proceed. It was this contract—a contract of domination, it is true—that permitted aid and its organizations to work alongside and with the state. It is understandable that the technocrats and bureaucrats that manage aid should sideline the significance of messy political struggle in explaining development outcomes. But I worry their hubris will catch them up if they expect to replicate the Bangladesh success in other, less politically receptive, settings.

Many readers of this book will, I expect, have a personal or professional link to Bangladesh, and be familiar with these debates. Some will have firsthand or scholarly knowledge of these events. They may disagree with my approach or my interpretation; they may think I have left out crucial facts that bias me one way or another. However this book is received, I anticipate debate. One (p.18) possibility I have considered is that some may view my work as partisan, as giving succour to an ‘anti-liberation’ agenda which seeks to blacken the name of the ‘Father of the Nation’ Bangabandhu, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the nationalist hero who led Bangladesh’s liberation struggle—and whose party, the Awami League, was in power at the time of the famine. Bangladeshi scholarship can be highly politicized along partisan lines, particularly with respect to contentious matters in the early part of our short history as an independent nation. Any mention of the 1974 famine may be seen as potentially taking a position against the Awami League, the party in power at the time. It is true that as a study of politics this is necessarily a political book. But I refuse a partisan position. Nationalist and domestic party politics matter, but they are hardly central to the argument. Nor—and it may be prudent to make this plain from the outset—does my argument lay blame for the pivotal famine squarely at the door of the government of the time: I believe, and show, that the tragedy was all but inevitable under post-war conditions, and that aid donors played a distinctly murky part in establishing those conditions, and in the famine itself.14 In fact, I conclude that the distinguishing feature of Bangladesh’s one and only famine is that the political leadership did not try to conceal it: by contrast, they publicized the crisis in a vain effort to get help. Mujib was personally devastated by these events, as were others among the political and policy elite. This is why the famine played the role of immediately orienting Bangladesh on a human development pathway—a role comparable events arguably failed to play in the Ethiopia of the time, for instance. And so this is less an analysis of parties and political leaders than one of global aid relations, class, and the politics of ecology. None of Bangladesh’s human development successes would have happened without national liberation; that it took a further phase of violence and struggle for the social contract on which that success rested to emerge does not make that any less true.

Some readers may suspect my personal motivations for writing a book likely to reopen old sores, so let me put them out there. I bring to this story the biases, experience, insight, and shibboleths of twenty years of working on and living in Bangladesh, all as part of the aid industry. I have been a consultant, an NGO (BRAC) staffer, and a researcher, in and outside of Bangladesh. I draw on a great deal of my primary and secondary research, as well as my experiences and observations, in the argument constructed here. At some times I write as an analyst and a scholar, but at others I write about things I have seen or heard or done. My role in the industry means I have had a ringside (p.19) view of the changes, but also that I am bound to some parts of the story of Bangladesh’s development success more than others. I do feel that I have an unusual perspective on these matters, having worked closely and extensively with people from all walks of life in those twenty years—farmers; ministers; industrialists; members of Parliament; beggars; traders; journalists; factory workers; rickshaw-pullers; aid bureaucrats; NGO staff; teachers; nurses; policemen; doctors; landless labourers; market stallholders; activists; military leaders; writers; religious leaders; district, upazila, and union officials; chairs and members; and so on. I have personally spoken with several hundreds of people in Bangladesh about the issues I cover here. And I have spent time thinking about what they told me, and analysing what it all meant. I draw on those twenty years of research and publication in this book.

I deliberately chose not to conduct additional research for this book, because I had accumulated more opinion and material than I could ever write about. I also knew that there was already a vast body of literature, most of it by Bangladeshi scholars, most of it ignored in development research and writing, on which to draw. As the bibliography indicates, I have drawn freely on all sorts of published material about Bangladesh without feeling confined by discipline or domain. I have not used Bangla-language secondary sources (apart from a small number of newspaper articles) largely because (as my Bengali is self-taught) key English-language sources on which I have drawn have parsed them better than I ever could. I have, however, used United States Government State Department and similar official declassified sources. This has led to an apparent anti-American bias in the book, which I am unable to correct. By this I mean not that I would remove any of the critical reflections on the role of the US government, but that I wish I could also have included similar critical reflections on the role of the UK, Canada, and other aid donors, including those from the Gulf states, in directing Bangladesh’s domestic policy. But there are few states as transparent as the United States, and indeed as powerful as it was during the 1970s. All the material I cite is freely available online. This is quite remarkable given that I have not even cited some of the most inflammatory commentaries by US government officials regarding the new nation of Bangladesh.

Some people feel that non-Bangladeshis, and people of Bangladeshi extraction living elsewhere, have less right or place to comment on the place than those who stay. There is something in that; there is an innate authority to authenticity that I cannot claim. But proximity does not always make for the most objective analysis, and distance has its benefits. In fact, I first conceived of this book when I was living in Indonesia. Researching the risks Indonesians faced in their lives, I was amazed by the number and severity of disasters people there pack into a lifetime: volcanoes, earthquakes, droughts, tsunamis, pestilence, colonialism, war, famine, economic crisis…It was clear that local (p.20) societies, informal governance, public policy, as well as economic, cultural, and religious behaviour, were all closely structured to respond to the risks people faced. After several years of travelling around Java it struck me that the only other place I could think of where the people faced so many external shocks was the country I knew best. My distance-proximity has helped in other ways. I am part-Bangladeshi, enjoying the advantages of an insider and few problems of over-identification with the society I study. I often misunderstand things because my Bangla is rough, but people are always happy to correct me. I expect they will continue to do so after they have read The Aid Lab.

On the title: most people dislike it. I do myself. But the story I am telling here is not a pretty one. I have called it The Aid Lab despite very good alternative suggestions because of the difficult fact at the core of the narrative: that Bangladesh’s development history—indeed, its very existence—hinged upon its precarious and clientelistic relation to (chiefly) western aid donors. With this title, I want us to keep in mind that whatever the power of its national politics in bringing about positive change at home, Bangladesh is located, on historically adverse terms, in a global political economy with vast power and influence over its pathways to human progress. Bangladesh has been disciplined accordingly. If anything, this makes its achievements all the more remarkable. It is with great satisfaction that I show in the final chapter how Bangladesh now markets itself as a sophisticated model of development, poised not only to resolve the thorniest future challenges of human existence but also to instruct others on how to do so.

1.5.2 Structure

The book is organized into four parts. After the initial introductory chapters (Part 1), the chapters proceed in a roughly chronological order.

Part 1: The Paradox

The introductory section sets out the motivations for the book, the key debates and themes with which it engages, and some of the debates about Bangladesh’s achievements to date (Chapter 1, ‘Bangladesh’s Surprising Success’). Following this, background is provided, setting out some facts and figures of Bangladesh’s success and showing why Bangladesh is seen as a success story (Chapter 2, ‘From Malthusia to the Bangladesh Paradox’). It then unpicks the ‘triple-lock’ political settlement in Bangladesh with a close look at the substance of the development contract, through an examination of the Bangladeshi elite, its relations with the mass of citizens and externally with the international community and aid donors, and the perceptions, interests, and relationships among these groups (Chapter 3, ‘The Elites, the Masses, and Their Donors’).

(p.21) Part 2: The Basket Case

The second part takes us back to the period immediately following independence. It looks at how the context for development policy was set by the devastation of the war, the preceding decades of rural impoverishment and subsistence crises, the condition of the civil administration, and the aid-dependent international relations with which the strategically insignificant Bangla Desh was burdened. Drawing on the work of feminist scholars, it focuses in particular on the broken patriarchal bargain, the result of wartime rapes, widowhood, and abandonment, as the start of the state’s early recognition of ‘the woman problem’, and its relatively strong emphasis on women’s development (Chapter 4, ‘The Breaking of the Patriarchal Bargain and the Emergence of the “Woman Issue”’).

A chapter on the famine of 1974 puts this tragedy at the centre of the analysis (Chapter 5, ‘1974’). This critical juncture showed that the growing rural proletariat was relentlessly buffeted by market and environmental shocks, and that women were acutely vulnerable. The famine is treated as the single most important cause in a re-negotiation of the social contract that laid the foundations for the successful project of national development.

Part 3: The Test Case for Development

In the third part we start to see the national development project emerge. The after-effects of the famine and its lessons for development more generally are taken up in a chapter that discusses the politics of reforms in food security, and experiments with social protection and poverty reduction (Chapter 6, ‘Never Again: The Long Shadow of Famine’). Next we turn to an exploration of institutional innovations such as NGOs and vertical campaigns to reach the rural masses with health, fertility control, and education. These pioneering development efforts were about changing the bodies and minds of the mass of Bangladeshis, and they came with strong commitment from the Bangladeshi elite, for whom the people had to be equipped to engage with development (Chapter 7, ‘Making Bangladeshis’).

Part 4: The Bengal Tiger

This brings us full circle to the idea of Bangladeshi development success. In the fourth and concluding section, we look at the changes in Bangladeshi society that are unsettling the old bargains and demanding a more challenging set of rights to be protected. We see a highly globalized population, with skills wanted in the wider world economy (Chapter 8, ‘Aerotropolitans and Cinderellas: Bangladeshis in the Global Economy’). But these are generally low-level skills, learned in a public service regime that can deliver only basic services, creating a low-skill equilibrium trap. When they go abroad to work, as when they work at home, they are unprotected. Those not fortunate enough (p.22) to have steady public or private sector jobs are the flexible workforce of global capitalism, chronically precarious as a result of that position. These groups are increasingly restive, prone to unruly politics and excluded from the mainstream policy agenda. In the conclusion (Chapter 9, ‘Post-Malthusian Futures: Towards A New Social Contract’) it is argued that to incorporate this group, the elite will need to agree to a re-settlement that makes more stringent demands than the basic protections of the past. This will include protecting workers from a world workplace that strips them of their citizenship and workers’ rights, even while it struggles with the implications of climate change and global economic turbulence.


(1) By population. At an officially estimated 160 million, Bangladesh ranks after Nigeria but above Russia. http://www.bbs.gov.bd/Home.aspx (accessed 25 July 2016).

(2) For instance, Asadullah, Savoia, and Mahmud (2014); Chowdhury et al. (2013).

(3) I cite the mortality figure considered most authoritative in the scholarship of the famine (Alamgir 1980). Other estimates of famine mortality are available and are used (including by Nobel Prize-winner Amartya Sen), but with less or no discussion of methodologies and provenance.

(4) There was not actually a famine in either 1971 or 1972—at least not in Bangladesh (some say it was exported, with the refugees, to India). See Chapter 5 for a full account. But it is certainly true to say that the post-war period was one of mass hunger and chaos.

(5) Moazzem and Raz (2014) estimated that in 2011, Bangladeshi garments workers had the lowest wages in Asia; even Cambodian workers had higher wages. Micro-credit figures are from www.mixmarket.org (accessed 3 February 2015).

(6) There may be many hundreds of donor and newspaper reports saying as much, but for an authoritative perspective on Bangladesh’s governance see the State of Governance series by the Institute of Governance and Development at BRAC University (formerly the Institute of Governance Studies, and before that, the Centre for Governance Studies; http://bigd.bracu.ac.bd/index.php/s-reports/147-sog-reports, accessed 25 July 2016).

(7) See Di John and Putzel (2009); Khan (2010); Laws (2012).

(8) Following Hickey’s critique of political settlement theories in relation to development outcomes (Hickey 2013).

(9) Those interested in such distinctions will recognize this as the difference between Hobbesian contractarian approaches, which are seen as substantive, or specifying the normative content of the contract, and Kantian contractualism, in which the contract is the thing, and the norms to which it binds people are not specified.

(10) Hickey warns us off of ‘methodological nationalism’ in thinking about the politics of development, reminding us that global influences may be particularly important for developing country elites (Hickey 2013). Global influences and networks matter in particular to the elites of small, open countries like Bangladesh.

(11) As we know from the economic anthropology of gift exchange (Mauss 2002; Parry 1986). On the specific and considerable problem of altruism and reciprocity in aid exchanges, see Stirrat and Henkel (1997).

(12) The author’s first job was on a joint BRAC-ICDDR,B project on women’s empowerment, in the very centre of the Aid Lab.

(13) See Hossain (2006); Buncombe (2010).

(14) A role which has never been given the close scrutiny it deserves. A group of scholars is currently developing research plans to study the role of the US Government and other aspects of the famine in detail, to ensure the lessons are not lost to posterity.