By M Niaz Asadullah and Antonio Savoia

Would you say that a country can reach any of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) if affected by adverse geographical conditions, with a state apparatus perceived as chronically corrupt, subject to substantive political instability and also perceived as moving away from democracy? No, we would not. Yet, Bangladesh, once famously dubbed a test case for development, has made impressive progress in many areas of the MDGs. This is good news. But the really interesting bit is that progress was achieved against the odds, because many would have predicted otherwise. So, where is the country heading next and what kind of policies will need to progress further?

Bangladesh has steadily progressed over the last four decades and today over-performs on multiple social development indicators, given its level of economic development.

The Bangladeshi case comes at the right time for an assessment and a reflection on global development goals. As the new development goals period has just started, now is the time to take stock on its achievements and assess what can make its progress sustainable.

A Bangladeshi path to development…

Is Bangladesh’s path to development exceptional? And what does it mean? Some research we have done at the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester, and published in World Development, answers these questions. We document that Bangladesh does much better compared to countries at the same level of per capita income, on a number of education, health, sanitation and fertility indicators.

Starting with fertility indicators, Bangladesh has, since the 1970s, managed to reverse its initially abnormally high record in terms of total births per woman. And since the 1980s, it has outperformed countries with similar incomes. Between 1980 and 2010, Bangladesh’s ranking in fertility data within the developing world improved rapidly compared to the modest improvement experienced by Pakistan and India. Such progress in fertility decline has progressively increased, also paralleled by an exceptional increase in contraception prevalence.

In terms of health outcomes, Bangladesh was amongst the laggards in child mortality reduction in the 1970s and 1980s, but improved its record in the 1990s and 2000s. Excess mortality disappeared before the 1990s, before the country saw large-scale reductions in poverty, to turn into exceptionally low child mortality levels. The immunisation rate in Bangladesh increased from one percent in the early 1980s to over 70 percent within ten years. At the same time, the initial gender disadvantage in primary and secondary education disappeared by the mid-1990s.

Overall, the empirical evidence shows a clear trend: that Bangladesh has steadily progressed over the last four decades and today over-performs on multiple social development indicators, given its level of economic development. Considering its unfavourable initial conditions (e.g., devastation caused by the 1971 war and the famine of 1974) and the existing challenges of poor public governance record and political instability, Bangladesh’s achievements in social development are surprising.

… Sustainable in the long term?

Whether Bangladesh’s progress is sustainable hinges on the quality of government, an ingredient that is widely believed to support economic and social development in the long term. And it is now a global development goal in itself, part of SDG16.

SDG16 emphasises the importance of effective and accountable states (e.g., Targets 16.5, 16.6 and 16.7). How is Bangladesh equipped in this respect? The country appears to lag behind. Global surveys on public sector efficiency and the quality of the legal infrastructure historically rank Bangladesh as a state with weak capacity. Does it matter? Yes. For example, with greater state capacity, countries can reduce poverty at a faster rate. Recent research conducted at the Effective States and Inclusive Development Centre suggests that countries with greater ability to administer their territories saw faster poverty reduction over the 1990-2013 period. In particular, countries with highest state capacity can reduce income poverty at twice the speed than countries with weakest capacity and so were much more likely to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty.

SDG16 also ensures public access to information and protects fundamental freedoms (Target 16.10), and promotes the rule of law (Target 16.3). In this respect, Bangladesh’s historical record on media freedom or rule of law is not one of significant achievements. The Bangladeshi government’s repression of recent peaceful protests by students and attacks on journalists and photographers covering the events are also deeply worrying (see here and here).

What are the implications for Bangladesh? Aspects of good governance are not only intrinsically valuable, as set in stone in the Sustainable Development Goals, they are also instrumental to development because they are synergetic to other development goals. Clearly, to consolidate the gains made in social and human development so far and make further progress, the challenge for Bangladesh lies in addressing existing governance failures.

Antonio Savoia is a Senior Lecturer in Development Economics at the University of Manchester’s Global Development Intitute and researcher at the Effective States and Inclusive Development (ESID) centre. Niaz Asadullah is Professor of Development Economics at the University of Malaya (Kuala Lumpur) and a Visiting Professorial Fellow at the University of Manchester’s Global Development Institute. Image Credit: CC by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center/Flickr

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *