Social Development in Bangladesh

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Indian Journal of Human Development, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2008

Social Development in Bangladesh: Pathways, Surprises and Challenges Wahiduddin Mahmud*

Bangladesh in recent times has achieved rapid progress in many social development indicators despite still widespread poverty and the poor quality of public service delivery. Underlying this ‘development surprise’, the article argues, there is a remarkable process of social transformation involving changes in social norms and attitudes such as towards female schooling or contraceptive adoption. Much of the progress has resulted from the increased public awareness created by effective social mobilization campaigns and from the adoption of low-cost solutions, like the use of oral saline for diarrhoea treatment, leading to a decline in child mortality. This was helped by a strong presence of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and public support in the form of many innovative interventions. The article draws a contrast between the NGO-led process in Bangladesh with other possible pathways to social development such as through strong local governance. While Bangladesh has transformed itself from being a laggard to an over-performer in respect of social development indicators, continued progress may become increasingly difficult without larger public social spending and an improvement in service delivery along with a more rapid reduction in poverty.

INTRODUCTION Bangladesh emerged from its war of independence desperately poor and overpopulated, and reeling from overwhelming war damage to its institutional and physical capital. The country was ravaged by acute food shortages and famines during the early years of its independence. Its income per head was among the lowest in the world along with dismally low levels of various social development indicators. According to some authors, Bangladesh was designated as a ‘test case’ for development while Henry Kissinger called it ‘an international basket case’.1 More than 30 years later, those doubts have largely been proven wrong. With sustained growth in food production and a good record of disaster management, famines have become a phenomenon of the past in the country. Bangladesh’s per capita GDP has more than doubled since 1975. Life expectancy has risen from 50 to 63 years, population growth rates of 3 per cent a year have been halved, child mortality rates of 240 per 1,000 births have been cut by 70 per cent, literacy has more than * The author is Professor of Economics, University of Dhaka. This is a revised version of a paper presented at the International Conference on Universalization of Social Protection in Asia, held in New Delhi on February 17-20, 2008, jointly organized by The Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, and Institute for Human Development, New Delhi. The article originated from a lecture jointly organized by Yale Growth Centre and Yale Centre for International and Area Studies on September 13, 2005. The author is grateful for helpful comments and suggestions made by the participants in each of these presentations.

80 Indian Journal of Human Development

doubled, and remarkable progress has been made in providing universal basic education. Most of these gains have taken place since the early 1990s, with accelerated growth in per capita GDP.2 The progress in social development indicators has, however, clearly outpaced the growth in per capita GDP. As a result, Bangladesh is now an over-performer in most social development indicators in relation to its per capita GDP, while two decades or so ago, it was in fact a laggard among countries with similar per capita income levels (World Bank, 2003a; Ahluwalia and Hussain, 2004).3 Bangladesh ranked among the top performing countries in the 1990s in the extent of improvement in the UNDP Human Development Index and it is among the few developing countries that are on target for achieving most of the Millennium Development Goals (World Bank, 2005; Government of...
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