Bangladesh has undergone an enormous transformation over the past 40 years, and has long been seen as an example of how aid can support progressive, pro-poor and country-driven human development.
- in the early seventies about a quarter of children didn’t reach the age of five - this has now gone down to about four per cent;
- in the eighties about 60 per cent of Bangladeshi's were living in poverty - now it has gone down to 24 per cent;
- significantly, now life expectancy in Bangladesh is about 70 years.
In February 2017, the Impact Initiative brought development leaders together with researchers focused on the country, to explore what has made Bangladesh’s development so successful, and the role that research has played in this success. As part of the 'Bangladesh in Focus' event, I interviewed five high-profile participants to capture and share their ideas and advice on the value of research, and how this has contributed to Bangladesh’s highly successful development.
Common themes on the role of research in Bangladesh’s development:
Good research takes time
A key factor that came up in most interviews was the value of long-term partnerships. The longer the relationship between development actors - government, researchers, practitioners (implementing programmes) and international development partners – the deeper the understanding of the context, the people, the issues and how to address them. Simeen Mahmud (BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, BRAC University) stated, ‘research has supported inclusive and sustainable development in Bangladesh through long-term partnerships… you need more long-term, multidisciplinary research to understand that problem and come up with lessons that will be able to inform policy’. Building trust between actors over time is also required, as Mushtaque Chowdhury reflects, ‘credit can also be given to development partners that have been showing continuous trust on Bangladesh and on an organisation like BRAC.’
Dr Sultan Hafeez Rahman (BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, BRAC University) talks specifically about the value of the ESRC-DFID Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation research, saying that, ‘this has been an invaluable programme for us it has been a long-term partnership which is vital to research in critical areas of gender, population and health dynamics and around issues of governance [and] accountability in particular. This was high impact research because outputs were used by the broader research community, again they have influenced policy-making.’
‘Bigger picture’ research that also solve problems
High quality research takes time because it requires a holistic approach to problem solving. This approach takes in the ‘bigger picture’ by looking at interconnecting issues and aspects, and includes a historical analysis. Dr Zahir Uddin Ahmed (Jahangirnagar University) comments, ‘DFID encourages the researches to look at the history of the problem and at the same time to solve it.’ Bangladesh has embraced development research as noted by Mushtaque Chowdhury, ‘In every aspect Bangladesh is a well-researched country. We do research to solve a problem.’ Building on this, Gerry Bloom (Institute of Development Studies) comments, ‘There is a lot of in-depth research but on the different aspects of changes in Bangladesh… but what's most impressive is how diverse programmes can add together to allow more sophisticated approaches to managing change in this rather complex environment… research has enabled either NGOs or government to be able to tailor its programmes to the needs of people and how they are actually coping with a complex environment.’
Understanding gender norms and dynamics is vital
‘Women have been playing a very active role in Bangladesh's achievements in human development and also economic growth but women aren't often acknowledged for this and not seen as visible contributors’, Simeen Mahmud states. Simmen Mahmud is involved in an ESRC-DFID Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation research project that looks at women’s inclusion in the large labour markets in Bangladesh. Understanding gender norms and dynamics in this context is vital as, ‘previous research shows that gender norms play an important role in shaping household decision-making about whether women would actually supply labour to the market or not.’ For the next phase of research she states, ‘we are trying to pursue that question further in current research in order to understand why labour force participation rates of women are so low in Bangladesh given the fact that paid work can be very empowering and give women a lot of decision-making power.’
Beyond this Simeen Mahmud points out that, ‘Women need institutional support, and other support, so that they have a favourable, violence-free, safe environment in which they can contribute even more.’ To help ensure that girls have more equal opportunities, Sultan Hafeez Rahman suggests that, ‘policy-makers need to encourage inclusive processes that promote innovation, pragmatism and girls' education.’
Inclusive research encourages innovative development
It seems that an inclusive research approach is essential to the success of the development work itself. Zahir Uddin Ahmed comments, ‘DFID encourages action-based research and as an anthropologist I would say this is a great learning. Public engagement is one of the major points I would mention that DFID is contributing to. [… ] The peasant community, for example, are the effected mining community - they themselves state their initiatives to contribute to their livelihoods.’
Building on this point about inclusion, Sultan Hafeez Rahman talks about the value of research projects that have a strong focus on developing capacity in local research institutes, ‘it has allowed the research institute to basically lead from the front. So in other words those closest to the ground realities, they were the ones driving the research. Therefore they had a very good understanding of what the issues and challenge were. The research outputs therefore were of very high quality, these were more acceptable to policy-makers. These have directly influenced policy-making in the Government.’
Mushtaque Chowdhury provides an excellent example of successful inclusive and innovative development born out of quality research, ‘BRAC has developed a 'Graduation programme' which was tested in Bangladesh which helps to graduate 95 per cent of the 'ultra poor'out of 'ultra poverty'. This is being now replicated in about 40 countries around the world with great success.’
Sultan Hafeez Rahman sums up neatly the conditions required for successful development, ‘create an environment in which innovation is given full play and make development processes inclusive so that the energies of all segments of society and the community can be pulled together and they can be innovative.'