By Prof Utpal K De and Dr Simi Mehta, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI)
COVID-19 pandemic has struck a huge blow to the economic growth and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of almost every country in the world. However, we see some resilience in the performance of the Bangladeshi economy. As per the recent report of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Bangladesh’s per capita GDP would marginally overtake that of India in 2020-21 financial year.
The resilience of the Bangladeshi economy has been attained with a significant contribution through rural development. The pertinence of rural development in the country in pre-and post-independence period was highlighted by Professor Elias Hossain of Rajshahi University, Bangladesh at the #EconDevDiscussion series being conducted by the Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi. Speaking on the topic Government Policy and Rural Development in Bangladesh, he explicated the nation’s commitment to holistic rural development, as well as the National Rural Development Policy 2001.
He shed light on the significance of NGOs contribution in the rural development, mapped the success story, and the resilience of rural development and concluded with insights on the implications of the current pandemic situation on rural development.
Prevalence of rampant hunger, starvation and diseases, had compelled then US National Security Advisor to comment on Bangladesh as a bottomless basket in 1974. However, since then, the country has drawn the attention of the world by making steady development and achieving the status of a lower-middle-income country in 2015. Its vibrant economic growth made it the seventh fastest-growing economy in the first quarter of 2019. In the “Vision document 2021”, the government outlined its targets of becoming an upper-middle-income country by 2031.
Bangladesh has made impressive strides in terms of healthcare measures and some human development indicators, with its success story attributable in large parts to it being an experimental field for national and international NGOs and other development agencies. The rural economy is the lifeline of the people and the government alike and is given enormous attention. In fact, this is primarily because agriculture and allied activities in rural areas act as a shock absorber during the time of any economic crisis.
Bangladesh is the most densely populated country in the world. With 65% of the population living in rural areas, it is, therefore, in the best interests of the country to ensure the development of the rural and agrarian economy. The rural farm and non-farm sector together contribute around 30% to GDP and provides employment to 42% of the labour force. The country is also constitutionally obliged to rural development and follows a ‘development from the below’ approach with self-governed-self-reliant s development objective.
The key elements of rural development in Bangladesh include poverty alleviation, equitable distribution of wealth and income, creation of employment opportunities, the participation of local people in planning and decision-making processes and empowerment through more economic and political participation to rural masses. The effective measures on the part of the government to bring about a radical transformation in the rural areas include the promotion of agriculture, infrastructure for the provision of rural electrification, development of cottage and other industries, improvement of education, communications and public health. These efforts have been instrumental in improving the standards of living of the masses.
In the absence of an institutional approach, the post-independent Pakistan period developments were based on some philanthropic attempts to the rural development. The Village Agricultural and Industrial Development (V-AID) was launched in 1953 with US assistance for uplifting and developing the rural community continuous and energetic support and active participation of the public. However, failing to achieve the expected results, it was withdrawn in 1961.
In response to the weaknesses of V-AID, the Comilla model- a rural development program was launched in 1959. It primarily focused on: involving both public and private sectors in the process of rural development; development of leadership in every village, including managers, model farmers, women organisers, youth leaders, and village accountants, to manage and sustain the development efforts; ensuring priority for decentralised and coordinated rural administration in coordination with officials of various government departments and the representatives of public organisations; development of stable and progressive agriculture to improve the conditions of the farmers, and provide employment to the rural labour force.
These efforts yielded to partial success through people’s participation in building communications, drainage networks and it helped increasing production for the training in technology received by the people, thana-level irrigation development with community management of pumps, tube-wells, cooperatives. It, however, suffered from the limitations of the inegalitarian structure of ownership technology and the high yielding varieties of seeds were not affordable to everyone.
After the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the Comilla model was extended to the entire nation which was earlier confined only to the district of Comilla. Also, its activity sphere was been widened. In 1976, the Swanirvar (self-reliant) model shifted the focus of rural development from thana to village level. There was a shift from a sector-specific approach to a holistic approach where the Gram Sabha took lead in various participatory programmes in village-level development. The target was on farmers, landless labourers, vulnerable group development, and community development, self-reliance for women, and technology for rural employment.
Bangladesh Rural Development Board undertook various rural poverty alleviation and production-oriented schemes, expansion of the two-tier cooperatives, and target group-oriented projects such as the rural women project, rural poor project, and agricultural development project. Provisions were made for the subsidized inputs to farmers’ cooperatives, and various extension services on irrigation, agricultural implements, promotion of new seeds etc. Since then, Bangladesh Academy of Rural Development (BARD) undertook several Comprehensive Village Development Programme to improve the socio-economic status of all groups of people in villages through a common institutional framework. It also began to sponsor another experimental programme, the Small Farmers Development Programme with the operational focus on small farmers in 1993.
The National Rural Development Policy 2001 was launched with an expanded scope of development. It ranged from poverty alleviation, improving the quality of life of women, expanded health, nutrition, and family planning, opportunities for self-reliance and development of handicapped, tribal groups, and ethnic minorities. The policy identified 39 areas and the ministries relevant to it take up projects each year and work towards its development. Besides this special rural development program like Ashrayan, safety net, the stipend for education, etc. receives significant budgetary allocation.
Besides these, non-government factors include around 5000 NGOs working in remote areas towards poverty alleviation, health, sanitation, etc. NGOs receive funds from the international level and also from the government. Apart from taking development initiatives they also provide credit to rural people. In this respect, the contribution of microfinance initiative of the Gramin Bank is enormous. Bangladesh’s ‘development paradox’ shows impressive achievement in various indicators of rural development initiatives at a low level of national income. Also, the holistic approach involving good coordination of various ministries led to the expected outcomes.
The shift of rural development over time towards a holistic, multidimensional and multisectoral approach along with a shift from peasants to poverty reduction, from cooperatives to informal groups, the Government-NGO collaboration, the prioritization of non-farm economy makes rural development in Bangladesh a success story. Non-farm income has overtaken farm income and rural poverty has been reduced. Increased standard of living, improved healthcare and sanitation conditions, increased enrollment, reducing gender disparity in various fields and better infrastructure are the examples. Above all, Bangladesh is now surpassing other neighbouring countries in several social development indicators.
However, there are several other hurdles, the country has to overcome. Infrastructure like railway, integration through land connectivity with east Asian neighbours, diversifying towards export-oriented production activities would help in take-off towards attaining the upper-middle-income countries.
The rural economy of Bangladesh absorbs all kinds of shocks due to its ability to adapt to changes in the economy and the skill of rural people in making informed decisions during changed situations. Though the COVID-19 pandemic stalled the growth momentum for a limited period, the smart lockdowns, incentives and support packages totalling 1,05,000 crore taka and its significant allocation to the rural sector have helped to handle the situation better.
After the holy month of Ramzan, industrial sectors especially the garment sector were opened to maintain the employment though there was an element of risk of a surge in the pandemic. But the balanced approach of farming, agro-based industries and marketing kept the market linkages and economic lifeline open for the poor masses and did not bring their lives to a standstill.
In essence, rural development has provided a significant dividend to the national economy of Bangladesh. It acts as the last resort during uncertain times. Investment in the rural sector provides greater returns. Thus, attaining food and nutrition security and supply of raw materials to the related industries is related to the overall progress and transformation of the rural economy. Prof Elias Hossain urged the governments of the developing nations to escalate their concerted efforts for rural development for overall economic growth and development of their economies.