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Vibrant Bangladesh despite Covid-19? How NGOs 'contributed' to rural development

By Prof Utpal De, Dr Simi Mehta*

The 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 Bangladesh economy. Per the recent report of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Bangladesh’s per capita GDP would marginally overtake that of India in the 2020-21 financial year.
The resilience of the Bangladesh economy has been attained with significant contribution through rural development. The pertinence of rural development in the country in pre- and post-independence period was highlighted by Prof Elias Hossain of the Rajshahi University, Bangladesh, at the #EconDevDiscussion series being conducted by the Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi.
Speaking on 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 NGO 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 a former 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 lower-middle income country in 2015. Its vibrant 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 in the best interests of the country to ensure development of the rural and agrarian economy. Rural farm and non-farm sectors together contribute around 30% to GDP and provide 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.
Effective measures on the part of the government to bring about 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 institutional approach, the post-independent Pakistan period developments were based on some philanthropic attempts to 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.
Sustainable Development Goal score (out of 100)
In response to the weaknesses of V-AID, the Comilla model -- a rural development programme 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 a stable and progressive agriculture to improve the conditions of the farmers, and provide employment to rural labour force.
These efforts yielded partial success through people’s participation in building communications, drainage networks and helped train people in technology, leading to thana-level irrigation development with community management of pumps, tube-wells, cooperatives. These steps, however, suffered from the limitations of inegalitarian structure of technology ownership. A.lso, high yielding variety seeds were not made available at affordable price to everyone.
After the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the model was extended to the entire nation. which was earlier confined only to the district of Comilla. Also, its activity sphere was widened. In 1976, the Swanirvar (self-reliant) model was adopted, shifting 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.
The Bangladesh Rural Development Board undertook various rural poverty alleviation and production-oriented schemes, expansion of 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 subsidized inputs to farmers’ cooperatives, and various extension services on irrigation, agricultural implements, promotion of new seeds etc.
Thereafter, the Bangladesh Academy of Rural Development (BARD) undertook several comprehensive village development programmes to improve 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 took up projects each year and work towards its development. Besides this special rural development programmes like Ashrayan (safety net), stipend for education, etc. receives significant budgetary allocation.
The Non-government factor considerably contributed to Bangladesh’s development. Around 5,000 NGOs are working in remote areas towards poverty alleviation, health, sanitation, etc. NGOs receive funds from the international level and also from 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 the low level of national income. Also, the holistic approach involving a good coordination of various ministries led to expected outcomes.
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, government-NGO collaboration, prioritization of non-farm economy has made 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 neighboring 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 totaling 105,000 crore taka and its significant allocation to the rural sector has helped to handle the situation better.
After the holy month of Ramzan, industrial sectors, especially the garment sector, were opened to maintain employment though there was an element of risk of surge in 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 has acted as the last resort during uncertain times. Investment in the rural sector has provided greater returns. Attaining food and nutrition security and supply of raw materials to the industries concerned has led to overall progress and transformation of the rural economy.
Prof Elias Hossain urged governments of developing nations to escalate their efforts for rural development for overall economic growth and development of their economies.  
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*With the Department of Economics, North Eastern Hill University (NEHU), Shillong; and Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi, respectively
This article is based on the lecture delivered by Prof Elias Hossain of Rajshahi University, Bangladesh, organized by IMPRI, New Delhi, Counterview.Org as media partner and the Centre for Development Communication & Studies (CDECS), Jaipur

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