Politics and Governance in the Social Sectors in Bangladesh, 1991-2006

Bangladesh has made impressive gains in poverty reduction and social and human development since 1991 although these achievements are increasingly overshadowed by rising concerns about quality and equity in social service provision. The achievements also contrast sharply with worsening governance over the period. This odd pairing of development success with governance failure has given rise to the so-called Bangladesh ‘paradox’: how were pro-poor development achievements possible, given the poor state of governance?

The paper addresses this question through a review of the evidence on a) safety nets for the poor; b) primary and lower secondary (or basic) education; and c) publicly-provided healthcare services. For each sector, it sketches the main achievements and challenges of service delivery and analyses the key political and administrative issues, with an emphasis on evaluating the impact of corruption, leakage and accountability. The paper concludes by drawing together lessons from across these sectoral experiences. These include that a) achievements of the social sectors during 1991-2006 were substantially achievements of expanded access, which were politically popular; b) progress on improving service quality was limited, reflecting the need for stronger commitment required to address politically difficult governance problems that determine institutional performance; c) evidence about the extent of corruption across the social sectors is uneven and may create a distorted picture of where the substantive governance weaknesses lie; and d) formal accountability institutions do not work – at least not as expected. However, ‘rough’ forms of accountability – from individual complaints and lobbying through social networks, to collective protest and the threat of mob violence – help fill the accountability deficit left by the failures of formal mechanisms to empower citizens to participate in an unregulated and unpredictable way.

One implication of the findings is that governance conditions sufficient to support the achievements of the 1990s will not support reforms slated for the 2000s. Programmes of expansion remain politically popular. They are also administratively more feasible than the deeper institutional changes needed to improve accountability and transparency in the system. Governance conditions have been less conducive of reforms targeted at improving quality and equity in the first half of the 2000s. So while weak governance did not necessarily impede Bangladesh’s social sector achievements in the 1990s, already by the 2000s there were clear indications that deeper institutional and broader governance reforms would be necessary for these gains to be extended or even sustained.