Is there a Brazilian model of development?

By Armando Barrientos and Edmund Amann. Originally published in Policy In Focus, a publication of the UNDP’s International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth.

As the world begins to wake up to the dire social and economic consequences of rising inequality, we must recognise that it is not an inevitable side-effect of economic growth and development. Many Latin American countries, and Brazil in particular, have demonstrated it is possible to achieve inclusive growth, which has reduced inequality and poverty.

Despite its current difficulties, Brazil offers a striking example of inclusive growth. Inequality has fallen sharply over the past decade and a half, a period which has also seen the country lift an estimated 40 million people out of poverty. Although growth rates have been modest in comparison to China or India, Brazil has implemented a raft of measures to ensure the results of such growth have been shared throughout society. While Brazilians have seen their incomes rise, the poorest have benefited most.


The growth experienced by Brazil hasn’t simply been attained through the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources. Despite serious lingering problems, deforestation rates in the Amazon have fallen remarkably since 2004. New jobs have been created, child mortality has plummeted, and schooling rates have increased.

So how have these gains been achieved, are they sustainable, what challenges remain, and what can other developing countries learn from Brazil’s experiences? These were the questions asked by a team of researchers from Brazil, Europe and the USA who formed the International Research Initiative on Brazil and Africa (IRIBA). This issue of Policy in Focus looks at the findings and insights they have produced.

The foundations of Brazilian progress can be traced back to the transition from a dictatorship to a democracy in the mid-1980s and the vision for the country which emerged. A firm consensus between citizens and politicians to address the ‘social debt’ created by soaring inequality set the country on a new path. After the economy was stabilised in the mid-1990s, the economic management pursued by successive governments enabled innovative social policies to flourish.

As a more inclusive and prosperous Brazil has developed, the public demand for further progress has also grown. The large protests surrounding the 2014 Football World Cup, worries about an economy mired in recession, and deep concern with serious corruption scandals demonstrate that the Brazilian consensus is under considerable strain. Public demand for better public services and transport infrastructure, less corruption and a more progressive tax system must be addressed by the country’s leaders. While much has improved, Brazil faces pressing challenges. It must ensure that the development gains made over the past decade and a half throughout times of economic growth are not eroded or scaled back throughout the troubling economic times it presently faces. The sustainability of those gains may well be the most important piece of any such Brazilian model of development, yet the jury is still out as to what extent this may be possible.

While the Brazilian experience is the product of a unique set of circumstances, it contains many lessons that should inspire debate and critical appraisal in other developing countries. The world is changing rapidly, and there are more opportunities than ever for genuine cooperation between countries of the Global South with recent and direct experiences of radically reducing poverty. This edition of Policy in Focus is essential reading for anyone grappling with how to reduce poverty and inequality while promoting sustainable and inclusive growth.

Download the full Policy in Focus report.


Tackling Youth Unemployment in Arusha: From Knowledge to Action

By Nicola Banks

One of the consistent battles I face as a researcher is the feeling of uselessness I experience in each and every interview I conduct. This is not to say that I believe our research is ‘useless’ – anything but. Research must continue to play an important role in revealing the realities and the complexities of poverty and social injustice. And by doing relevant and timely research we can continue to press for greater prioritisation of important development issues. One of these priorities simply must be youth unemployment.

Read more →

If we don’t get a strong climate deal, the Sustainable Development Goals are doomed

By Professor David Hulme

The imminent announcement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is generating real debate amongst researchers, NGOs and academics about their level of ambition and the likelihood success. Will they be business as usual for the aid industry, or something truly transformational?

At the World Social Science Forum earlier this month there was a consensus that the SDGs are an advance on the MDGs, yet they still met with major criticisms. As one conference delegate told me, “they are just the MDGs with knobs on – these are not about global justice!” The MDGs focussed largely on reducing extreme poverty – according to Thomas Pogge seeking only to secure a minimalist set of basic needs for the world’s poorest people.

The SDGs are definitely more ambitious. With 17 Goals and 167 targets (the MDGs had 8 goals and 20 targets) they have to be. The SDGs seek to eradicate extreme poverty, not simply reduce it; to move the world toward environmental sustainability; to create economic growth and jobs in poor countries; to reduce inequality; to achieve peace and justice in all countries and much more.


The starting point has to be asking whether having a lot more goals and targets is an improvement. The many NGOs who got their pet target into the SDGs draft might think so. But some, particularly the UK Government, have argued that 17 goals and 167 targets is a dysfunctional number. How can countries identify national priorities when the list is so long? How can aid donors explain to taxpayers and voters what ‘foreign aid’ is, and why it’s a priority when it takes five minutes to read the goals – and thirty to read the targets? The public in rich nations work on rolling 24/7 media reports and sound bites. They need messages in bullet points, or so the argument goes. Too long and people will just ‘switch off’.

The G77 thought differently, however, and were annoyed at the UK’s efforts to intervene. They saw attempts to consolidate the SDGs into a shorter list as a covert attempt to reopen debate on goals that richer countries have found to be problematic – such as reducing inequality across countries and encouraging sustainable consumption.

So what has been added to the SDGs? In terms of poverty reduction they are a great advance on the MDGs. Where the latter were framed to halve income poverty and hunger, the SDGs take poverty as multi-dimensional – measuring it in terms of income and hunger, but also factors like access to potable water and sanitation, basic health services and education – and seek to eradicate it in all its forms.

The SDGs also go beyond poverty and seek to “reduce inequality within and among nations”. With the exception of several Latin American countries, most countries have seen inequality rising in recent years, so Goal 10 lays down a significant political and economic challenge. It’s not just aimed at developing counties, but also tasks rich nations to address the growing wealth gap in their own populations.

However, what does reducing inequality “among nations” actually require? Will rich nations redistribute their wealth, or slow their own economic growth so that convergence between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ economies can occur? In their present form, the Goal 10 targets avoid specifically addressing this question, and it remains to be seen whether the indicators designed to measure inequality reduction will be further diluted so that rich countries and rich people are not directly challenged about their current control over global assets and income.

As might be expected, the SDGs also exhibit a much greater focus on sustainability than the MDGs did. Five goals pursue environmental sustainability, including Goal 12: “ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns” (will we all get individual carbon allowances?) and Goal 13: to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”.

Beyond poverty, inequality and sustainability the SDGs include several other goals that are significant advances on what the UN could agree in 2000/01. Economic growth and job creation figure strongly in Goal 8 – and are to be sustainable, inclusive and decent. A goal for peace, justice and effective institutions appears toward the end of the list, albeit with very weakly-specified targets. Negotiation of this 16th goal was very contentious; OECD members argued for ‘good governance’, while G77 members saw this as an attempt to reinforce a Western form of liberal democracy as the global norm. Discussion about what indicators should be used to monitor Goal 16 could run up to the last minute.

While the content of the SDGs can be argued to be a great advance on the MDGs, they are ultimately political output produced by the UN’s Open Working Group through a filter of multiple compromises. They are not a carefully theorised and operationalised form of human rights. That said, I believe the SDGs do have the potential to be transformational – because of how the process of negotiating the Goals took place this time around.

While the MDGs were very much driven by OECD members and donor agency preferences, the SDGs have been produced through a formal UN process, involving negotiation across all 193 members. The G77 – or more accurately, the G77 and China – have played an active role in creating these goals. Emerging powers (especially Brazil), which pushed the sustainability/Rio agenda – have taken strong positions. The world has changed: development is no longer officially defined by aid donor countries but by all UN member states. ‘Developing’ countries now have a big say in what development means!

Two final points must also be observed. First, will the SDGs actually be implemented? Often the MDGs existed only on paper, and the SDGs are a resolution and not a legally binding treaty. Though they represent a global super-norm there are no penalties for countries that do not pursue them. More meaningful commitment to transformation has already been resisted by all sides. Admittedly, there is a goal, with 19 targets, that provides guidance on implementation. Maybe that is progress; the 130 countries that comprise the G77 certainly fought strongly for it.

Secondly, the SDGs are not the only game in town and they will be agreed in the shadow of the climate change treaty negotiations scheduled to take place in Paris in December.

Climate change has the privileged status of being addressed with a treaty; countries that ratify it must honour it and countries that do not sign up lose status in international terms. This is why one European envoy to the UN told me, “It’s all about Paris”. While the SDGs will be agreed in September, COP 21 will determine how seriously they are taken. If a strong treaty to tackle climate change can be agreed, it will serve as stimulus for energetic pursuit of the SDGs in many countries. If climate talks stall or produce a weak, inconclusive treaty then one can expect enthusiasm for the SDGs to be low. What is the point of a set of Sustainable Development Goals if climate change makes sustainability a joke?

The newly announced Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester is based around the pursuit of social justice. As a supporter of this aim, I hope UN members gets the deals right in both New York and in Paris.

Read David’s earlier post: Are the SDGs the world’s biggest promise… or the world’s biggest lie?

From the MDGs to SDGs: Has Anything Changed?

Professor David Hulme is currently at the World Social Science Forum in South Africa, where he delivered the following presentation, charting the shift from the Millennium Development Goals, to the Sustainable Development Goals.

You can also watch a recording of the presentation.

For further detail on Professor Hulme’s research in this area, please read ‘The Millennium Development Goals: A Short History of the World’s Biggest Promise.’ 

Social accountability or social transformation? Working ‘with’ and ‘against’ the grain

By Sophie King

Social accountability has become an important ‘buzzword’ among development actors seeking to understand the forms of state-society relations that may be supportive of better public services. Malena and McNeil (2010: 1) define it as: ‘the broad range of actions and mechanisms beyond voting that citizens can use to hold the state to account’. The trouble is that the focus has become the mechanisms, rather than the inequality and social and political relationships shaping public goods expenditure and quality.

Some findings from my own research into NGO-led social accountability initiatives in rural Ugandaresonate with those recently published by Care International and ODI about community score card initiatives in Malawi, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania. However, our interpretations of what these findings tell us may differ. Drawing on my Uganda study, but also a systematic review of how context shapes outcomes from social accountability initiatives, here are some questions which those seeking to intervene within agrarian, neopatrimonial and semi-authoritarian contexts like Uganda’s could consider:

  1. What is the history of state-society relations and popular mobilisation in this context?

The Rwenzori sub-region, where this fieldwork took place, had a long history of ethnic and religious conflict, leading to the exclusion of particular groups from social services and economic opportunities, and a legacy of resentment, which continues to shape both political and civil society relations. Civil servants are often not socially embedded within the community, being subject to frequent transfers – meaning they are not subject to informal accountability pressures on the basis of kinship or longer-term relationships. Decades of conflict and authoritarianism and state monopoly over cooperative production, followed by the collapse of the cooperative sector, has left a legacy of deference to authority and mistrust of collective action. 

  1. What is the socio-economic status of the breadth of people using the public service in question, and what relationships do they have with other social groups?

In this particular region, some of the poorest families did not send their children to school, wealthier households made use of private provision, and the socio-economic spectrum of small-scale farmers, labourers, and traders in between used state services. Few would be educated beyond primary level. In Uganda as a whole, only approximately 12 percent of school-aged children complete secondary education.  Mechanisms for social accountability require parents and service users to report problems to a community management committee, head teachers, or their village council chairperson. The village chair also presides over land transactions and the village court, while those educated enough to work as head teachers, nurses, or to occupy leadership positions, are often friends. There is also a strongly entrenched culture of conflict avoidance, which was partly linked to concerns about the use of witchcraft in response to perceived slights. This is an unpromising context for monitoring, reporting or complaint.

  1. What are the formal and informal institutional incentive structures throughout the service delivery system?

In Uganda, a system of ‘inflationary patronage’ – where ever-increasing amounts of resources are required to keep different power bases in society happy – depletes resources for public goods. Levy and Waltonprovide a helpful framework for analysing the web of relationships that shape incentive systems within particular sectoral machineries. In rural western Uganda, teachers and health workers are on low salaries and experience frequent delays in receipt of salary, with few prospects for professional development. In cases of wrong-doing, District officials simply transfer workers elsewhere, rather than enforce sanctions. MPs and councillors are focused on votes garnered through favour and the cultivation of connections to extensive kinship networks, and are not usually interested in rocking boats.

  1. Over which public goods has a strong social contract emerged among citizens? How have the terms of delivery of particular services been framed?

Universal Primary Education has been framed in Uganda as a gift from the President. Where once parents kept schools running during Amin’s reign of terror, in rural western Uganda, few parents are now prepared to contribute anything to the running of the school and have interpreted the policy – framed in populist terms in advance of successive elections – as meaning that everything about school attendance is free. Children go to school without lunch, falling asleep in lessons after eating nothing all day; buildings and premises are not maintained; children lack books and pencils to work with; and PTAs – in this area at least – were all but defunct.

  1. What forms of autonomous collective agency exist among low-income groups in this context, and are there any examples of effective collective organising specific to this context?

In such a context, where social stratification, unequal power relations and adverse incentive structures work so strongly against inclusive development expenditure and downwards accountability, those interested in changing things for the benefit of lower-income groups cannot think about service accountability in a vacuum. While shifts within the wider political settlement and wider structural transformation are of course critical to substantive change, there is still much that can be done at the grassroots to build democracy from below.

With the landholdings of middle- and low- income groups shrinking in Uganda while those of the higher socio-economic groups increase, and the great African land-grab continuing seemingly unabated, it seems to me that smallholder farmers can only accumulate the socio-economic and associated political power to advance their interests in social provisioning terms by acting collectively. Bukonzo Joint Cooperative Union is an inspirational example of what can be achieved when farmers adopt a social justice and savings-based approach to social, economic and political change.  Smallholders here are transforming relations between men and women; between farmers and the state; and between farmers, traders and buyers. Ben Jones also describes a range of associational forms that are alive and well in Uganda, including clan structures, Pentecostal churches, and burial societies. Other forms of self-help group are increasingly present in rural villages and a gradual revival of the cooperative sector is taking place… can smallholders be supported to exploit these opportunities in progressive and inclusive ways, or will such opportunities be lost to competition and clientelism?

  1. What is the history of external intervention in this context and what opportunities exist for accountable alliances to be built between professionals and low-income groups?

That donor-driven development interventions have frequently undermined rather than catalysed and strengthened grassroots agency and autonomy is surely no longer in question. So the question now becomes what forms of intervention can offer marginalised and low-income groups support and solidarity without creating dependency or reinforcing clientelist relations?

One Ugandan research and development institute I worked with had moved away from channelling donor aid and towards information provision, knowledge generation, networking and relationship building, convening alternative spaces for multi-stakeholder dialogue, and attempting to convene channels through which context-specific grassroots experiences could reach senior decision-makers. This was only possible with the partnership of a Northern co-financing agency with the room for manoeuvre to create space for experimentation over the long term. This agency’s financing has been seriously cut, in response to negative public attitudes to aid.

Bukonzo Joint Cooperative Union have had guidance from an activist-consultant for over a decade, who has supported them to develop their own home-grown gender justice methodology without becoming directive. The BJCU Coordinator has been adept at managing relationships with external actors – taking loans not grants, or only accepting donor aid in support of those in extreme poverty, or for international learning exchange. Mitlin and Satterthwaite offer another case study of how IIED have worked with Shack/Slum Dwellers International and donor agencies to break down the hierarchy of donor aid. There are many good examples out there.

In summary, perhaps as well as ‘working with the grain’ and working through elites, we need to think about how to integrate such strategies, with a focus on strong, value-driven local associations that also have tangible economic benefits for their members. Associations that can federate, that can ally with professionals while remaining autonomous, and that can have the kinds of ripple effects that, as an increasing number of studies are beginning to show, can contribute towards building democracy from below. This requires arethinking of the role of external actors in such contexts, and new modalities of aid and development finance, but it also, critically, requires a change in public attitudes internationally.

Understanding the politics of inequality

By Sam HickeySophie King and Sarah Hunt

History has much to tell us about the politics of inequality, but the moral of the story depends upon the lens through which we choose to interpret its lessons. The recent DLP conference on this theme raised many of the questions that ESID is attempting to address, as well as demanding some considered defence of the ‘political settlements plus’ framework that constitutes our analytical lens for understanding the politics of inclusion.

Through which theoretical lens should we be seeking to understand the politics of inequality?

There was little disagreement among contributors at the DLP conference that the politics of inequality should be understood through a social justice lens. Frances Stewart’s opening address showed that social justice thinking offered the most coherent philosophical framework for thinking about the politics of inequality, not least as it enables us to place our concerns over inequality in the broader context of what kind of ‘good society’ we value. Thinking in terms of social justice demands that we consider the political arrangements required to secure good societies, and also that we confront the trade-offs that this involves, most notably between the sometimes competing priorities of challenging inequality whilst protecting freedom.

A key sticking point raised by ESID research director Sam Hickey was how to reconcile this normative philosophical framework with the much more ‘realist’ perspective of political settlements analysis that a number of conference participants were engaging with in their work. There is an obvious case for thinking about the politics of inequality from a political settlements perspective, a key tenet of which is that socio-economic inequalities will harden as a result of the elite capture of institutions that systematically occurs within clientelistic settlements and ‘closed access’ orders. This institutionalisation of elite privilege, which theorists like North, Wallis and Weingast hold to be key to maintaining stability, can be very difficult to challenge, and this has encouraged some to advocate for a more modest, less transformative approach to development that involves ‘going with the grain’ of existing power relations. This creates a tension, not only at a philosophical and theoretical level, but also in terms of development policy and practice: how to square a desire to support progressive causes with this more cautious and potentially inequality-promoting approach?

Some at the conference suggested that political settlements analysis did not necessarily contradict a social justice perspective, and could be used to identify openings for supporting progressive change. For example, some participants were using political settlements analysis as a means by which to navigate the complexities of vertical, horizontal or spatial inequalities within developing countries and the politics of redistribution. ESID’s conceptual approach attempts to move political settlements analysis forward for these purposes through research into the politics of social provisioning, social protection and spatial inequality, or the ways in which successive political settlements shape the redistribution of extractive industry rents. Rather than moral philosophy or a purely pragmatic ‘working with the grain’ approach; the ESID framework draws oncritical political theory and critical feminism to integrate considerations of transnational actors, resources and ideational flow, and agency, especially from non-state actors within the structural and institutional accounts that have taken centre-stage in recent debates.

What strategies and solutions should we be working towards?

Much discussion of what this means for policy and practice resonated closely with emerging findings from ESID research into the politics of women’s inclusion and influence – particularly in relation to contentious policy issues such as domestic violence. Throughout the day the power of global norms to become diffused and shape political realities emerged as a critical lever for more inclusive development. Sarah Hunt’s work onpolitical settlements in Central America makes clear, however, that diffusion is neither automatic nor guaranteed: rather it will depend on contingent political dynamics. Significantly, global norms shape not only elite decisions and interactions, but also the societies they must engage with.

The importance of marginalised groups forming coalitions and movements and then being ready to exploit moments of crisis or ‘critical junctures’ was another prominent theme throughout the conference and has come through across each of ESID’s country cases: Bangladesh, Ghana, Uganda and Rwanda. So too has the need for political analysis (and those seeking to use it for progressive ends) to engage with the informal incentive structures and interests underlying formal institutional arrangements.

During her illuminating opening presentation, Frances Stewart suggested that changing the politics of inequality and distribution will require getting people to think about ‘the other’ in a different way. This has been critical within the gender equality movements that ESID researchers have been tracing – framing men as protectors rather than perpetrators, and domestic violence as a constraint on household economic development rather than a question of ethical judgement have been key to attitudinal change.

However, efforts to ‘go with the grain’ can be a risky strategy for those seeking to promote social justice. ESID research led by Sohela Nazneen reveals that women’s movements promoting legislation against domestic violence tend to frame their policy messages within acceptable discourses around ‘family values’ and protective versions of masculinity, rather than women’s rights, in order to avoid antagonising powerful opponents and even gain their support. Although this does help secure policy change, it can also lead to more critical concerns being omitted (e.g. around marital rape and female control over assets), and legislation so compromised that it lacks the coherence required for enforcement.

The challenge of how to reconcile the concepts and strategies required to understand and navigate political settlements, on the one hand, with the wider notion and pursuit of social justice, on the other, remains open. Efforts to reconcile the two, we argue, can usefully start from recognising that both political settlements theory and more radical theories of social justice take power relations to be their central focus. It is in adopting a relational perspective, rather than one driven by a concern with institutions or resources per se, that the intractable problems of inequality and the politics required to challenge them comes more clearly into view.

Paths to development: Is there a Bangladesh surprise?

By and

Mobile tea stall Paths to development: Is there a Bangladesh surprise?

Bangladesh’s economy has recorded remarkable economic performance in the new millennium, though its per capita income has remained low. Even more spectacular has been the steady improvement in its levels of many social development outcomes. Popular commentaries have drawn comparisons with India and Pakistan in highlighting the significance of Bangladesh’s development achievements. This phenomenon has been termed as the “Bangladesh conundrum,” and has received extensive coverage in international media outlets, such as the New York Times, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal.

But is Bangladesh’s social progress surprising, and if so, then in what respect and to what extent? To answer this question, we must systematically investigate the country’s path to development. Bangladesh’s achievements in several dimensions of social development are indeed surprising when compared to other economies at similar levels of economic development. In a research paper published last month in World Development (Asadullah, Savoia, and Mahmud 2014), we present these findings by drawing upon data on Bangladesh and over 100 other developing countries for the past 4 decades (1971–2010).

Exceptional in many ways

Using regression analysis, we document that Bangladesh has performed better compared to other countries at the same level of per capita income on a number of social development dimensions: female education, child health, and fertility.

Starting with fertility indicators, Bangladesh has, since the 1970s, managed to reverse its abnormally high record of average total births per woman—and since the 1980s, it has even outperformed countries with similar levels of income. Between 1980 and 2010, Bangladesh’s ranking for fertility data within the developing world improved rapidly compared to only modest improvements by Pakistan and India. Fertility also declined progressively because it was paralleled by an exceptional increase in contraception prevalence and we estimate that over 2006–2010, women in Bangladesh were giving birth to an average of two fewer children than in other economies at the same level of income. Between 1980 and 2010, the share of women using contraception jumped from 10% to nearly 60%, while the 2005 figures for Pakistan and India were 30% and 53%, respectively.

In terms of health outcomes, Bangladesh was among the losers in child mortality reduction in the 1970s and 1980s, but reversed this record in the 1990s and 2000s. Excess infant and under-five mortality disappeared before the 1990s, well before the country saw a large-scale reduction in poverty. The immunization rate increased from 1% in the early 1980s to over 70% within 10 years, a development described by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) as a near miracle. Also according to our estimates, during 2006–2010, Bangladesh was immunizing 17% more children against measles than other economies at the same level of income. Similarly, gender disadvantage in primary and secondary education disappeared by the mid-1990s. Since the late 1990s, Bangladesh has outperformed other countries at a similar level of economic development in terms of female primary and secondary schooling, although it still lags behind at the tertiary level. Our estimates show that between 2006 and 2010, Bangladesh was enrolling over 7% more girls in primary education than other economies at the same level of income.

Overall, the empirical evidence shows a clear trend: that Bangladesh has steadily progressed over the past 4 decades, transforming itself from a laggard into a leader. Today, the country outperforms on multiple social development indicators, given its level of economic development. Considering its unfavorable initial conditions (e.g., devastation caused by the 1971 war and the famine of 1974) and the existing challenges of poor public governance and political instability, Bangladesh’s achievements in social development are truly surprising.

Where does the exceptionality come from?

Further econometric investigation of Bangladesh in comparison with other developing countries over a long period of time (1970–2010) helps understand why its development progress is superior to other economies at similar levels of national income.

Our results find limited evidence that such progress simply came as a result of economic growth, i.e., through income-mediated channels. We also find no evidence that development was led by public expenditure channels (i.e., driven by foreign aid or government health and education spending). On the contrary, Bangladesh’s progress is exceptional because it was achieved despite low budgetary allocations, low levels of physical inputs, and widespread poverty, and in some cases, within very short time periods. Our research rather highlights three concurrent factors that may have simultaneously been the cause of Bangladesh’s exceptional development progress.

First, development policy exploited the complementarities between public policies and nongovernment organization (NGO) initiatives. Including various nongovernment stakeholders (including religious bodies, in the case of secondary education) as part of the development strategy was instrumental to the social progress achieved, as it complemented public education and health interventions. In partnership with the government and with the support from international development and aid agencies, NGOs played a significant role in reducing fertility and child mortality through the simultaneous use of low-cost solutions and social awareness campaigns.

Second, the development strategy benefited from the synergies among the dimensions of social development. Health and education indicators improved at varying paces and different intervals creating virtuous interaction effects between different social indicators. The fertility decline began during the 1980s, when income and schooling levels were very low. This set the foundation for later progress in education and health. Equally, gender parity in schooling was triggered by the introduction of demand-side incentive schemes.

Third, long-term factors, such as geography as well as historical and cultural heritage, might have favorably affected the context of development policy in Bangladesh. Regarding the role of geography, the proximity of settlements, for instance, facilitated the easy adoption of low-cost solutions and the quick spread of good practices. Historical and cultural heritage also played a role in shaping and consolidating the elite’s political commitment to social development. Such a role has been reflected in policy sequencing, which has seen consistency across various political regimes over time. Since independence, successive governments in Bangladesh have recognized the need for controlling population growth, the importance of female education, and the role of child and maternal immunization. Similarly, the prioritizing of women and gender balance, scaling up of innovation, and focus on resilience to natural disasters have also been significant.

Moving forward

A country that was once famously dubbed “the test case for development” is today an important example for others within the developing world. The progress achieved over the last 3 decades could place Bangladesh on a path of sustained growth, eventually starting a virtuous cycle whereby higher human and social development is followed by higher growth, igniting a positive feedback loop.

However, ineffective public governance, dysfunctional institutions, and limited budgetary allocations could prove to be obstacles. As Bangladesh’s gains from low-cost solutions are reaped, further progress will increasingly depend on higher public social spending and improvement in service delivery systems. Further reductions in child and maternal mortality will require more expensive interventions and the provision of relatively costly health services. While good progress has been made in improving the school participation rate, there are now serious concerns about the quality of education. At the same time, improvements in public services delivery across social sectors will be necessary, requiring governance reforms aimed at improving mechanisms for public sector efficiency, transparency, and accountability.

To consolidate the gains made in social development so far and to make further improvements, the challenge for Bangladesh lies in addressing governance failures.


Asadullah, M. N., A. Savoia, and M. Wahiduddin. 2014. Paths to Development: Is there a Bangladesh Surprise? World Development 62 (October): 138–154.

Photo: “Mobile tea stall“. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

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The effects of antipoverty programmes on economic growth

We can use innovative data and methods to explore how human development policies effect economic growth. Juan M. Villa finds significant change from conditional cash transfer programmes on economic growth in Colombia using satellite data.

The study of planned development has largely been shaped by the division between a focus on economic growth on one hand and on human development on the other.  This division has arguably influenced and continues to influence approaches and priorities in international development. To illustrate, if one analyses the emphasis of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, most of the policy recommendations are aimed at boosting economic growth as a means of reaching prosperity. The emphasis of the United Nations Development Programme in contrast, tends to be more focused on human development issues, such as literacy, life expectation and some others reflected on the Millennium Development Goals. However, the divergences of these two perspectives of development can be potentially bridged by generating evidence on the effects of human development policies on economic growth. In this regard, recent research, which I conducted during a PhD internship at UNU-WIDER in Helsinki, found that certain policies seeking to enhance human development can also boost economic growth. One such policy is the conditional cash transfer programme (CCT).

CCTs have been part of a growing trend in antipoverty policy in Latin America since the mid-1990s. They deliver income subsidies in cash to households identified as poor and vulnerable, upon complying with two main conditions: school attendance and regular health check-ups of participating children. The objective of the CCTs is focused on the future welfare of current children. It is assumed that their parents will keep them at school and that the higher human capital that results will prevent children becoming poor when adults. One particular significant dimension of this antipoverty programme is the effect that the cash transfers generate not at the household level, but rather in the villages where they are delivered. Adult household members comply with the conditions of the programme but, at the same time, they invest the transfers in their own business, to the extent that they are able to spur local economic activity. Beyond the beneficiaries, non-beneficiaries also obtain the benefits from the CCTs. Prof. Armando Barrientos, from Brooks World Poverty Institute, refers to this phenomenon as a ‘local economy effect’.

Ideally, the impact assessment of antipoverty transfers on growth would require reliable information on local gross domestic product. Most areas where CCTs operate are often very poor with limited information on community-level economic activity. I tackle this limitation by employing luminosity data captured at night by satellites orbiting the earth, which record night lights since 1992. The US-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stores this information and makes it available on its webpage. The iconic image of these data is the striking Korean peninsula, where the north stands out for its darkness while the south for its brightness. Several authors have validated the use of these data as a good proxy for economic growth. I employ this proxy for economic growth and estimate the effects of the Colombian CCT known as Familias en Accion (Families in Action, in English) programme. Using these data I was able to attribute a positive effect of the CCTs on growth and per capita growth rates of the programme between 2000 and 2004.

This study demonstrates that the objectives of human development policies can be twofold. On one hand, they can contribute to higher human capital accumulation of children. On the other, they can also generate economic growth in the medium and long-run. More research is needed in this field, especially in other types of antipoverty programmes.


Villa, J.M., 2014. Social transfers and growth: The missing evidence from luminosity data (Working Paper No. 2014/090), UNU-WIDER Working Paper Series. United Nations University – World Institute for Development Economics Research.

Available at:

Juan M. Villa is an economist and currently a third year PhD student at the Brooks World Poverty Institute.