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

This blog was originally posted at: http://www.asiapathways-adbi.org/2014/12/paths-to-development-is-there-a-bangladesh-surprise/#sthash.eXjaCZtq.dpuf

Swimming Alone? The Role of Social Capital for Enhancing Climate Resilience in Bangladesh

By Joanne Jordan

 Social capital is becoming increasingly recognised as having a key role in enhancing resilience to climate stress. Joanne Jordan, Lecturer in Climate Change and Development at IDPM, considers in a paper recently published in Climate and Development, the relative importance of different types of social capital for enhancing resilience, by exploring how relationships of exchange and reciprocity influence responses to climate stress in South-west Bangladesh. Specifically, she identifies four types of social capital-based support (with monetary support as a subset) and the interlinkages among the types (and processes) of social capital with diverse effects on resilience to climate stress.

Resilience is increasingly becoming the new buzz word. It is top of the policy agenda with a number of government and non-government agencies increasingly relating resilience to climate change. Climate change researchers have highlighted that resilient communities can better withstand ‘disturbances’, self-organise and learn and adapt to change when required. While it may seem obvious that a resilient system is less vulnerable than a non-resilient one, such reasoning is overly simplistic and under-emphasises the complexity of the relationship between resilience and vulnerability. Therefore, my paper in Climate and Development, presents a continuum of resilience – reactive to proactive.

Vulnerable house 1House reconstructed after Cyclone Sidr, Kolatola, Bangladesh © Joanne Jordan

Reactive resilience focuses on strengthening the status quo and creating resistance to change, thus it can strengthen the current political and government regime or trajectory of change, as it involves actions and activities that occur within existing structures. In contrast, proactive resilience emphasises the inevitability of change and aims to establish a system that is able to adapt to new circumstances (Walker et al., 2002). This is an important broadening of the traditional interpretation of resilience, which focuses on persistence and robustness of the system. This highlights that resilience allows for the advancement of the state through flexibility to experiment, learn and adopt innovative solutions and transform (Walker et al., 2002).

This continuum of resilience can be further enriched by including social capital. Social capital does not necessarily increase resilience (in particular proactive resilience). Figure 1 suggests that bonding social capital is most often used for reactive action, while a diversity of types of social capital is used in more forward-looking adaptation. Therefore, when examining the linkages between social capital and resilience, it is important to consider how different types of social capital affect the nature of resilience. Specifically, I identify four types of social capital-based support (with monetary support as a subset) that can enhance resilience to climate stress in Kolatola and South Kainmari (Mongla Upazila, under Bagerhat district in South-west Bangladesh).

  • Informal monetary (bonding social capital): e.g. credit and lending arrangements between family, friends, neighbours and moneylenders.
  • Formal monetary (bonding and bridging social capital): e.g. NGO based microcredit.
  • Informal nonmonetary (bonding social capital): e.g. food lending arrangements between family, friends and neighbours.
  • Formal nonmonetary (bonding bridging and linking social capital): e.g. NGO and government allocation and distribution of relief.

While the case study evidence highlights that informal monetary support (i.e. bonding social capital) can provide important short-term strategies to cope with climate stress, it has limited potential to create proactive resilience, as these networks often provide low levels of monetary support and/or inflexible lending arrangements (sometimes exploitative) unlikely to provide sustained gains in the long term.

In contrast, formal monetary support in the form of NGO-based microcredit is enabled by strong circuits of bonding and bridging social capital; bonding is needed because it enhances the necessary trust on which financial exchange is based and bridging because it permits access to outside sources of capital. Formal monetary support seems to have greater potential to enhance proactive resilience. For example, microcredit can create opportunities to diversify into non-climate sensitive economic activities, which can reduce the direct impact of climate stress on a household’s livelihood, and/or enable borrowers to cope with climate impacts through an increased ability to recoup their losses. However, the evidence establishes that microcredit is largely limited to providing short- or medium-term coping strategies due to three key factors identified in the case study: lack of outreach; loan default and increased debt and supply barriers and credit alternatives.


Figure 1: Social Capital-based Support for Enhancing Resilience  Source: Jordan (2014)

The case study also highlights the potential of informal non-monetary support (i.e. bonding social capital) for enhancing reactive resilience, particularly when there is a lack of access to networks providing significant monetary support. While the evidence highlights that such forms of support do not enhance proactive resilience, they can provide important sources of coping in the immediate and/or short-term with more flexible lending arrangements compared to moneylending. In contrast, access to formal non-monetary support in the form of NGO and government relief is dependent on bonding, bridging and linking social capital. This type of support can provide important sources of coping with the impacts of climate stress in the short term (e.g. food relief), and has the potential to enhance more proactive forms of resilience, through support to rebuild homes, particularly if this involves assistance to build houses that are more resistant to cyclones and floods. However, the evidence highlights that the ability to access and capitalise on this institutional support is constrained by uneven power relations at the local level.

Furthermore, it is important to emphasise that the four types of social capital-based support evident in the case study areas should not be interpreted as being mutually exclusive. Rather, each type is connected and can represent a progressive circuit, whereby each element reinforces each other to create more integrated strategies of resilience (type f identified in Figure 1), or can act as an impediment for enhancing resilience (particularly proactive resilience). For example, one interviewee (#16) explained that her household is excluded from familial, kinship and community- based forms of support (type a). Her household does not have access to microcredit (type e) due to a lack of economic capital to pay membership fees and to repay the loan. Similarly her household does not have access to informal monetary support (type c) as they are unable to assure the lender that they can repay the loan and reciprocate exchanges when necessary in the future. While the interviewee highlighted that they had access to relief after Cyclone Sidr in 2007, this was limited due to a range of factors, including lack of connection to informal and formal leaders involved in allocating and distributing relief; lack of economic capital to pay bribes to access relief and a lack of connection to NGOs providing relief compared to those village inhabitants who were members of NGO microcredit groups. While they had access to informal food lending (type b), this was limited to inflexible lending arrangements where food could only be borrowed for very short time periods, which led to the household taking overlapping food loans, using one food loan to repay another food loan. Furthermore, access to this type of support was then further limited within the household, with food prioritised to particular members of the family (i.e. with elderly widows more likely to be ‘starved’).

My paper highlights a complex causality implicit in social capital-resilience relations; however, it also indicates their mutually reinforcing quality. While the case study emphasises the importance of maintaining a diversity of types of social capital-based support (with monetary support as a subset) for building proactive resilience, the poor’s strongest networks are commonly with their family or kin. The potential of these networks to enhance resilience to uncertain future climate change must not be overemphasised. While they can provide important sources of coping (albeit limited to reactive resilience), the evidence suggests that there appears to be limited opportunity for such networks to allow people to adapt to stresses, as the level of support these networks can provide is constrained given the socioeconomic and cultural fabric.

Links and Further Information

This blog entry was first posted on http://www.joannejordan.org on 24 November 2014.

This blog summarises a paper recently published in Climate and Development, which can be found here http://www.dx.doi.org/10.1080/17565529.2014.934771. Alternatively, an open access copy (post-print version) can be found at http://www.escholar.manchester.ac.uk/uk-ac-man-scw:228811


Learning from Dhaka’s BusteeBashees

By Sally Cawood

In March 2014, IDPM PhD Student Sally Cawood boarded a plane to Dhaka for her first taste of urban life in the Bangladeshi capital, dubbed one of the most ‘unliveable cities’ in the world. In this blog Sally describes how this two week trip fundamentally altered her views on urban slums (bustees), their residents (busteebashees) and her PhD.

In Dhaka, at least 5 million people live in slums known as bustees, with thousands more joining the world’s most crowded city every day (See Banks et al, 2011; Ahmed, 2012; Cox, 2012; Shikdar, 2012). As opposed to passive vehicles of hyper-urbanisation, I argue in my PhD that bustee residents are highly networked and active agents, a view shared by others (see Roy and Hulme, 2013; Slum/Shack Dwellers International; Asian Coalition for Housing Rights). My research focuses on the drivers, forms and outcomes of grassroots collective action among this neglected group.

Like many first year PhD students, I’ve had my head stuck in a book (well, many books) and stared at a computer screen for the past six months. However, with support from the Brooks World Poverty Institute (BWPI), I ventured into the real world to attend the CITICON (Cities in a Connected World) workshop on Urbanisation and Sustainable Cities in Bangladesh and ESPA (Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation) one-day workshop on access to water and green spaces for the urban poor living in Dhaka and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. While highly insightful, I saw little of Dhaka in these first few days of hotels and workshops. I was eager to get out and explore, walk among and observe the hustle and bustle on the streets below.

Unexpected Diversity

After three days inside, I visited two bustees located on privately owned land. You can read all you like about a place, or the idea of a place such as a ‘slum’, but no book, photograph or workshop presentation could capture the diversity of these settlements. Despite all their negative and homogeneous connotations bustees are highly diverse and vibrant places. Each settlement faced significant social, economic and political challenges, with threat of eviction being a major concern. However, each varied in terms of history, services available (water, electricity and sanitation facilities), housing and land type, security of tenure, household number, population, social structure, level of community organisation and NGO engagement. This, I did not expect.

Now You See Me…The Paradox of Visibility/Invisibility

During my first week, I visited a further three bustees, one on the western embankment, another in a narrow side street, and one in a graveyard, where we met with community leaders who openly shared their concerns. The small settlement on the river embankment was surrounded on all sides by diggers and building works. Eviction seems inevitable in such a place, yet, where would its residents move to? Will they claim their right to adequate resettlement? Who will ensure resettlement takes place? These questions are often left unanswered. I hope that my PhD research will shed light on the role that coordinated and ‘strategic’ collective action can play in seeking answers.

I began to see how bustees and busteebashees are both highly visible but also deeply invisible. Often located on the doorstep of, or opposite large NGOs and research organisations (such as 40 year old Karail slum opposite BRAC), these settlements are at the heart of urban development and for many, are a stark visual expression of urban poverty in Dhaka. This may be so, but the picture that emerged for me was much more complex. As opposed to separate manifestations of poverty, these bustees are deeply integrated within Dhaka’s economic, social and political landscape.

Days Numbered?



The pictures above show land clearances, with shacks left on stilts and others surrounded by rapid development. Ironically, much of the cheap construction labour will come from these informal settlements

(Sally Cawood, 8/03/14)

While many NGOs are working on water provision, micro-credit, informal education and micro-enterprise, there was little longer-term, progressive engagement with community groups. Why? I began to see how the complex and dangerous story of housing and land markets in Dhaka affects collaborative action. Regarded as ‘too complicated, too political, too hot an issue’ many NGOs prefer to work on ‘tidy, easy’ micro-credit, water, sanitation and capacity building projects, that are ‘unlikely to ruffle any feathers’ (ACHR, 2012: 50). The most valuable interventions seemed to be those in which NGOs facilitated community action (i.e. self-help, savings and credit groups), yet these seemed few and far between.

PhD Pathways 

Despite the contradictions emerging in the urban landscape, I met many inspiring individuals both within and outside of these settlements. I met with community architects, who are facilitating community planning and self-builds, talked with researchers who conducted the largest slum survey in Dhaka to date. I was helped enormously by friends at BRAC University and learnt a great deal from UNDPs Urban Partnerships for Poverty Reduction (UPPR) team. By the end of the trip, I could walk around with confidence and felt my Bangla was improving!

The experience helped me to refine my PhD focus. I found that busteebashees rely on their friends, family, neighbours and local musclemen (mastaans) to a significant degree. Social networks, kinship ties and clientalist relationships dominate lives characterised by insecurity and uncertainty. People organise and help each other, as one might expect. Yet, this organisation varied from more mundane, everyday functions such as waste collection, sorting and disposal, to longer-term community savings, planning and self-builds.

To other early career researchers I would say take every chance you get, apply to conferences even if they seem ‘above your head’, take the initiative and don’t be afraid to get out there. I learnt more in this two week trip than months of reading…some things you just have to see.

Email: Sally.cawood@postgrad.manchester.ac.uk

Podcast: http://www.vivavocepodcasts.com/#!collective-action/c17at