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

Can growth in Africa be sustained?

by Chris Jordan

Over the last few years, African economies have been some of the fastest growing in the world. But significant doubts remain: why aren’t the proceeds of growth doing more to help those at the bottom of the pile, and in any case, is the boom sustainable?

An important report from the Accra based African Centre for Economic Transformation argues that big changes are needed within African countries to ensure that growth is equitable and can be sustained.

The report looks at Brazil, Chile and six Asian countries as exemplars of economies and societies that have made a transformational leap in recent times, and analyses where African countries are lagging behind. It suggests that African policy makers must focus on growth with DEPTH:

  • Diversification of production and exports.
  • Export competitiveness and gains.
  • Productivity increases.
  • Technology upgrading.
  • Human economic well-being improvements, particularly by expanding formal productive employment and raising incomes, that improve people’s lives.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this formula looks remarkably similar to much of  IRIBA’s current research agenda.

The report has been well received by African policy makers, with Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf commending the approach, which provides “great value to African policymakers as they draw up action plans to transform their economies and ensure that growth is sustained to improve the lives of an increasing number of Africans”.

As the IRIBA project starts to focus increasingly on Africa from September, it will be fascinating to see how these debates, and the new evidence we’re able to provide, play out.


This post was originally published at:

http://www.brazil4africa.org/can-growth-in-africa-be-sustained/ on May 30 2014