Bangladesh: Development Star?

This September, Bangladesh is expected to stand out as the “development star” when countries meet at the United Nations in New York to reaffirm their commitments to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. The 2015 deadline is looming on the goals, which include ending poverty, achieving gender equality, and improving world health.

Bangladesh’s achievements may be surprising to many, as it is one of the world’s poorest and most densely populated countries. But as Women’s eNews puts it, a “precocious, gender-sensitive civil society movement stirring in Bangladesh since the 1970s” is largely responsible for the progress the country has been making towards the MDGs. In particular, Bangladesh is doing a great job in poverty reduction, increasing girls’ enrollment in schools (though high dropout rates remain) and satisfying the 33 percent quota of women in Parliament.

All admirable accomplishments, considering Bangladesh is still recovering from 2007’s military coup. But the country is far from meeting the fifth UN development goal, which calls for a two-thirds reduction in maternal mortality rates by 2015.

Maternal deaths declined by almost 40 percent in Bangladesh from 1990 to 2006, but the UN reports that the progress has halted. An estimated 15,000 Bangladeshi women die every year from complications in childbirth.

One of the problems is the widespread prevalence–roughly 90 percent–of home births in Bangladesh. Even my aunt and mother were born on the floor of their homes, with no skilled birth attendant present.

“Maternal mortality will not reduce until gender disparities within the households are addressed,” Sheepa Hafiza, director of gender and justice advocacy for BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee), told Women’s eNews. “You have health projects where young mothers are targeted, but the elder decision makers in the family are not involved. That woman may not be able to decide whether she gets to see a doctor or not.”

This issue of household power dynamics is often overlooked when analyzing the factors that contribute to a country’s high maternal mortality rates. I studied this topic for my master’s dissertation, and I was shocked at the assumption that Bangladeshi households have a “benevolent dictator”–normally a male mythical character, as Bangladeshi feminist professor Naila Kabeer puts it, who will supposedly make all the right decisions for the women in his household. Newsflash: He does not exist.

An estimated $1.85 billion in additional foreign aid dollars is needed to assist Bangladesh in decreasing its maternal mortality ratio, but experts warn that financing alone will not get the job done. In addition to money and household power dynamics, women’s rights activists believe that violence against women (the cause of 14 percent of maternal deaths in the country), lack of security and high dropout rates among schoolgirls must be addressed.

Bangladesh will no doubt be a UN “development star.” But it still has a long way to go when it comes to saving women’s lives, and showing the rest of the world how to achieve the most critical of the Millenium Development Goals.

ABOVE: Bangladeshi mother and child. Photo from Creative Commons License 2.0


  1. The “precocious, gender-sensitive civil society movement” referenced is Grameen Bank…I think. I just put down one of the books by it’s founder Muhammad Yunnus to post on my facebook wall about the Millenium Development Goals, how we have only 5 years left to meet them, and how Bangladesh is doing great with the goal of poverty reduction. Muhammad Yunnus is really a genius and his ideas give me so much hope for the world. Certainly, there is still much work to be done, but I think from reading 2 of his books (well I have 24 more pages left in the 2nd one) that his achievements so far are awe inspiring and just plain inspiring.

  2. Yes, no doubt Grameen Bank has played a great role and continues to do so. I remember when I was growing up and Grameen Bank signs first started popping up around the cities. Although Yunus and Grameen Bank are very popular abroad, it is by no means single-handedly responsible for this movement in Bangladesh. There is also BRAC, local groups like Niger Kori and many, many more players in the vibrant movement.

  3. Zahed Ikram says:

    The country has made remarkable progress in development efforts under the present government. The government efforts have reduced poverty markedly in areas that were resistant to development initiatives in the past due to lack of irrigation, apalling poverty and chronic underdevelopment. These are areas where NGOs have had little impact on their livelihoods over the ages. Power sector has increased power generation several thousand megawatts in the last three years. Agriculture, Local Government and Rural Development besides Education have made great strides due to a flourishing and healthy democracy in the country. The people’s representatives have consolidated their grip at the grassroots levels hastening the progress of infrastructure work in remote rural areas.

    Bangladesh has also recently won a maritime dispute with Myanmar due to shrewd diplomatic manuver by the foreign office opening huge natural oil and gas reserves in the Bay for exploration and development.

    The government also needs to be commended for its recent thrust on family planning and welfare efforts that were left neglected by NGOs and donors alike for the last two decades. In the process poverty steeply rose in many areas due to population increasing exponentially in some of those places.

    Bangladesh must have sustained democracy to take it out of the poverty trap. In the past Professor Yunus prescribed 1/11 military coup derailed democracy for two years taking the country backwards and retarding economic development.

    Bangladesh is basically an enormously natural resource-rich country that is wrongly portrayed by the West and their NGOs working there as a poor country. Its time we come out of that mindset and establish ourselves as a proud nation instead of creating man-made cult-like figures to hammer out much needed democracy to lift our self-esteem and dignity.


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