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Bangladesh The milieu of social justice & economic emancipation

Muhammad Abdul Mazid | December 07, 2022 00:00:00

Macroeconomic and social indicators show that Bangladesh has been better off as an independent nation though it is far behind in achieving its primary goal of alleviating economic and political inequality. Macroeconomic growth contributed to higher national income, but growing income inequality needs to be addressed.

Going back to history and development of geopolitical scenario in the subcontinent,unlike other parts of the globe during the last three centuries, the abiding fact that emerges is that for the cause of establishing equality, shunning disparities and gaining economic standing, all efforts for freedom were taken. Major milestones (mostly in the USA)are:

• Roots of Modern Social Work: To compensate for ineffective government response to growing social problems, benevolent societies and self-help organisations took to addressing the consequences of urbanisation, poverty, and immigration. Founded in 1843 and 1853 respectively, two such organisations were, the Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor and the Children's Aid Society. They focused on addressing social issues such as child welfare and tenement housing.

• The Civil War Spurs Action: Based on the need created by the upheaval of the Civil War (1861-1865), major social welfare initiatives, such as the U.S. Sanitary Commission and the American Red Cross, emerged. Charity boards were created as a means to improve the management of social institutions.

• The Use of Scientific Charity: In 1877, the first American Charity Organisation Society attempted to respond to the social consequences of industrialisation, with "scientific charity." Using concepts from the business field, reformers attempted to regulate public relief distribution to minority immigrant communities who were a rapidly growing part of the labour force.

• The Rise of Settlement Houses: Settlement houses were created in response to some of the societal changes caused by industrial expansion.

• Early Social Work Education Programs Are Born: In the late 19th century, full programs dedicated social work education began to take shape.

• World War I Required Expertise:The Red Cross and the Army requested social workers to apply casework skills to treat soldiers for "shell shock" in World War I (1914-1918). This marked the first time social workers were called upon to treat social issues that weren't limited to poverty.

• Government responded to the Great Depression:The stock market crash in October 1929 signalled the start of a depression that would last for a decade. The Great Depression (1929-1939) created a shift in the belief that social welfare was a government responsibility versus a private charitable responsibility.

• WWII Required Military Social Workers:Many social workers were given war-related assignments during World War II (1939-1945) to develop services for communities impacted by the war.

• Consolidation Improved Professional Outlook:Following the end of World War II, efforts were made to enhance the professional status of social work.

In the Indian sub-continent, democratic movements aimed to create a social system of equal standing in general. However, Swadeshi Movement (1905), Satyagraha, Language Movement (1952), Liberation war of Bangladesh (1971) were major milestones.

The non-political , non-sectarian spiritual organisations like Ramkrishna Mission (1897) , Ahsania Mission ( 1935) , and non-governmental social development initiatives like BRAC ( 1972) and Grameen Bank ( 1983) , were established to lead social work and business (mostly microcredit) as well that could help people come out of poverty, institute empowerment within the family, community development, and economic emancipation and social justice. Social movements have had an advanced agenda, with the aim of reforming political and social structures. The social movement initiatives are focused on the goal of restoring society. A social movement may be described as a concerted effort to change certain social ties that are formed. Movement is never an on-going trend because it is aimed towards those very specific intolerable aspects of the activity of society under the control of a large section of the population.

John Rawls ( 1921-2002 ) an eminent and influential thinker on social justice and a leading figure in moral and political philosophy , argues for 'social justice as 'a balance between social equality and individual freedom', nonetheless, social equality and individual freedom are frequently seen as in tension, and debate continues as to how, and to what extent, they can be balanced. A socially just society is one based upon the principles of equality and solidarity; values human rights as well as recognises the dignity of every human being. The Constitution of the International Labour Organisation affirms that "universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice, the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action treats social justice as a purpose of the human rights education and affirm that "Human rights education should include peace, democracy, development and social justice. The United Nations affirms that "Social justice may be broadly understood as the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth" and "social justice is not possible without strong and coherent redistributive policies conceived and implemented by public agencies.

Bangladesh was the product of a 'Bengali nationalism' that arose to challenge West Pakistan's economic exploitation of its Eastern wing. In the 1950s and 1960s, a group of Bengali economists carefully documented the process of economic disparity and demonstrated how a 'two-economy' system was increasing the economic inequality in the then East and West Pakistan. The economic and political demands, as stipulated and enumerated under the Six-point programme (1966), were the frontal assault on the foundation of Pakistan's colonial exploitation and authoritarian modes of governance. Hence the General Election of 1970s was fought on the basis of economic and political autonomy and inclusiveness, which reflected the legitimate demands of the people of the then East Pakistan. Bangladesh emerged out of a quest for economic and political emancipation -- where people's participation will be the key to its development.

In his historic 7th March speech, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (1920-1975) mentioned the word 'freedom' twice because he knew that achieving economic emancipation is equally important to freeing the country from the Pakistani occupation. Bangabandhu started working with this goal after independence; his struggle was for achieving economic emancipation for the deprived section of the society. For Bangladesh, these types of commitment also have a strong grounding - notably in Article 15 of the Constitution which states:

"It shall be a fundamental responsibility of the State to attain… a steady improvement in the material and cultural standard of living of the people, with a view to securing to its citizens… the basic necessities of life, including food, clothing, shelter, education and medical care; the right to work, that is the right to guaranteed employment at a reasonable wage having regard to the quantity and quality of work; the right to reasonable rest, recreation and leisure; and the right to social security, that is to say to public assistance in cases of undeserved want arising from unemployment, illness or disablement, or suffered by widows or orphans or in old age, or in other such cases."

This declaration focuses on guaranteeing fair outcomes for all, through employment, social protection, social dialogue, and fundamental principles and rights at work. Social protection is a key policy consideration for Bangladesh. However, the wider work of the UN System has been enabling the realisation of social justice in Bangladesh.

The UN system has a long history in Bangladesh of supporting development and improving human welfare and dignity. UN advocacy and technical support has assisted national actors both in public and private sector to deliver cradle to grave support across the human life cycle, alongside giving assistance and advice on effective and fair governance, and on secure on-going improvements in prosperity and reductions in poverty. In the social sphere, this has included combating maternal and infant mortality, supporting children's development via better education and health, targeting improved food security and nutrition, facilitating better livelihoods through employment reform, social protection and skills development, building resilience to natural disasters, and in assisting effective population management in general .

In the field of governance, in particular, has also sought to ensure social provisioning is centre stage in policymaking, decision making is evidence-based and the exercise of law is non-discriminatory. Many of UN and multilateral donor agencies' current big programmes - in the urban sector, in schooling and child welfare, in skills training, in the domestic and overseas labour market, in building adaptation to climate change, and in securing better nutrition outcomes, supports the country to push the envelope in achieving social justice in the fastest possible time.

The result of strong partnerships between the government, non-government organisations and development partners are plain to see in the facts and figures of Bangladesh's developmental history. Over the last 20 to 25 years alone, poverty has fallen from just short of 50% of the population to just over 30. Bangladesh is on-track or close to achieving the vast majority of its SDGs as was in the circumstances of Millennium Development Goals. Within the social goals, strong performance is still more striking. Bangladesh has rightly been globally recognised for its exceptional achievements on child mortality, receiving a UN award in 2010, and commended for the turn around on the maternal mortality goal, which was initially lagging. While there is still work to be done, for example on the environmental targets and nutrition, the overall position is very encouraging.

The question of social protection reform lies at the heart of securing social justice, especially during a time of transformational economic change. As Bangladesh moves towards middle income status, an effective system of social security and transfer payments will be a crucial dimension to ensure economic development continues apace and that it remains equitable. It also sits at the nexus of making progress on a broader development agenda - encompassing health and nutrition outcomes, resilience to shocks and access to livelihood opportunities. In essence, social protection is a form of collective insurance, a hedge against risks and contingencies that individuals and families face throughout their lives. A sound social protection system provides both safety nets and social ladders, underwriting economic opportunities and securing basic welfare levels. Programmes to support pregnant women and new mothers, early years of children, vulnerable adults, the unemployed, the disabled and the elderly, are vital. They provide access to key capabilities - education, health and livelihoods - which promote people's well-being. In turn there are macro level gains to be realised, including improved and productivity economic growth, a fair distribution of resources and management of income inequality and improved social cohesion.

Bangladesh has long recognised the importance of social protection, and the potential contribution it makes to equitable development. Moreover, these programmes have a special resonance for the country, given the level of vulnerability accruing from exposure to environmental and climatic risks. Today the government is spending around 15% of its revenue budget equivalent to around 2% of national GDP on social transfers and allowances. Additionally, Bangladesh has pioneered many innovations in this field - including the educational stipend allowances targeted on school attendance, a focus on poverty graduation and the building of resilience and a system to respond to environmental and climatic shocks.

However, the system has many weaknesses. The number of programmes has proliferated and there is some degree of administrative fragmentation, with over 80 schemes being delivered by more than 20 ministries. Both coverage and targeting have been weak, and too large a proportion of the benefits do not reach the intended, most needy recipients. Most significantly, the system is not well-attuned to the rapidly changing nature of Bangladesh -i.e. major forces in play such as industrialisation, urbanisation and mass-migration. These pose enormous consequences for social and economic change in the coming years. The pattern of spending is rather too dominated by relief-type programmes focused on disaster response. While there were and remain, very good reasons for this focus, the system needs to evolve to meet new needs and build-in resilience to shocks as well as offering direct responses.

If Bangladesh is to secure middle income status on the basis of social equity and inclusion, then a modern social protection system is a prerequisite. Learning from other low middle income countries, this would involve the adoption of a series of technical and practical innovations, and a move to a life-cycle approach based on a mixed system of entitlements and targeted benefits.

In a socially just state, on average, the poor and marginalised see their lot improve over time, stable prices aren't an end in themselves; it's just that rapid inflation hurts the poor. However, major ingredients of ensuring social justice and economic emancipation are : Freedom of thought; Liberty of conscience as it affects social relationships on the grounds of religion, philosophy, and morality; political liberties (e.g. representative democratic institutions, freedom of speech and the press, and freedom of assembly);freedom of association; freedoms necessary for the liberty and integrity of the person (viz.: freedom from slavery, freedom of movement and a reasonable degree of freedom to choose one's occupation); and,rights and liberties covered by the rule of law.

People living in third world economies are to emancipate themselves from poverty and economic enslavement of borrowing from multilateral development partner like the World Bank (WB) and forever being indebted and dependent on the global economy. Instead of taking it to the streets and trashing an already ailing economy and causing rampant chaos which makes investors shy away from those countries. Even though the money flows in a circular motion back to the source country, the recipient nation that receives a shiny new dam or highway is required to repay, usually with interest. In many cases, WB convinced developing nations to take such large loans that they cannot possibly afford to repay them. Instead they are forced to pay by other means, such as, surrendering control of UN votes in the general assembly, allowing the installation of military bases, or seceding access to natural and human-made resources, until they can repay.

90 countries and 41 aid organisations met in Paris to further negotiate ways in which recipient countries can improve their transparency and accountability, and donor nations can be more efficient, more abundant, and more reliable providers of aid money. From this meeting, the Paris Declaration 2005 was released. The Paris Declaration commits donor nations to align their aid with recipient priorities, as determined by the recipients, and to "respect partner country leadership and help strengthen their capacity to exercise it." Donor countries also committed to use a recipient nations' "own institutions and systems, where these provide assurance that aid will be used for agreed purposes. "This change is a shift to direct budgetary and project aid, i.e., money being entrusted to governments directly, and it was designed to reduce donor control over development and allow poorer countries to solve their own problems using their own strategies. Specifically, the Paris Declaration stated as an objective to "halve the proportion of aid flows to government sector not reported on government's budget(s) (with at least 85 per cent reported on budget)."

Bangladesh has achieved robust and sustained growth of export earnings and exports have become an ever more important part of the economy. While exports accounted for around 5 per cent of the economy in the post-war years, now it accounts for over 20 per cent. More recently, remittances from migrant workers have emerged as a major factor, amounting to over 10 per cent of the economy in recent years. Export performance also demonstrated a similar positive relation with democratic regimes. During the same period, Bangladesh also moved from aid dependency to self-sufficiency as total exports of goods and services were more than six times the foreign aid it received in most recent years. However, to what extent such growth in national earnings has added to human welfare?

With the acceleration in the growth of per capita income, Bangladesh has made considerable progress in poverty reduction. The economic progress has translated into steady decline in poverty rates. During the 1990s, the national incidence of poverty declined from nearly 60 per cent to about 50 per cent; and a much more rapid reduction in poverty seems to have taken place in the following five-year period with the national poverty rate reduced to about 40 per cent.The economic progress is also reflected in other social indicators. For example, fertility rate has fallen significantly. At independence, each Bangladeshi woman had seven babies on average. Now it is nearly two. Meanwhile, life expectancy has gone up, while infant mortality rate came down. At independence, 150 infants out of every 1,000 died. Now the number is less than 40.

Amidst all achievements, an important area of concern for Bangladesh is the rise in inequality in the distribution of income. After all, dream of economic emancipation through the alleviation of economic inequality was one of the driving forces of the liberation war. Regrettably, in Bangladesh, there has been an increase in the degree of inequality in income distribution from the mid-1980s. Gini coefficient, a measure of the inequality of wealth or income distribution, in the country stood at 67.6 in 2021 from 33.12 in 2010 and 33.22 in 2005. The Gini coefficient was 25.88 in 1984 and went up to 33.46 in 1996.Bangladesh has remained a country with substantial income inequality with all its manifestations even 51 years after independence. A small section of the society enjoys most of the country's wealth depriving the vast majority. Income share held by the highest 10 per cent increased from 21 per cent in 1984 to 27 per cent in 2016. Income share held by the lowest 10 per cent decreased from 4.13 per cent to 3.99 per cent in 2010 and to 3.7 per cent in 2016.

At the time of independence, over 90 per cent of Bangladeshis were villagers, a share that has now come down to nearly 70 per cent. Historical experience suggests that if the economy grows faster, more and more people will flock to the cities. Dhaka in particular has gone from being home to 2 per cent of Bangladeshis to 10 per cent in the past four decades. Lack of decentralisation is causing a growing spatial inequality in income earning, where residents of Dhaka and Chittagong are earning way more than the residents living elsewhere.

Macroeconomic and social indicators show that Bangladesh has been better off as an independent nation though it is far behind in achieving its primary goal of alleviating economic and political inequality. Macroeconomic growth contributed to higher national income, but growing income inequality needs to be addressed. Geographically centralised industrialisation has contributed to a higher flow of domestic migration and export of goods and services helped the national economy gain its self-sufficiency, but it is essential to safeguard and rights of the workers and the actors are in informal sector.

Bangladesh cannot enjoy the independence and perform better with the growing income inequality or sufferings of the middle income group and marginalized population as well.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Mazid is a retired Secretary to the Government and former Chairman, NBR.

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