Of Perceptions and Reality

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Reflections from the Padma. (c) Maitreyi Bordia Das

The widespread perception of Bangladesh as a mis-governed poor cousin continues and thrives in India. Stories in the media focus on fallen trade deals, undocumented migration and security hazards to India. Yet, not-so-recent articles by economist Jean Dreze and Minister of State Jairam Ramesh have pointed out that Bangladesh fares much better than India on a range of social outcomes.  But these are few and far between and don’t get the attention they deserve.

During my first visit to Bangladesh I remember being blown away by the villages. Toilets are common and in use, schools actually function and pools of dirty water don’t clog village paths. Take also the case of health. Although India spends twice as much per capita as Bangladesh on health care, it has worse outcomes in every health indicator except maternal mortality.


Religious leaders after a training on gender in Madaripur, Bangladesh. (c) Maitreyi Bordia Das

The decline in infant mortality in Bangladesh has been more dramatic than in any of its neighboring countries. What’s more, Bangladesh’s infant mortality rate for girls is now lower than that for boys, while India continues to have higher mortality for infant girls. Sex ratios in India are declining, favoring males, while Bangladesh is fast attaining parity in sex ratios. In education, Bangladesh’s per capita spending is much lower than that of India’s, but progression to secondary school for girls is much higher. Compared with other low-income countries, Bangladesh stands out as a success story in female secondary education, along with some ex-socialist countries and Vietnam. We discuss in Whispers to Voices how Bangladesh achieved this silent revolution. NGOs played a significant part but policy design and implementation were central.  And while the homogeneity of language, culture and terrain made it easier, a larger vision of a new Bangladesh was shared across social groups.  These and other reasons perhaps made it possible, and they can describe why Bangladesh has achieved what it has done but cannot absolve India of its imperative.


Some would say that Bangladesh has done well despite poor governance.  Those of us who have been in the business of governing, would say – let’s take another look at what we call governance.


For more information on the subject, please read Maitreyi's chapter on achieving the Millenium Development Goals, What Money Can't Buy


Maitreyi Bordia Das

Director, Trust Funds and Partner Relations, Development Finance (DFi)

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