Bangladesh, Burma and the Rohingya crisis Contents


Economic growth and development

105.DFID, and other commentators, regard Bangladesh is a development success story. There are various indicators commonly quoted:


106.Of course, significant challenges remain, both in terms of some weaknesses and fault-lines in the overall picture and potential fragility in the face of external ‘shocks’—such as the arrival of a traumatised Rohingya community expelled by Burma as well as Bangladesh’s well-evidenced vulnerability to natural disasters.


107.The relatively impressive economic growth overall, unsurprisingly, is not distributed as equitable benefits throughout Bangladesh society. While DFID wrote that: “progress in poverty reduction has been impressive, and substantially ahead of what might be expected from the country’s income level”, the estimates of current poverty levels are of between 37–40 million people living in poverty, of whom 21 million were in extreme poverty. The Institute for Development Studies wrote that “comparatively high growth rates in Bangladesh have not automatically translated into decent work or living wages” nor have they generated the skilled labour force that Bangladesh’s needs for the future. Other witnesses agreed, saying that one of the country’s key challenges was to “get up the value chain”.133 Joe Devine, Social and Policy Sciences, Bath University, illustrated Bangladesh’s uneven distribution of the wealth created by its GDP growth, telling us: “The top 10% of the country have sped away … we are talking about luxury lifestyles that most of us cannot imagine. The bottom 40% have dropped significantly. The middle class, around 50%, is … retaining its consumption from before. You have a real inequality brewing and increasing.”134

108.There also seem to be inequalities arising from the competing attractions of continuing education and immediate employment in Bangladesh. Farah Kabir, ActionAid Bangladesh, pointed to the fact that the country had about 400,000 people at mid-manager level from India and other parts of south Asia due to a lack of educational attainment in Bangladesh schools. She said that these were not imported ‘experts’ but people with basic management skills. There had been a huge improvement in enrolment and access to a basic education but too soon the government’s priorities kicked in—or those of struggling parents—and young people were pushed towards “vocational or the overseas market” (not helped by legislation legalising full-time employment at age 14).135

109.The ‘overseas market’ was important because remittances (money sent home by nationals living and working abroad) have been important as a source of foreign exchange ($12.7 billion in 2016/17136). Meenakshi Ganguly, Human Rights Watch, South Asia, told us that the Bangladesh government’s approach was “pretty much competing with other countries to undercut the wages for these people to travel”;137 and the “poorest record” in trying to protect their rights and welfare. The emigrant population is significant with 750,000 Bangladeshis migrating to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Singapore and Malaysia in 2017 alone—not far off the number of Rohingya arriving after ‘deportation’ from Burma. In total, almost nine million Bangladeshis are estimated to be working overseas, of whom a majority are located in the Middle East.

110.There was also the enduring issue of gender inequality. Although, we were told that Bangladesh now has more girls in school than boys, that was on the basis of enrolment. The drop-out rate from secondary education for girls was close to 50%; the equivalent for boys was about 41%. This feeds through to the workplace and business environment. In the ready-made garment sector (80% female employees), men would be likely to be earning twice what was paid to a woman and occupy many times more supervisory positions. In the small business sector, it would appear that men earn about 80% more than women.

111.With DFID’s focus on tackling poverty and ‘leaving no-one behind’, unsurprisingly, a substantial portion of the overall Bangladesh programme is aimed at tackling the poorest and, in doing so, mitigating the inequality of mainstream economic growth. On the upstream side, £197.4 million was allocated to three education programmes, overall spanning 2008 to 2020, aimed at primary education, English language skills and reaching under-privileged young people with basic and vocational education aimed at employability. More directly aimed at improving the livelihoods and economic opportunities of women, the poor and disadvantaged populations are a basket of programmes, covering different planning periods, which include objectives such as assisting solo, micro and small businesses, improving the provision of skills in the pervasive garment-making sector and also construction, formal job creation, and improving the quality of existing formal jobs in the garment sector.138

112.We received favourable impressions of a number of providers, and from a number of beneficiaries, of such programmes during our visit to Bangladesh earlier this year. These included: a maker and importer of shoes who was looking forward to opening a second (tiny) shop and renegotiating the terms of his import deal; a number of women investigating the potential to move from solo home-working on garments to some form of collective or association, and a further group of solo entrepreneurs being assisted in documenting their financial ‘identity’ as a foundation for discussions with a bank about access to finance.

113.Two issues came to the fore during this portion of the visit that we raised with Minister Burt when he came to give evidence at the conclusion of the inquiry. First, we visited an impressive collaboration between DFID, Ambagan Technical School and a number of private sector sponsors, under the Underprivileged Children’s Education Programme (UCEP). This is a project to re-connect young people with education and vocational skills training. It was quite clear from the students we talked to that, without the incentives of UCEP’s structure and the likelihood of employment, the chances of them spending time back in education, as opposed to informal employment, was remote. However, DFID is withdrawing funding from the initiative and we challenged the wisdom of stopping something that seemed to be working well. Richard Montgomery, DFID Director, indicated that the point behind projects such as UCEP’s Ambagan school was to showcase the approach, draw in other funding and become self-sufficient. He said that UCEP would be able to apply to a successor challenge fund (but acknowledged the process was a competitive one). On a practical note, he added: “we have this dialogue with a lot of organisations and every time we say, “Okay, we are not going to stick to what we said before, and we are going to give you another piece of funding”, we create an incentive for the next round of negotiations with another organisation. That is problematic.”139 We acknowledge the principle of seed-funding, showcasing and consequent self-sufficiency but are grateful for the Minister’s under-taking further to consider the funding of UCEP’s programme for disadvantaged youth skills training. We look forward to a report of his conclusions as part of DFID’s reply to this report.

114.Secondly, we visited an obviously and avowedly successful garment manufacturer in a special enterprise zone in Chittagong which was receiving DFID’s support to implement a superior training methodology which got workers from induction to the factory floor more quickly than traditional methods and with superior productivity. We questioned why such a business needed subsidy from UK aid to train its workers?

115.Minister Burt summarised the approach by saying “sometimes programmes are designed to encourage those who have the resources to place the resources in the right place.”140 Richard Montgomery, DFID Director, recalled the infamous Rana Plaza building collapse141 and the consequent coalition of Bangladesh authorities, aid donors, NGOs and retailers (including many big UK brands) which worked together to improve infrastructures, environment and conditions, as well as inspection and audit arrangements, to prevent repetition. The programme we saw was a further step in this process, a more explicit showcase, to demonstrate the ‘bottom line’ benefits of better training, better conditions, better employee engagement. Mr Montgomery said: “I do not think we see this as a long-term hand out. We are seeing this as a hand up to factories to demonstrate that better training is worthwhile … The UK taxpayer can be really proud of the way that we have helped, along with many others, improve the ready-made garment industry, which now supports not just 4 million women directly through wages but supports about 15% of the Bangladesh population”.142 In response to challenge from the Committee, Mr Montgomery agreed that a low-interest loan, what he then termed “development capital”, might have been used in recognition of the boost being given to an already profitable entity in the private sector.143 Minister Burt also acknowledged that “development changes … the instruments and facilities that we use change over time.”144 We will return to the evolution of instruments and facilities used to deploy UK aid in a future inquiry into DFID’s Economic Development Strategy.

‘Civic space’, open debate

116.Our evidence suggested that Bangladesh’s relatively open ‘civic’ space145 had played a major role in its successful economic growth and development. Evidence from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) said that the freedom and confidence for DFID and Bangladeshi NGOs, such as BRAC, to form “enduring and innovative partnerships” had contributed to relatively equitable and inclusive development over time.146 Joe Devine, Head of Social Policy Sciences, Bath University, told us: “Bangladesh is probably unique in the world in that, especially through NGO activity, the development activity has been pervasive and widespread throughout the country”.147 IDS also pointed to the freedom of the media, and other civil society organisations, to highlight, discuss and criticise the activity and performance of government, as a “crucial foundation” for Bangladesh’s “wider human development success” and external trust in the economic and business environment.148 Meenakshi Ganguly, Human Rights Watch South Asia, also coupled tolerance of scrutiny and criticism with successful development, telling us: “If you are going to deem your entire opposition as most likely linked to terrorism, it is a huge challenge. That means half of [the government’s] political opponents are in jail or have charges coming up. That bit of it is problematic and it creates an environment that will, in the end, hurt the economy.”149

117.Our witnesses were clear that recent activity by the Bangladesh authorities was aimed at restricting freedom of debate and the capacity and willingness of civil society representatives to speak out and criticise.150 The 2014 general election in Bangladesh had been controversial and violent and the main BNP opposition party had boycotted it. Our evidence indicates that since then Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has been exerting increasing pressure on critics and opponents, directly, using intimidation, arbitrary arrests, vexatious proceedings and enforced disappearances and, indirectly, with repressive legislation and administrative rules; pressure on the judiciary and other authorities independent of government; and the politicisation of the police, courts and other public agencies.

118.DFID is similarly concerned; Minister Alistair Burt told us that: “There has been a shrinkage of the political space” in Bangladesh adding that the UK Government raised concerns—for example about draft legislation on digital security or challenges to journalists and others—with the Bangladeshi authorities in public and in private.151 Discussions during our recent visit to Bangladesh indicated that, while in recent history, extra-judicial disappearances have been mostly aimed at terrorist suspects, they are increasingly aimed at opposition parties.

119.There was a further narrative, presented in evidence, that polarisation between Awami League and the BNP supporters had percolated everywhere, including in civil society organisations, because, as Joe Devine, Bath University, told us: “survival depends on being properly aligned with X party or Y party”.152 This led to the further diminution of the space for the “public good”, and non-partisan debate, in Bangladesh. Mr Devine recommended DFID should focus on supporting the independence of the public policy ‘think tank’ sector, such as the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, which were “very, very good” but also “under fire at the moment”. In Chittagong, Bangladesh we had visited part of an impressive DFID programme, co-funded with USAID153 and badged as ‘strengthening political participation’, which includes efforts to bring younger people from the different parties together to bridge exactly this divide. We heard, in particular, that this programme had benefited over 5,300 women who had since been appointed to grassroots party committees. Minister Burt welcomed the Committee’s interest and noted that, globally, political polarisation and confrontation was currently acute and that DFID was looking for opportunities to foster the recognition of the legitimacy of political differences, including in Bangladesh.154

Human rights

120.In general, human rights, while enshrined in Bangladeshi law, are reported to continue to be being abused widely. Bangladesh remains a Priority Country in this respect for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Credible reports from human rights organisations list: extra-judicial killings; arbitrary arrests followed by long detentions without charges; and enforced disappearances, allegedly at the hands of law enforcement officers. As mentioned above, victims of these activities have included opposition figures in recent times. The use of intimidation, ill-treatment and torture in custody remains rife.

121.We visited the Dhaka District and Metropolitan Courts and discussed the challenges of accessing justice in Bangladesh. One over-riding feature was the sheer quantity of cases with a backlog—or caseload depending on your point of view—of about three million cases, both civil and criminal. Commentators described this backlog as a barrier to justice in all type of cases giving rise to constraints upon all areas of economic and social activity. We were staggered by the quantity and distribution of mountains of physical files in the facility we visited (yet impressed by the apparent ability of the paralegal staff we met to navigate this paperwork).

122.While Bangladesh’s total prison population is lower than that of England and Wales, the proportion of ‘untried’ detainees at any one time was around 75–80%, 56,000 people (compared to the E&W equivalents of nearer 10% and 9,000).155 In the Bangladeshi case, however, a large majority of untried detainees may well be eventually acquitted; some after decades of incarceration. DFID has allocated £33.5 million between 2013 and 2021 to improving access to justice in Bangladesh with the specific aim of benefitting up to “2 million poor people” and reducing the remand population by up to 17,750 across 35 prisons. More effective and efficient justice and criminal justice systems should, eventually, encourage more than the 8% of Bangladeshis who currently feel comfortable reporting crime to the police, and the 1.5% willing to go to court; it may also assist improving upon the obscenely high proportion, 99.6%, of cases of gender-based violence that fail.

123.We raised with DFID, evidence we had received which alleged continuing abuses and violence committed by Bangladeshi security forces against ethnic minorities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in south eastern Bangladesh.156 Minister Burt responded that the UK did not have programmes addressing violence in the Chittagong Hill Tracts at present due to a perception that “the pressures that were evident 20 years ago had eased to some degree, but the evidence that you heard has interested us, and we will look at that.”157 The Minister said that a programme entitled Enabling Pathways out of Extreme Poverty had the potential to be extended to the Hill Tracts in the future, providing some “basic help, access to services, work opportunities and the like”.158 We were grateful to the Minister for undertaking to investigate reports of Bangladeshi military violence and consequent unrest in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. We look forward to a response on this point when the Government replies to this report.

Women and girls

124.Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world despite legislation in place prohibiting marriage for girls under the age of 18 and boys under the age of 21.159 Over half of women currently between the ages of 20–24 were married before their 18th birthday and one in five were married before their 15th birthday.160 Bangladesh faced criticism in 2017 from human rights groups161 when it passed an amendment to relevant statute permitting girls under age 18 to marry under “special circumstances,” such as “accidental” or “illegal” pregnancy, with permission from their parents and a court. There is no age limit on how early girls can marry under this exception.162 Women also face very high levels of violence in Bangladesh. Over 80% of married Bangladeshi women are estimated to suffer abuse from their partner during their marriage. There are also high levels of dowry killings, acid attacks, stalking, sexual harassment and rape.163

125.DFID is funding the Manusher Jonno Foundation which has helped over one million people (60% women) to hold government to account and claim their rights; including helping 45,852 female survivors of violence to get compensation, resolution or legal services.164

Business and working environment

126.A further potential restraint on further economic development was the general business environment in Bangladesh. Our witnesses pointed out that “in every single indicator that exists in terms of corruption, Bangladesh does poorly.” Corruption in Bangladesh was described as endemic; from big contracts and grand schemes — such as the Padma Bridge project165 (from which the World Bank was said to have withdrawn on grounds of concern about corruption) — to small, everyday, things like the ‘garbage’ collection.166 Bangladesh features at 177th out of 190 countries in the World Bank’s ‘Doing Business 2018’ survey and 143rd out of 180 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index for 2017. A related challenge is that public revenue generation in Bangladesh equated to only about 9% of GDP (in contrast to, for example, a western European norm of above 30%).

127.DFID’s response to these challenges, specifically, are £59 million worth of programmes, running to 2021, aimed at supporting the strengthening of the management and transparency of official information for citizens, including obviously civil society and businesses, to improve the tools and means for holding public authorities and agencies to account—with a particular programme aimed at the system of public expenditure.

Climate change

128.Bangladesh is widely recognised as one of the most vulnerable countries in terms of the impacts of climate change and also for its cutting-edge achievements in addressing the issue. We were grateful to be able to discuss these issues with leading experts, led by Professor Ainun Nishat, in Dhaka in March.

129.Bangladesh’s vulnerability arises from its extensive floodplains, low elevation (two thirds of the country being less than five metres above sea level), high population density, high levels of poverty and substantial reliance on agriculture for economic subsistence and food security. More than 80% of the population, more than 128 million people, are at risk of exposure to floods, droughts and earthquakes; and over 70% are at risk from cyclones.

130.These risks are very real and have materialised in the past with terrifying regularity claiming millions of lives and negating prior development gains. Since 1954, Bangladesh has experienced 21 abnormally high floods (of which four were ‘exceptional’ and two were catastrophic). In addition, a severe cyclone hits the country every three years or so. For example, in July 2015, the concurrent impacts of Cyclone Komen and monsoon season flooding caused $1.56 billion in damage to assets and impacted upon 2.6 million people.

131.Other impacts may be more insidious but are very worrying nonetheless. Erosion along Bangladesh’s long low coastline accounts for an annual loss of around 10,000 hectares as well as weakening natural coastal defences and aquatic ecosystems. There is a large problem - particularly in western Bangladesh - of scarcity of fresh water due to ‘salinisation’. Water intrusion from rising sea levels in low-lying plains has worsened the decline of agriculture and related production and employment opportunities as well as increasing the spread of water-related diseases.

132.Bangladesh has invested heavily in disaster readiness and response and has been supported in doing so by DFID and other donor partners. Investment of the order of $10 billion over 25 years has been directed at both infrastructure (such as strengthening river embankments and coastal polders, building cyclone shelters and developing early warning systems) and adaptation (government agency capacity, livelihood diversification and adapting rural farming methods). One example given was of increased crab farming or “fattening” taking advantage of the water salinisation (however the point was made that crab meat was far from a Bangladesh staple).

133.DFID’s assessment is, however, that “the impacts of global warming and climate change still have the potential to challenge the country’s development efforts, human security and the future.”167 The response has been both a specific climate change adaptation and risk reduction programme (£75 million between 2008 and 2017), a more general disaster preparedness and response improvement programme (£105 million between 2016 and 2021) and the ‘mainstreaming’ of climate change mitigation and adaptation measures across all programmes (for instance, clean energy, off-grid, for the rural poor and new schools doubling up as cyclone shelters for over 50,000 people in the vulnerable coastal zone).

Health and nutrition

134.DFID also runs two further programmes in Bangladesh aimed at: improving access, particularly by the poor, to essential health, population and nutrition services (£120 million between 2011 and 2017); and strengthening care for mothers and new-borns amongst the poor (£38 million between 2013 and 2018). Undernutrition in Bangladesh is the highest in South Asia (and the percentage of babies born with ‘low birthweight’ is the highest in the world). Tackling undernutrition effectively is an end in itself (SDG2), as well as contributing to the reduction of global disease; and avoiding the economic costs (2–3% of GDP and 10% of earnings); and it breaks the inter-generational cycle. The Bangladesh government has consistently prioritised key aspects of life-saving health services (such as vaccinations, antenatal services and family planning) and DFID described access to basic health services as “almost universal” but identified: low availability of skilled assistance during childbirth, TB, diabetes, hypertension, cancers and accidents as key contributing factors to premature deaths in Bangladesh.168 We visited both a HOPE developing midwifery project in Cox’s Bazar and had a discussion with ‘Suchana’ nutrition programme deliverers (Save the Children International).


135.A unique feature of DFID’s work in Bangladesh is its strategic partnership with BRAC, the giant home-grown, now global, NGO. Since 2011, DFID has been in a Strategic Partnership Arrangement (SPA) with BRAC. This is a flexible funding agreement in which BRAC receives a sizeable, multi-annual allocation of ODA to deliver a defined set of agreed development objectives covering a wide range, if not all, of DFID’s strategic objectives for its work in Bangladesh. The original SPA concluded in 2016 and SPA II has been agreed to be concluded in 2021. BRAC itself states that the SPA arrangement “gives BRAC the flexibility and funding security to innovate and implement extremely effective programmes that have achieved transformative results in Bangladesh. SPA II is funded by £224.5 million between 2016 and 2021. Looked at on an annual basis, that amounts to virtually £45 million, getting on for a third DFID’s annual budget for development aid for Bangladesh (setting aside the recent allocations for the Rohingya).

136.The original SPA portfolio performed well against expectations. Evidence submitted by BRAC in relation to mid-term results from SPA II demonstrates:

137.BRAC has developed from the ‘Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee’ to be No. 1 NGO in the world, and almost, an experiment in government - or at least key public service provider - as a non-partisan, meritocratic, social enterprise. We visited a number of BRAC projects, and met a great number of BRAC personnel and were impressed. One such, was a small community early years school. We consulted the parents and there was very vocal support for the institution which they wanted to ‘grow’ up with the children and not have to use the ‘government school’.

138.BRAC seems to have avoided the sort of partisan contamination, or political polarisation, that our witnesses alerted us to. Equally, BRAC seems to be handling, or working around, the shrinkage of the public, democratic and/or civil society ‘space’ (of course it is possible that BRAC eschewed this space in the first place). Whatever BRAC is doing, or not doing, in the background to reach and surpass its objectives while seeming to steer clear of political interference and the other challenges we have identified above, DFID should take note and put in place a process to capture, and consider, the lessons that can be learned.


139.Overall, we conclude that DFID’s work in Bangladesh is to be highly commended. The country is on a welcome overall trajectory and the UK as a longstanding ally, critical friend and partner has made a clear contribution to this direction of travel. DFID appears to have programmes and partners in place with the potential to demonstrate where and how the fault-lines and weaknesses within that positive picture might be mitigated. This is particularly important in view of the Sustainable Development Goals’ emphasis on ‘leaving no-one behind’ which points to a focus on extreme poverty, women and girls and disabled people in Bangladesh.

140.A crucial test will be how Bangladesh responds to, and copes with, a number of forthcoming challenges; and what further assistance DFID and the UK Government can deliver and help orchestrate from the rest of the international community. We see these as:

141.A fourth challenge is the Rohingya crisis; but it is most clearly not a challenge for Bangladesh alone. Bangladesh is to be thanked and commended for opening its borders to these refugees fleeing violent persecution in Burma. Bangladesh needs to face up to the requirement for a long-term solution and, the international community should provide the required resources.

142.The objective assessment is for just under $1 billion per year to meet the needs of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. The international community, with the UK in the lead, should call on the World Bank to come up with one or more funding instruments for use by the international community to provide resources to countries providing a global ‘public good’ by hosting refugees, migrants or displaced persons.

131 Q106

132 Department for International Development (DBB016), BRAC (DBB036), Institute for Development Studies (DBB024), plus DFID country briefing

133 Q110

134 Q106

135 A joint Bangladesh government/ILO survey of child labour identified 3.45 million working children of whom 1.7 fell under the definition of child labour.

136 15% lower than recent performance

137 Q106

138 DFID country programme briefing

139 Q284

140 Q279

141 The Rana Plaza disaster, DFID & FCO, April 2014

142 Q279

143 Q282

144 Q282

145 Except for labour organisation and representation

146 Institute for Development Studies (DBB024), 1.1

147 Q106

148 Institute for Development Studies (DBB024), 2.3

149 Q114

150 Department for International Development (DBB016), Institute for Development Studies (DBB024), and passim on 23 January 2018, HC 504

151 Q271 and see Annex 1 (FCO 2016 Human Rights report)

152 Q118

153 The DFID element is currently £16.2 million between 2017 and 2021

154 Q275

155 World Prison Brief: Bangladesh

156 Mr Felix Dawes (DBB037)

157 Q226

158 Q226–227

159 DFID country briefing

160 DFID country briefing

161 Human Rights Watch, World Report 2018 Bangladesh

162 DFID country briefing

163 DFID country briefing

164 DFID country briefing

165 A $3.7 billion, 6km, road and rail bridge under construction on the Padma River which runs across the middle of Bangladesh.

166 Q112

167 DFID country briefing, 94

168 Ibid, 90

Published: 22 May 2018