01 Sep 2019

Author: S M Waliuzzaman

What kind of development do we need for an inclusive society?

Development is a buzzword in Bangladesh. Everyone talks about development but what do we really mean by development? There seems to be an obsession everywhere regarding the term without critically challenging the version of development that we have adopted.

The conceptualisation of development is not straightforward. Scholars such as G Hart ("Development Critiques in the 1990s: Culs de Sac and Promising Paths", 2001) have distinguished between Development (with a "Big d") and development (“small d”) as an act of “post-world war project of intervention” and an act of “uneven geographical reconfiguration” respectively.

In the context of Bangladesh, development with a “small d” has always been in action at the local level through the effort made by millions of people every day. A hypothetical "small d" example can be adopted here by borrowing the community garden analogy provided by Gibson-Graham (Take Back the Economy, 2013). In a community garden, resources provided by nature (sunlight, water, air, soil, seeds) are carefully nurtured by gardeners with their labour to produce wealth (e.g. vegetables, fruits). As wealth is produced, they are managed in an effective way by consumption, distribution and recycling in order to ensure the ongoing survival of the gardeners and the garden. If nature is kind and there is surplus, the wealth is shared with extended families/neighbours or even donated to the local food bank in order to build goodwill and contribute to the community. It is also up to the gardeners to decide whether to sell some of the surplus at the local market to invest in the further productivity of the garden. “Small d” development is thus organised around the evolving human-nature support system. By widening our vision we can recognise a similar process that we carry out every day through household work, care work, feeding the poultry, co-operative farming/fishing, indigenous land management, forest management and so on.

On the other hand, “Big d” is an imported or often infiltrated idea that pursues the capitalist mode of development through implementing mega projects and policies. Under this, efforts that are being made at the local level are often overlooked, ignored or conceptualised as flawed or subordinate. We have adopted the “Big d” development approach advocated by big global actors such as the World Bank and IMF which assume that the free market economy and privatisation can solve our societal crisis. In that process, big private business enterprises and corporates have become the economic powerhouses of the country by accumulating capital and suppressing opportunities at the local level. Despite living in a finite planet, we have exploited the non-renewable energy resources and manipulated the renewable ones. Despite living with others, we have focused on individual gains and preferences while privileging some at the cost of many others. Large-scale corporate farming has replaced co-operative agricultural practices, organic products have been replaced by the genetically modified organism (GMO) products, people have been made landless through various processes of grabbing/land acquisition, rivers/canals and many other natural elements have been killed by massive infrastructural development and so on. The very popular metrics of measuring “Big d” such as GDP bear no account of many local interventions such as women's household contribution or the care work. As if development with a "Big d" means true development and “small d” development is not a sign of development, rather the latter is one of primitive society!

But it's time to rethink the version of development that we have adopted, mostly from the legacy of British and Pakistani colonial rule. The idea is not to abandon either of the two but to ask if it is really possible to have our own approach where they can co-exist or where at least the “small d” is not totally overshadowed by the hegemony of “Big d”. It is hard to answer this question at the moment, but the process of thinking of alternatives can be started by at least recognising the efforts made at local levels and valuing indigenous traditions, norms, values and knowledge. There is evidence around us of individuals and communities which are engaged in various innovative ways of addressing our daily challenges. Inspiration can be taken from localised and pluralistic grassroots movements. Take the Water Museum in Coastal Bangladesh, a first-of-its-kind in South Asia, where, after being severely impacted by the water crisis in the region, community people had formed it in 2014 as part of their campaign for saving the rivers and to uphold the cultural value of water over its commercial value. Or the formation of farmers' cooperatives in northern Bangladesh to create a seed bank, a community-led initiative which emerged as a strategy of not only ensuring food security during drought but also as a mechanism of economic, political and social empowerment of communities, to support the whole community. Or from those slum dwellers of Dhaka, who despite facing extreme economic hardship are supporting the economy of the city by creating space for a diverse range of economic practices where these practices are often driven by the motive of collective survival rather than profit gain.

My belief is that actual development and prosperity cannot be achieved unless we consciously defeat the seductive power of the glamorous notion of “Big d” development and work together to make an inclusive society not through competition but through our traditional spirit of shared existence. By noticing all the things that are being done to ensure our material and socio-environmental well-being at the household, community and national level, we can seriously give ourselves a chance at creating an inclusive society.

Note* This write-up has been published in The Daily Star (17 February, 2019)