The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the fountainhead agency of development, steps into 50th anniversary this year. The birth of UNDP was at a point in time when development was measured in economic terms and well-being was equal to having a lot of wealth. Since then UNDP is working "in the front line of war on want" as then UN secretary general U Thant said in its inauguration in 1966. From sharing know-how, fighting famine and draught, combating disease and eliminating poverty to empowering women and environmental sustainability - UNDP actively participates in almost all the aspects of development that were not considered as indicators of development 50 years ago.
The development transition of Bangladesh from a so-called basket case as described by Henry Kissinger to a success story has been facilitated by a vibrant NGO (non-governmental organisation) sector, adaptation of low-cost solution to health and educational provision and, also by pro-development policies by successive governments since 1991. However in popular discussions, less is talked about the role international agencies like UNDP who has been contributing in various sectors and facilitating our journey towards becoming a middle-income nation.
In the 1970s and 1980s, development used to be defined in terms of per capita GNP (gross national product). It was assumed that higher wealth would trickle down on non-economic aspects such as education, health and quality of life.
UNDP introduced for the first time non-economic measurement of development in the late 1980s. In 1990, the first Human Development Index (HDI) was developed using composite index of indicators of economic, health and educational well-being. Emphasis on health and education as distinct component of well-being followed from the work of Amartya Sen and Mahbubul Haq. Since then UNDP has been publishing Human Development Report. Then in 2000, the criteria for development broadened with eight specified development goals for developing countries known as Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Last year was the final year of MDGs which are now replaced with much more comprehensive goals known as Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2015-2030.
The contribution of UNDP is overwhelming in global development endeavour. Over the last 25 years alone, dozens of global reports have been published and more than 700 national Human Development reports have been produced. According to the latest Human Development Report, in last 25 years more countries have moved out of low human development categories (from 62 countries in 1990 to 43 countries now) and living standard improved for more than half of the people in the same category. Of 7.3 billion people in the world, 3.2 billion are at job. Number of extreme poor fell from 1.9 billion to 836 million in last 25 years, while 2.6 billion and 2.1 billion people got access to safe drinking water and improved sanitation facilities respectively. At the same time more people are engaging in non-conventional professions like voluntarism (over 970 million people) and entrepreneurial initiatives which is moving the wheel of development faster than ever.
WHERE DOES BANGLADESH STANDS IN DEVELOPMENT? Bangladesh's journey of development as an independent nation is slightly shorter than UNDP's. Twenty-four years of exploitation during the Pakistan days left Bangladesh with all sorts of challenges that early governments failed to overcome. The country was often mentioned for its poverty, destitution, natural disaster and corruption for a number of justifiable reasons. Henry Kissinger (then security adviser of President Nixon) called it a "bottomless basket", metaphorically assumed basket that is unable to hold on to things (e.g. foreign aid, donations etc.) dropped into it (The Economist, 2012). Similarly in development academia, same despondency was shown by Parkinson and Faaland (1976) in their book "Bangladesh: The test case of Development", arguing that if Bangladesh can develop from its current state, then development is possible for any other countries as well.
There is no doubt that Bangladesh was a test case and it was tested for long time until the transformation begun in later decades. The change in the political landscape (transformation from autocracy to democracy in early 1990s) also brought tremendous shift in the socio-economic landscape as well. Remarkably, it moved out from a test case in 1970s into the league of mid-human development nations in 2003 as the only country from the Least Developed Countries (LDCs). This was a recognition by the international community for the success that this country has achieved in socio-economic indicators of development.
The GDP (gross domestic product) per capita (at current USD) increased threefold in last three decades from 242 USD in 1980 to 1086 USD in 2015. Poverty reduced from 56 per cent in 1991 to 24.8 per cent in 2015 (MDG target was 26.5 per cent). Beside economic indicators, Bangladesh has also made great progress in non-economic indicators like reducing infant mortality, rate of fertility, school enrollment (see MGD Country Report 2014, pp. 29-48). Lowering population growth, holding regular democratic election, growth momentum with low volatility, sustained poverty reduction, growth of NGOs, women empowerment, reducing aid dependency are some of the actions that can explain the progress in Bangladesh. Especially, signing international agreements (e.g. ICRC, CEDAW etc.) and working in collaboration with NGO and donor agencies contributed in sustaining the socio-economic welfare in the long run.
UNDP is development partner of Bangladesh since 1972. The approaches of UNDP in Bangladesh centred on the principals of gender equality, innovation, multidimensional, fit for purpose and grounded on national ownership. Activities of UNDP encompasses different aspects of poverty reduction, democratic governance, crisis prevention and, environment and energy. In 2013 alone, 6.0 million poor people were helped to improve their lives and livelihoods by UNDP in partnership with the government and other development agents. Its Urban Partnership for Poverty Reduction was highlighted as a sustainable model of poverty reduction in the review of UKaid's annual report. Besides, UNDP also contributed enhancing governance system through ICT (information and communication technology). Today over 4.0 million people get access to public service every month which reduced average waiting time from 7 days to 1 hour and total travel distance from 35 to 3 kilometer. Similarly, UNDP is contributing in disaster management and resilience in both urban centres and coastal regions. Today, over 1.0 million disaster management volunteers are ready to stand out during an emergency. Gender equality is one of the key focuses in UNDP's action. Women are not only becoming community leaders in UNDP's projects, but also in local elections.
The heading of the UNDP's 2013-14 Annual Report was "resilient Bangladesh", that describes best the hardworking and indomitable masses in two simple words. In the Human Development Report (HDR) 2013, Bangladesh was mentioned as one of the 18 countries who have made rapid progress in the past decade. Bangladesh ranks 142 in recent Human Development Report with index point of 0.570, almost double since 1990 0.386 point). Today Bangladesh is in the mid-human development category.
UNDP succeeded in many of its efforts in terms of reducing poverty, increasing gender parity in education as well as improving standard of living for majority of the people worldwide. Yet, challenges remain in a world where inequality and corruption is mounting, political instability is intensifying and, threat of climate change that can easily emasculate the gains of the last 50 years if not more than that. Similarly for Bangladesh, even though it has made progress in many aspects of socio-economic development indicators, but it is still a test case for climate change, democratic maturity, women empowerment and many other forms of tests that most of the developing countries go through.
The writer is a masters student, the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.