Poor Man’s Patriarchy

Alex Kelbert and I wrote this for a great symposium called Undressing Patriarchy back in 2013, but it is also based on the Life in a Time of FPV projectI realise now other people had already made these points and more elegantly and cleverly. But I think its a good paper because it connects food insecurity to masculinity. It is always women being referred to when experts talk about ‘gender and food security’, but global patriarchy means there are few societies in which men are not seen as ‘the breadwinner’, no matter how families are configured. So food crises are always crises of masculinity.

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Women’s Empowerment Revisited: From Individual to Collective Power among the Export Sector Workers of Bangladesh

Bangladesh has become known as something of a success in advancing gender equality since the 1990s. There have been rapid gains in a number of social and economic domains, yet by most objective standards the current condition and status of women and girls within Bangladeshi society remain low. Rapid progress has come about under conditions of mass poverty and interlocking forms of social disadvantage, political instability and under-development, overlain with persistent ‘classic’ forms of patriarchy. Mass employment of women and girls in the country’s flagship export sector – the readymade garments (RMG) sector – has been one of the more visible and prominent changes in women’s lives since its late 1970s’ introduction.

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National discourses on women’s empowerment in Bangladesh

This paper explores how perceptions and narratives around women’s empowerment have evolved in Bangladesh from 2000 to date. It studies the concepts of women’s empowerment in public discourse and reviews the meanings and uses of the term by selected women’s organizations, donor agencies, political parties and development NGOs. By reviewing the publicly available documents of these organizations, the paper analyses the multiple discourses on women’s empowerment, showing the different concepts associated with it and how notions such as power, domains and processes of empowerment are understood by these actors. It also highlights how these different discourses have influenced each other and where they have diverged, with an emphasis on what these divergences mean in terms of advancing women’s interests in Bangladesh.

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Security and the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment

This paper reports on an effort to derive lessons about how security and insecurity shape processes of women’s empowerment in developing countries through a thematic synthesis of a collection of research outputs from a five-year programme of research on the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment. The programme covered four broad thematic areas: voice (political mobilisation), paid work, body (or changing narratives of sexuality) and concepts of empowerment. Some 115 outputs, including both conceptual and empirical work, were included in the review. The synthesis is not a systematic review (it did not review work outside the Pathways collection nor select papers according to quality or other criteria) but drew on thematic synthesis methodologies as used in the systematic reviews of qualitative data.

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Exports, equity and empowerment: the effects of readymade garments manufacturing employment on gender equality in Bangladesh

Drawing mainly on the rich literature available on women’s RMG employment, this paper explores the wider and less well-documented effects of such employment on public policy relating to gender equity in these areas. It concludes that the overall direction of change in the industry points plainly to the need for investments in worker productivity, with a host of implications for women’s work and gender equality more broadly. Factory owners have to date shown few signs of recognising that is in their own interests to support better state education for girls, better public safety for women, and to change their own management practices to better retain and raise productivity of skilled women workers. Yet with downward pressure on wages increasingly effectively resisted by workers at a time of global economic recovery with rising living costs, the tide may now be turning for the RMG workers of Bangladesh.

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Elite Politics

Elite Politics

The 1970 Bhola cyclone, nationalist politics and the subsistence crisis contract in Bangladesh

The Bhola cyclone, one of the deadliest tropical cyclones the world has ever recorded, struck the Bay of Bengal in what was then the eastern wing of Pakistan in November 1970. At least a quarter and possibly up to half a million East Pakistanis perished, and livelihoods and landscape were decimated. The response by the Pakistan military government was widely deemed inadequate. The cyclone struck three weeks before the first democratic elections in the country, and campaigning on the back of the callousness of the ruling Pakistani elite, the Awami League won a landslide victory in its home province of East Pakistan, which should have placed their leader Sheikh Mujib in power. But the Pakistani elite had no intention of allowing this, forcing the Awami League into a declaration of independence. Pakistan responded with a vicious attack of genocidal intensity and intent, and within nine months, after a guerrilla war and an Indian intervention, Bangladesh was born.

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Elite Perceptions of Poverty: Bangladesh

The Bangladeshi national elite are distanced from and unthreatened by poverty and the poor. Medium-term solutions to poverty, resting on a belief in the importance of ‘increasing awareness’ through education, rather than in direct public action, are favoured. The poor are viewed as homogeneous, and generally deserving. These benign perceptions may not accord direct anti-poverty action a high priority on the national agenda, but they also suggest little of the fear which can lead to repressive measures against the poor. The authors conclude with a discussion of means through which national elite support for more direct anti-poverty programmes may be built.

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Engaging Elite Support for the Poorest

This paper describes and draws lessons from the experience of engaging village elites in support of the ultrapoor through the Gram Shahayak Committees (GSC), as part of BRAC’s CFPR/TUP programme. The paper addresses the following questions: under what conditions can elites become engaged in support of interventions for the ultrapoor? What are the risks and benefits of engaging elite in antipoverty programmes? After describing the origins and motivations behind BRAC’s Specially Targeted Ultrapoor (TUP) programme, the paper goes on to explain how an important lesson from the programme as it evolved included the need for on-site, village-based protection and support for TUP participants and their newly-acquired assets. The paper goes on to explore some of the early impacts of the Gram Shahayak Committees which were formed to fill this need, and to assess the motivations and factors underlying their effectiveness and success. The paper concludes with a brief discussion of the lessons from the experience, including their implications for assumptions that dominate scholarship and programmes relating to the rural politics of poverty in Bangladesh.

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Schooling the Poor

Schooling the Poor

Thanks to Naila Kabeer who got me interested in the issue, I ended up doing a lot of research on the surprising successes of mass education in Bangladesh. In the 2000s, this was a lot about why and how the Government and the mega NGOs like BRAC managed to get so many poor kids into school, in particular girls, when other places, including many richer and better organised than Bangladesh, did less well. These are some of the papers I wrote with or based on work with Naila and Ramya Subrahmanian:

The Politics of Educational Expansion in Bangladesh (2003)

Achieving universal primary education and eliminating gender disparity (2004)

Expanding access to education in Bangladesh, chapter in Ending Poverty in South Asia: ideas that work (edited by D. Narayan and E. Glinskaya, 2007)

I later worked on the more nitty gritty issues of the governance of educational expansion in Bangladesh, including a couple of very good rich multi-sited case studies that looked at accountability and performance in close detail.

School choice in Bangladesh (2008) made a close study of the implications of the growing range of availability of school types, and of why people choose the schools they do for their children.

Governance, management and performance in health and education facilities (2006) was an in-depth study of how schools and clinics were being managed and governed, a qualitative component of a larger Public Expenditure Tracking Survey of government services in Bangladesh. This study’s important finding that in the absence of much formal good governance, informal accountability mechanisms were how people tended to hold public services accountable got me started thinking about rude accountability in the first place.

In 2006, with support from Lamia Rashid then at Save the Children UK in Bangladesh, and with colleagues at BRAC Research and Evaluation Division I led a study called Inheriting Extreme Poverty on how children inherit their parents’ poverty, and the role of communities, social institutions and education systems in making that happen. I remained interested in the politics of child labour, and worked with Sheikh Tariquzzaman (now at BRAC International research unit) on this issue, including on a (2009) paper called The Boys Left Behind: where public policy has failed to prevent child labour in Bangladesh.

More recent work on education in Bangladesh has involved analysing the conditional cash transfer schemes as a species of governmentalism (School exclusion as social exclusion: the practices and effects of a CCT for the poor in Bangladesh (2009)). This was part of a comparative research project led by Sam Hickey at the Chronic Poverty Research Centre. We’re currently working on another comparative study looking at education in Bangladesh, this time trying to solve the puzzle of why quality reforms have proven impossible to implement, and the role of the political settlement within that.