In November 2021, the Government of Bangladesh and the United Nations co-signed an important policy document: the United Nations Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework 2022–2026 (the CF for short). This was the culmination of a process that had begun nearly 10 months before. The outbreak of covid-19, the most vicious pandemic of our lifetime, stalled the process for a few months.
The signing also represented the beginning of a new era of development cooperation in Bangladesh. It was based on mutual accountability for sustainable development. More importantly, the document was formulated with the aspiration to leave no one behind.
Between February 2020 and November 2021, both Bangladesh and the world changed. Covid-19 infected over 300 million individuals worldwide and over 5.4 million died from the disease. Global supply chains were severely disrupted. Lockdowns to contain the spread of the virus left the poor with the devil’s choice between lives and livelihoods. Further, in very short order, the covid-19 pandemic created a class of ‘new poor.’ These comprised those who had fallen into poverty as a result of livelihood losses owing to the economic slowdown.
Migrant workers worldwide faced job losses. Some were stranded in their countries of destination as a result of travel restrictions; others had to return home. The associated fall in remittances globally was drastic. Interestingly, though, Bangladesh saw an increase in remittances, despite a net return of workers.
Women faced the double brunt of job losses, especially in the informal sector, and an added burden of care at home. Gender-based violence became a shadow pandemic amid the covid-19 induced stresses and lockdowns. Even in developed countries, basic services were severely disrupted.
What did the UN do during the crisis?
Around the world, 131 United Nations Country Teams (UNCTs) went into development-in-emergency mode to respond to the covid-19 crisis. The UNCTs are essentially all UN entities working on sustainable development, emergency and transition in any given country. Covid-19 has stalled progress towards the globally pledged Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Despite this, a decision was made to stay the course towards the original targets of the SDGs by 2030.
Despite disruptions as a result of covid-19, Bangladesh’s government decided not to postpone the graduation process.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh is preparing for its upcoming graduation from the UN’s least developed country (LDC) status, to take on developing country status. This will entail a great deal of complex economic and governance-related transformation. Despite disruptions as a result of covid-19, Bangladesh’s government decided not to postpone the graduation process. Consequently, with the pandemic still ongoing, in February 2021 Bangladesh qualified to graduate out of LDC status. The transition period in this regard has been extended till 2026.
The UN matching Bangladesh’s development agenda
Bangladesh formulates its economic policies through mid-term planning documents called five-year plans. Currently, the country is working under the eighth of these. Bangladesh’s eighth five-year plan (8FYP) contains an ambitious half-decade long policy prescription for the country’s development pathway. This identifies the strengths and challenges of the country as it stands at the threshold of LDC graduation in a pandemic context.
Aligned with the 8FYP, the United Nations Sustainable Development Framework (CF) represents the UN’s offer of support to the Government of Bangladesh with regard to its development priorities. At the centre of the vision that drives the CF are the people of Bangladesh—especially the most vulnerable and marginalised. They are both the beneficiaries and the drivers of sustainable development.
The CF also takes into consideration Bangladesh’s longer-term visions—namely, the 2030 SDG agenda and the country’s second Perspective Plan 2021–2041.
The UNCT in Bangladesh identified five strategic priorities for the CF in consultation with the government and other partners. These priorities leverage the UN’s comparative advantages. They are 1) inclusive and sustainable economic development, 2) equitable human development through social protection, social safety nets and basic services, 3) a sustainable, healthy and resilient environment, 4) participatory governance and 5) gender equality and eliminating gender-based violence.
Gender equality is mainstreamed across all strategic priorities of the UN’s Country Framework for Bangladesh. It is also a standalone priority. This is because studies have proven that increasing gender equality brings about large societal benefits. This is also in alignment with the priorities of Bangladesh, as articulated in several statements of the country’s prime minister and in its 8th Five Year Plan.
Climate change represents another pertinent issue in Bangladesh. The country is among the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world. Climate adaptation will surely be a high priority in the coming years. At the same time, Bangladesh’s rapid growth can follow a climate-mitigative pathway. Climate action is mainstreamed across the CF.
What a layperson needs to know
A layperson will quickly notice when reading the UN’s Country Framework document that it is highly ambitious. Moreover, it does not have an implementation budget. Data shows that the UN system’s contribution makes up a rather small fraction of Bangladesh’s overall official development assistance (ODA) funds received from different development partners. The UN’s contribution is also miniscule when we consider its share in Bangladesh’s annual development-related spending.
For instance, in 2020, total development funding from the UN system was USD 262 million, which is less than 10% of Bangladesh’s total ODA. Further, compare this to the government’s spending of USD 18.4 billion during January–December 2020 and it becomes clear that the UN is not a key source of development finance for Bangladesh. Despite this, the UN’s engagement in Bangladesh remains crucial.
Some 230 senior bureaucrats from 80 key government agencies invested hours in co-designing the CF.
This was because it was important for them to ensure alignment with the government’s priorities and to get the language just right. They worked extremely hard to make this 100-page document more on point.
Policy, capacity and community
The UN’s Country Framework is crucial to tackle Bangladesh’s development challenges but also to generate awareness on what the UN does in the country. The UN’s offer of support has three categories: policy support and advocacy, capacity-building and direct work with communities.
The first two categories of the UN’s work are focused squarely on strengthening the capacity of different parts of the Bangladeshi government—at both national and grassroot levels. This will help in the effective implementation of policies and in enhancing public service delivery. This involves working closely with all stakeholders—the government, civil society and the private sector. The aim is to draw on both home-grown solutions and international good practices.
Understanding the complexities
Bangladesh’s challenges are very characteristic of where it is on its development trajectory. The Bangladesh of 2021, after decades of very high gross domestic product growth, is very different from the war-ravaged, new-born country of 1971, when the UN first partnered with it. On the threshold of graduation out of LDC status, Bangladesh’s challenges are highly complex and defy one-point solutions.
Bangladesh’s challenges are very characteristic of where it is on its development trajectory.
For instance, the challenge of resilient and planned urbanisation in Bangladesh cannot be addressed through a single intervention. Ending poverty is not a one-project challenge, in Bangladesh or elsewhere, and neither is addressing climate vulnerability. No single project can address the cross-sectoral governance needs of a new middle-income country. Nor can any single project resolve deeply rooted issues fuelling gender-based violence.
Highly complex challenges need shrewd countering strategy. Here, the UN brings the expertise and knowledge of some 22 agencies, funds and programmes. In addition, it brings its international resources to devise multisectoral solutions. Further, tied to its mandate, each UN agency has a key stakeholder group committed to the mission of ‘leaving nobody behind.’
For instance, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, with a small budget of USD 70,000 in 2020, is focused on three small, highly vulnerable, groups: persons living with HIV, sex workers and drug users. Meanwhile, the entirety of the UN system works with bigger stakeholder groups of women, girls and children, with other agencies—namely, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the United Nations Population Fund and UN Women—in the vanguard.
The SDGs have been designed in such a way that they are interrelated in nature. Therefore, to truly leave no one behind, there need for multisectoral yet targeted interventions. In Bangladesh’s case, targeting specific areas where low investment can achieve last-mile or needs-based localising of multiple SDGs can be useful. Done right, this could enable the country to significantly reduce regional inequalities.
In both the intervention approaches, multiple UN agencies are collaboratively working to tackle the targeted areas of poverty, child protection, education, child marriage and climate change.
A futuristic partnership
Bangladesh’s development challenges and its drivers of development are both evolving at the same time. For instance, the country’s digital prowess can now truly drive its economy forward. At the same time, the digital divide needs addressing. If this is not done, inequalities will worsen across gender, geography and income groups.
The UN has been a critical development partner to Bangladesh since the country’s independence in 1971. It will continue to stand by the country and its people. It will evolve in its approach with the changing needs of the country. As Bangladesh graduates out of LDC status and aspires to end poverty and achieve high-income status, the UN’s inputs will be a major part of the journey.
With its big ambitions despite its limited resources, its commitment to ‘stay and deliver’ through the worst crises and its adherence to the values of the UN Charter, the UN will remain a partner and a resource for Bangladesh’s government to strengthen the country and its institutions from the inside.
 Between 2019 and 2020, personal remittances received fell by 0.9% globally. For Bangladesh, the share increased by 18.4% (World Development Indicators, accessed 5 March 2022).
 Officials from the Economic Relations Division of the Ministry of Finance vetted every word of the document.
 The United Nations Development Programme, the International Labour Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the United Nations Population Fund, the United Nations Children’s Fund and UN Women.
Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu