Homeless rehabilitation initiative

Bangladesh’s prime homelessness eradication project in rural areas is called Ashrayan, which simply means accommodation in Bengali. It is a top 10 priority project of Sheikh Hasina’s administration. It targets vulnerable people who fall prey to climate disasters like cyclones, river erosion and landslides. After a deadly cyclone in 1997, the then-premier Hasina fast-tracked this unique scheme.

In this scheme, a one-storey house and land are given to a household. The legal rights are also passed on to the household, with the woman of the house being the ultimate signatory of the property – a policy to enhance women’s asset ownership. The project is designed to offer facilities like education, healthcare and skills training. It is an ongoing initiative implemented in two timespans since 1997.

Social Security Strategy

With welfare state-building in mind, Bangladesh has opted for bottom-up social security as its tool of choice. It formulated its signature National Social Security Strategy (NSSS) in 2015, reflecting its strong commitment to improving human development and reducing inequality. The NSSS was formulated with a view to optimising the outcomes of the existing poverty reduction strategy under social safety programmes. Its main aim is to achieve better results from money spent.

Within the country’s social security net, there are many targeted social safety programmes. The most notable include the Old Age Allowance Programme, the Allowance Programme for Destitute Women, Vulnerable Group Feeding and the Employment Generation Programme for the Poorest.

Small Ethnic Communities Policy

Bangladesh formulated its Small Ethnic Communities Policy in 2012. This is designed to improve the socioeconomic conditions of people from minority ethnic communities. It focuses on community education, income generation and culture preservation.

Third gender recognition

In 2013, Bangladesh officially recognised the hijra (the third gender), a local gender term usually considered to mean neither man nor woman. This was a much-delayed policy decision, which came after long advocacy with the government and civil society. All government agencies then mainstreamed the hijra within their implementation agenda.

Community clinics

Community clinics are public health centres that offer primary healthcare to people at the grassroots. This initiative was launched in 1998. It functions under a public–private partnership model. It is estimated that an average of 40 patients visit each clinic every day, 95% of them women and children. Maternal healthcare, reproductive health, family planning and diagnosis of non-communicable diseases are the main services in the community clinics. This is often referred to as Sheikh Hasina’s brainchild.

Women’s Development Policy

Gender equality is central to Bangladesh’s development agenda under Hasina. The country first formulated a women’s issue-focused policy, the Women’s Development Policy, in 1997. The policy was updated in 2011 to target the most critical issues in Bangladesh: women’s equal share of property and fair opportunities in the labour market.

The policy provides women with full control over their rights to land, earned property, health, inheritance and credit. It also upholds the rights of all women irrespective of their religion. A national work plan has been formulated to see through the implementation of this policy. It was a campaign pledge of Hasina in 2008 election to strengthen the policy. The policy reform faced political backlash from conservative quarters.

Integrated Special Education on Disability Policy

Bangladesh formulated its innovative Integrated Special Education on Disability Policy in 2019. This prohibits the establishment of substandard special schools. It is a unique intervention, mandating specific criteria for the special schools to provide a quality service for students with disabilities.

Domestic Workers Protection and Welfare Policy

In Bangladeshi affluent society, it is common for households to have live-in or long-hours in-house house helps, mostly women. Traditionally, this professional sector has been under zero regulatory oversight. Bangladesh formulated its first domestic work oversight measure, the Domestic Workers Protection and Welfare Policy, in 2015. This safeguards the rights and well-being of domestic workers. It defines the responsibilities of employers, employees and regulators.

Bangladesh Climate Change Trust Fund

Bangladesh established its earmarked Bangladesh Climate Change Trust Fund in 2010. This is a publicly financed fund to ensure investment in disaster preparedness and to smooth implementation of the country’s climate policies. It can be accessed by both government agencies and civil society groups.

Resolving sea and land disputes with neighbours

Hasina Administration’s priority with regard to regionalism has focused on dissolving frontier disputes with Bangladesh’s neighbours. The country first resolved maritime boundary disputes in its southern waters, in the Bay of Bengal, with both its neighbours, India and Myanmar, in 2012. This was achieved through two separate international arbitration cases. Bangladesh established sovereign rights over a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone in the Bay of Bengal, and to a substantial share of the waters denoted as the ‘outer continental shelf.’ In 2014, Bangladesh was granted 76% of the disputed waters with India after initiating an arbitration case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

Bangladesh and India’s long borderlands had 162 enclaves on both sides. This was a result of poor demarcation of boundaries during the partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947. For decades, India–Bangladesh relations were marred by a non-settlement of the land boundary. The people living in these enclaves didn’t enjoy their full citizenship rights. The countries settled this old dispute with a land swap solution, the Land Boundary Agreement, in 2015. The people living in these enclaves were given the option to choose their nationality.

Rohingya diplomacy

Bangladesh has the world’s largest refugee camp (along with additional settlements), housing nearly a million refugees from Myanmar. These are ethnic Rohingya refugees who have been violently displaced by the crackdown by Myanmar’s military. More than 80% came to Bangladesh in 2007, during a horrific crackdown, when Sheikh Hasina held an open-border policy.

To seek a permanent solution to the Rohingya crisis, Hasina floated a proposal to the international community in 2017. This provided a roadmap with details of humanitarian support, sustainable return, security guarantees and regional engagement.

Indo-Pacific Outlook

Bangladesh officially announced its Indo-Pacific Outlook in 2023. According to this policy, the country maintains a neutral and balanced position, promoting a peaceful, open, stable, inclusive and prosperous region. It follows four guiding principles and has 15 specific objectives.

Belt and Road Initiative

Bangladesh is a participant in the China-led Belt and Road Initiative. This is a focal point of the collaboration between Bangladesh and China, focusing on infrastructure, trade agreements and investment. Bangladesh’s largest and most highlighted infrastructure project, Padma Bridge, is part of the initiative.

Regional cooperation

The Hasina Administration pursues a balanced regional engagement strategy for Bangladesh. It actively mobilises regional forums like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation. By involving Bangladesh in multilateral platforms, Hasina ensures the nation’s interests are not tied to bilateral relations with any single country.

Climate outlook

Sheikh Hasina has been Chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), a strong South–South intergovernmental institution for high-climate risk countries. An iconic Dhaka–Glasgow Declaration was adopted by the CVF in 2021. This was an acknowledgement that climate-related vulnerabilities could be opportunities for policy-makers. As a reference, Bangladesh also shared its ‘vulnerability to opportunity’ agenda, which it titled the Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan.

As part of the broader partnership in climate adaptation, in 2020 Bangladesh housed the South Asian regional office for the Global Center on Adaptation, an influential global climate solution-broker organisation. Through the countries in the region, the office promotes indigenous nature-based solutions and smart adaptation measures.

Energy Policy

Bangladesh adopted its Energy Policy in 1996. This first recognised the importance of the energy sector in the country’s socioeconomic development. Its main objective was to provide energy for sustainable economic growth.

From the Paris Club to the Bangladesh Development Forum

Bangladesh hosts a periodical policy summit with its international development stakeholders called the Bangladesh Development Forum (BDF). This is essentially an agenda-based dialogue among the country’s development partners, non-governmental organisations, think-tanks, sectoral professionals and private sector actors. BDF’s predecessor was the Paris Club, to which Bangladeshi policy-makers had to give reports and face hearings to seek foreign finance. This consortium arrangement was changed by Sheikh Hasina in 1997.

Five Year Plans

Under Hasina’s administration, Bangladesh implements its macroeconomic growth and development policy through mid- and long-term planning over designated periods. These plans act as the backbone for all sectoral policies and all government agencies. The most continuous are the mid-term Five Year Plans. Between 1973 and 2002, Bangladesh implemented five successive Five Year Plans. From 2003 to 2010, this mid-term planning was discontinued. In 2011, the government switched back to the Five Year Plan approach. Between 2011 and 2023, Bangladesh adopted its Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Five Year Plans.

National Perspective Plans

Under Hasina’s administration, Bangladesh formulated its first long-term development plan. The first major long-term plan was the Perspective Plan 2010–2021. This covered long-term macroeconomic stability and aimed to address poverty, inequality and human development while setting a double-digit economic growth target. It aimed to coincide with two Five Year Plans. Bangladesh launched its second perspective plan – the 20-year-long Perspective Plan 2021–2041 – to become an advanced economy by 2041.

Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100

Bangladesh adopted its landmark Delta Plan 2100 in 2018. This is a long-term integrated plan to tackle the impacts of climate change. It is one of the most comprehensive development documents to address the adverse impacts of climate change posed by the country’s deltaic formation. The plan channels environmentally sensitive financing into development initiatives. It has the following six goals: to ensure safety from climate-related disasters; to enhance water security; to manage an integrated river system; to conserve wetlands; to develop equitable governance; and to support transboundary water resources.

Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan

Bangladesh unveiled its Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan – Decade 2030 in 2021. This is an instrument to convert climate vulnerability into opportunity.

Economic Zones Act

In 2010, Bangladesh adopted a policy to set up 100 state-of-the-art industrial parks across the country to boost the manufacturing economy. It enacted a law to facilitate the policy, the Economic Zones Act. The law strategically mandates economic zones across the country, including in less developed regions. A restrengthened institution, the Economic Zones Authority, was designated as the regulatory agency.

Public–Private Partnership Policy

Bangladesh formulated its signature Policy and Strategy for Public–Private Partnership, popularly known as the PPP Policy, in 2010. This was designed to foster growth in strategic areas of public infrastructure and essential services. It was the early policy document for the basis of any PPP projects in the country. It helped create the nodal agencies of the PPP Authority in the Prime Minister’s Office (dedicated to policy implementation) and the PPP Unit in the Finance Ministry (dedicated to fiscal viability).

Small and Medium Enterprise Policy

Bangladesh formulated its SME Policy in 2019. This includes strategies to promote small businesses by strengthening institutional support to SMEs. These strategies include a regulatory reform agenda and removing red tape.

Investment regime

Bangladesh Investment Development Authority (BIDA) is the apex investment promotion agency in Bangladesh. It was formed in 2016 under the Bangladesh Investment Development Authority Act. It represented a merger between two former agencies, the Board of Investment and the Privatisation Commission. It is an investor’s one-stop-shop, chaired by the prime minister. It also oversees the bilateral investment treaties. According to BIDA, as of 2021, Bangladesh has concluded bilateral investment treaties with 29 countries.

Employment Policy

Bangladesh formulated its first-of-its-kind job agenda, the Employment Policy, in 2022. This is geared towards enabling youth employment. This policy will focus on the employment and productivity gap, to make the job market competitive internationally. The policy also outlines sector-specific strategies for agriculture, manufacturing, IT, health and maritime matters. It outlines a scheme to generate 30 million jobs by 2030.

Green bonds

Bangladesh initiated its green bond market in 2021 to finance climate and environmental projects. This market is overseen by the country’s primary capital market regulatory body, the Securities and Exchange Commission. Green bonds are issued to insurance firms, corporate entities and high-net-worth individuals. Commercial banks also adhere to green bond usage guidelines.

Food and Nutrition Security Policy

Bangladesh formulated its holistic food security plan in 2020. This is a 10-year plan (2021–2030) to ensure a diverse basket of food is available to citizens.

Multiple mega projects

In 2010, Hasina’s administration adopted an unprecedented strategy for Bangladesh: to create a strong infrastructure base in a short time span. It decided to invest in a large number of strategic projects in communication, transport and power infrastructure to boost the economy. A total of 10 mega projects, including the world’s deepest piled bridge, were singled out for fast-tracking (whereas, historically, Bangladesh has had a one-at-a-time policy).

Financial inclusion

Bangladesh formulated its Financial Inclusion Strategy in 2020. The agenda was to bring as many people as possible into the secure financial system. The backwork and soft implementation has been ongoing since 2014, when Bangladesh signed the Maya Declaration, the global alliance for financial inclusion. The strategy is to strengthen payment systems, establish a robust data framework, promote financial literacy, broaden financial inclusion for the vulnerable, upscale fintech and embolden regulatory oversight.

As a result of the extension of fintech and specialised banking services in Bangladesh, financial inclusion expanded dramatically between 2011 and 2017. Agent banking and mobile financial services (MFS) spearheaded the movement.

Agent banking was introduced in 2013, as a model where banks contract third party retail networks. The agent banks have become a catalyst for financial inclusion, allowing the excluded population to access financial services.

MFS are a pillar of the financial inclusion policy in Bangladesh. They began to take shape in the 2010s at different junctures. Central bank-issued regulations, such as the Guidelines on MFS in 2011 and the Bangladesh MFS Regulations in 2018, act as the basis for the entire MFS industry.

Migrant Welfare Bank

In 2011, Bangladesh established the Migrant Welfare Bank to provide low-cost loans to workers aspiring to go abroad and financial assistance to returning migrants to invest in businesses.

Local Self-Government Act

Bangladesh enacted a local governance overhaul law, the Local Self-Government Act, in 2015. This introduced a new system whereby political parties could compete in local self-government bodies, supplanting the old system under which they could not. This new system, which is standard practice in many old democracies, was designed to create linkages between local and central government.

Union Digital Centers

The creation of Union Digital Centers (UDCs) is a Bangladeshi initiative to provide e-services to rural communities. UDCs are one-stop shops in local government designed for people at grassroots level. Services provided at UDCs include birth registration, citizen certificates, registration for migrant workers, job applications, checking standardised exam results, mobile financial services, and computer training. There are currently around 7,600 UDCs providing more than 300 services across Bangladesh, operating through a micro-enterprise model.

District e-Service Centers

Bangladesh initiated top-tier yet decentralised public services hubs, District e-Service Centers (DESCs), attached to the district administrator, in 2010. This was done to ease the bureaucratic red tape in central government agencies. These are multipurpose service-giving centres, now running in all 64 districts of the country. They oversee 150 bureaucratic sign-off services through a contactless experience.

Constitutional reforms

The Constitution of Bangladesh was adopted on 4 November 1972. It came into force on 16 December of the same year. The Constitution has 153 articles arranged under 11 sections and 4 schedules. Nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism are incorporated as fundamental principles of state policy in the Constitution. In Bangladesh, the constitution is the supreme law of the country. As of 2018, Bangladesh’s constitution has been amended 17 times. The first amendment was passed on 15 July 1973. Under Hasina’s administration, four amendments (13, 15, 16 and 17) have been adopted.

The 13th Amendment was passed on 26 March 1996. It provided for a non-partisan bureaucratic ‘caretaker government,’ which would act as an interim government to hold national elections.

The 15th Amendment was passed on 30 June 2011. It scrapped the interim ‘caretaker government’ system. It restored secularism, nationalism, socialism and democracy as the fundamental principles of state policy. It increased the number of women-reserved seats from 45 to 50.

The 16th Amendment was passed on 22 September 2014. It gave power to the Parliament to remove judges if there were any proven examples of incompetency or misconduct.

The 17th Amendment was passed on 29 July 2018. It increased the tenure of women-reserved seats from 10 years to 25 years.

Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord

Bangladesh’s south-eastern region contains a broad strip of highland, known as the Chittagong Hill Tracts – the eastern part of the Himalayan foothills. This is the remotest region in Bangladesh, home to many non-Bengali small ethnic groups. Disputes related to land, natural resources and ethnic rights contributed to decades-long armed conflict in the hill tracts, with spillover effects across Bangladesh and its two neighbours.

Sheikh Hasina, after forming a government in 1996, initiated fresh rounds of talks with the stakeholders in the conflict. A deal was stuck, and a peace accord was signed in 1997. The agreement recognised the distinct status of the ethnic tribes and indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. A reformed specialised regional governance system was introduced by establishing a Regional Council of local stakeholders. As part of the deal, Bangladesh also formed a specialised ministry for the region.

Anti-Terrorism Act

Sheikh Hasina’s administration has adopted a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards terrorism. In line with this agenda, Bangladesh enacted its specialised counter-terrorism legislation, the Anti-Terrorism Act, in 2009. The law was amended in 2013. The law provides for punishments for terrorism and subversive activities. It outlaws the receipt and collection of money, services or support for a terrorist entity.

War crimes trials

Bangladesh enacted the International Crimes Act to deal with war crimes and crimes against humanity in 1973, right after the country’s independence. The law was meant to bring persons committing genocide and war crimes to justice. Its aim was to try those who had committed heinous crimes during Bangladesh’s liberation war in 1971. It was aligned with international law. The law was amended in 2009 and 2013 to match new international standards.

In 2010, Sheikh Hasina’s administration established an International Crimes Tribunal to try war criminals who had committed crimes against humanity during the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971. The Awami League political party pledged during the 2008 general election to try war criminals. Since then, it has delivered verdicts in over 44 cases.

Under this law, the tribunal has the authority to try any individual or group of any profession or nationality. Bangladesh has also established an agency to investigate war crimes as specified in the International Crimes Act.

Resolution for ‘Genocide Day’

In 2017, Bangladesh’s parliament passed a symbolic resolution to mark 25 March as ‘Genocide Day.’ It was on this day in 1971 that the Pakistani army launched its brutal war crimes campaign on Bengalis.

Accession to the UN Genocide Convention

Bangladesh acceded to the UN Genocide Convention in 1998.

 

Cover ©️ Rana Foroohar, Financial Times; Mosharraf Zaidi, Alif Ailaan, Pakistan; Ranil Wickremesinghe, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka; Nirmala Sitharaman, State Minister for Commerce and Industry of India; Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh; and Manvinder Banga, Clayton, Dubilier & Rice; during a session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, 17 January, 2017 | Photo by Jakob Polacsek.

Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu