Sheikh Hasina was elected as Bangladesh’s prime minister for the fifth time in 2024. She is the longest serving female head of state in the world and has led Bangladesh, and her party the Awami League, over four decades. Once considered to be a largely rural-based, socialist party, the Awami League has presided over the largest period of economic progress in Bangladesh’s history. The country has set itself an ambitious target to join the club of advanced economies by 2041.

The Awami League led the country to independence in 1971 under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Sheikh Hasina’s father. After a period of exile following the assassination of her father and most members of her family on 15 August 1975, Sheikh Hasina was elected as leader of the party and returned to the country in 1981.

Bangladesh was under a military dictatorship, which was openly hostile towards the secular, progressive values of the Awami League. The party itself was in disarray, split into various ideological factions, and in danger of disappearing into the political wilderness. It was from this low ebb in the party’s history that Hasina not only set about to modernise the party but also started formulating her policy priorities for Bangladesh.

Democracy was restored in Bangladesh in 1991 and, after a period in opposition, the Awami League was voted into power in 1996. This was Hasina’s first term as prime minister; it was followed by four consecutive terms starting from 2008. In between, as leader of the opposition, she narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in 2004 and spent a year as a political prisoner during the military interregnum of 2006 and 2008.

Sheikh Hasina’s politics is very much rooted in the founding values of the country, which she has blended with a pragmatic, long-term vision for an equitable and progressive Bangladesh. In an exclusive interview with the WhiteBoard team, Hasina sheds light on her unique approach to policy-making in a resource-constrained economy like Bangladesh. The conversation, edited for length and clarity, is presented below.

Tell us about your formative years, what are some of your early memories in terms of thinking about matters of government and politics?

To be honest, I never thought I would end up becoming a prime minster! I was involved in student politics, but being the person in charge of a whole country never even crossed my mind. I didn’t really consciously think about things like how to develop a country or how to improve people’s lives.

But I now realise that being around my father meant that, subconsciously, a blueprint formed in my mind from an early age. Politics was an all-encompassing part of his life, and it was something we grew up with. Each day would start with us gathering around him with the day’s newspapers and listening to him talk about what was happening around the world, and in our own backyard. Lots of questions, many long discussions!

Sheikh Hasina embraces grassroots connections, interacting with the people in rural southwestern Bangladesh, circa 1996 | Photo source: unknown.

We spent a lot of time in the countryside, and he would point out to us how people suffered because they lacked the basic necessities of life. Food, clothing, jobs, shelter and healthcare, the right to a dignified life. He always talked about how things needed to change, and his thoughts and ideas guide me to this day.

What was the main challenge facing the country when you returned?

When I was elected leader of the Awami League and returned to the country in 1981, it was clear that the state was no longer serving the people. From 1975 onwards, the country was under military rule, overtly or covertly. The state machinery was under elite capture, policies were being designed to benefit a small group. There was no accountability to the people and their voices were not being heard. Things had to change.

When I was elected leader of the Awami League and returned to the country in 1981, it was clear that the state was no longer serving the people.

Bangladesh was not even a decade old when you took charge of the Awami League, a party in crisis. How did you prepare yourself for what lay ahead?  

I was a young politician in my early 30s in the early 1980s when I started to lead a progressive coalition.[1] I wanted to learn more about Bangladesh inside and out, see the country for myself. I sat with the experts in my party to set our policy priorities. To understand the needs of the people, I had to go to them, see their struggles for myself. After all, how can I make welfare policies if I don’t know who they are meant for? I could not be an armchair decision-maker.

The Awami League has always been a grassroots party, with members from all over. I started going to every corner of the country, even though in most places there were no roads. I walked, took small boats, rode on the back of rickshaw-vans, basically did whatever was needed to reach the remotest corners. I visited every single district of the country. I learnt about the ground realities and hardships faced by our people first-hand. This gave me insights that I couldn’t get anywhere else.

Newly-elected leader of the Awami League, Sheikh Hasina, at a street protest against military rule, with other political activists in early 1980s, Dhaka, Bangladesh | Photo source: unknown.

Looking at Bangladesh’s development trajectory, what acted as a catalyst for the country’s economic growth?

You have to link policies with politics. I am a policy-maker because of my political struggle. The biggest obstacle to the country’s progress was the military dictators of the late 1970s and 1980s. You can’t develop good policies without a healthy political environment.

Let me explain: without proper representation of the people, a country simply cannot develop. Policies have to reflect people’s voices. This was the biggest challenge for our country, and I dedicated my efforts to establishing basic constitutional rights, especially voting. The restoration of democracy was one of our greatest achievements.

Policies have to reflect people’s voices.

As a prime minister, what was one of your early policy priorities?

To achieve something, a decision-maker has to make it a policy priority. One of my priorities has always been the eradication of homelessness. Homelessness has many causes: climate change, natural disaster, abandonment and poverty, to name but a few.

My administration dealt with this head-on through a simple policy of giving out publicly funded homes. In other words, we gave free homes to the homeless. We have implemented this policy over a period of three decades and our work continues. When someone has their own address, it boosts their dignity.

Your name is often attached to the term ‘politics of development.’ What does this term mean to you?

I will give you a simple answer. Without good politics, you cannot have good policies. For good politics, you need seasoned politicians. Grassroots politicians understand the country in a different way, there’s more awareness of the ground realities. In policy circles, development is often understood only in economic terms. But those of us who do politics, we think about the country in a more intuitive way.

Politics shouldn’t be about personal gains and power misuse, which you will see in a military dictator or a disconnected elite. This can derail the development agenda of a country. In Bangladesh, you can see the difference, as the country has lived through examples of both approaches.

Let’s go back to 1972, the first year of Bangladesh. It was a war-ravaged country. The per capita income was below $100. The Awami League was the political party with a deep connection to grassroots people across the country. This is when the party head, a grassroots politician, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, took charge of the government.

His administration had to start from scratch. They essentially had to build a sovereign country, previously a neglected province of Pakistan. The long task-list included rebuilding all infrastructure, forming fresh institutions and reintegrating millions of displaced people.

This is where politics met development. Only a true representative of the people can take up impossible challenges like this. When a politician like Mujib gets such a task, he or she can do it well. Because he had a network like the Awami League, he could quickly assess the needs of the people. In just about three years, by 1975, he was able to raise people’s per capita income to over $250.[2]

Ashrayan, the initiative to eradicate rural homelessness, is known as Sheikh Hasina’s signature policy. New owners of Ashrayan housing allotments move into their new neighbourhood, southern climate-distressed township of Barguna, Bangladesh, 26 April 2022 | Photo by Mahmud Hossain Opu.

After Mujib’s assassination in 1975, the subsequent extra-constitutional military junta was not able to have impacts on people’s lives – because it didn’t have insights into the grassroots or the social welfare ideology. During the reign of the junta, from 1976 to 1991, people’s incomes essentially stagnated.[3]

A true representative of the people has the insights to develop a country, which an elite decision-maker is incapable of doing. Development is a political agenda. You cannot delink development from politics.

A true representative of the people has the insights to develop a country, which an elite decision-maker is incapable of doing.

I am sure critics will have comments on how you interpreted the term.  

I’m not really sure how others have interpreted it, I’d be curious to know.

You have embraced a market-oriented policy approach and yet appear loyal to Bangladesh’s founding principle of socialism, which Mujib, your father, embraced. Is there a contradiction here? If not, how have you achieved a balance?

Mujib was a social democrat, who envisioned Bangladesh as social welfare state. He defined socialism as a system to upgrade people’s basic needs, like food and shelter. To him it was a ‘leave no one behind’ system. He was also clear that Bangladesh could not import any ‘ism’ from elsewhere. In other words, the system has to be indigenous. You need to delve into our history to understand these nuances.

Post-independence in 1972, Bangladesh’s industrial base was in a shambles. Almost all industries were owned by the Pakistani ruling class, who abandoned their operations. Mujib’s administration nationalised all industries because the government was the only player in town. The policy jumpstarted manufacturing and also recreated numerous jobs. Soon after, the administration also started denationalising the industries, an important point policy-critics often ignore.

Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina, along with the grassroot leadership, convenes for an internal assembly to induct the new members, briefing them about the progressive orientation of the political party, early-1990s, Dhaka, Bangladesh | Photo source: unknown.

Basically, both the public and the private sectors were mobilising the economy. This public–private interplay was engrained in Bangladesh’s constitution, which stipulates economic ownership under three strands: public, private and cooperative. This trifecta formula was designed right during those founding days of the country.

For me, fulfilling the people’s basic needs was my version of ‘socialism.’ To serve the people, the party had to change with time and global realities. By doing so, I believe I followed my father’s direction; I see no contradictions.

…fulfilling the people’s basic needs was my version of ‘socialism.’

How did the change in thinking come about?

Well, we couldn’t ignore what was happening in the rest of the world. I used to attend the forums of Socialist International, a global platform of left-leaning political parties, and there were many discussions on the merits of a mixed-economy model. The role of the private sector in job creation was hotly debated but eventually it was accepted that it would have a big role to play. The Socialist International officially endorsed this position too. The timing was crucial: the Iron Curtain in Europe was just coming down. Meanwhile in Bangladesh, there were debates about opening up the economy. We were in opposition at the time.

I remember discussing this paradigm shift with Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader at the time, during one of my visits to the UK. We were in the House of Commons and Harold Wilson, former Labour leader and ex-prime minister, also joined us. Harold’s view was very clear, ‘These 40-year-old economic thoughts will not work anymore.’

Around the same time, I formed an economic advisory committee to rethink policy reform. This spearheaded the policy changes within the Awami League apparatus. The agenda was to reset the Awami League as a progressive centre-left political force for the new era.

It wasn’t easy, we had many contentious debates, but we eventually decided to change towards a mixed economy policy. We formally took an open-economy approach in 1992. While the debate settled, I became prime minister, by the mid-1990s. The timing was perfect. We soon adopted some of our ideas as government policies.

Did you face any backlash when reorienting your party’s economic values?

Some ideologues within my party strongly objected to the policy shift towards a mixed economy model. It was a gradual process, very difficult at times, we had many heated debates and internal party discussions. But I was able to build support for my reform agenda from within my party. We needed the best polices to raise people’s incomes and living standards. Bangladesh couldn’t afford to be rigidly stuck in an archaic approach. To survive in politics, we had to adopt forward-looking policies.

To survive in politics, we had to adopt forward-looking policies.

What can Bangladesh learn from other countries?

This is an interesting question. You know the Bangladesh story, or you can say the Bangladesh model, is based on certain indigenous values and policy continuity. The country’s founding father Mujib once said, ‘Our country’s governance will be based on our priorities alone.’ In other words, Bangladesh cannot import the development formula of another country.

Our policy-makers have to factor in issues like our strategic location, our topography, our people’s needs, our history, our environment and our resources. A foreign prescription for development never works.

This doesn’t mean we shut our eyes to developments across the world. We have to study the good practices of different countries to repurpose them for our needs.

Have any of your policy initiatives been inspired by examples abroad?

The Scandinavian countries have impressive social welfare systems. They are a great example of safeguarding the economic rights of their people. East and southeast Asian countries have great transport infrastructure, which they have implemented through intelligent policies.

Let me give you an example from the health sector. When I was frequently visiting the UK in the 1980s, I noticed their health services reached every neighbourhood. Closer to home, a similar health network exists in different states in India. These publicly financed health systems provide optimal primary care services. They are also very relevant for local needs. So, I reconfigured their systems for Bangladesh by adopting the Community Clinic policy. The core idea was to deliver last-mile healthcare.

To make it sustainable, the Bangladeshi system was repurposed to be a public–private partnership by granting ownership to the local community. The community would provide the land, pharma companies would supply the medicines and the government would facilitate the services. The community clinics added a new layer of healthcare at the grassroots, which has eased the burden on the overall health system.

Foreign partners have influenced Bangladesh’s economy using two major tools: aid and policy prescriptions. Has the country been overcoming this dependency?

Foreign dependency has been reducing, and this is because of a deliberate approach by my administration. This kind of dependency was deep-rooted and to change this culture we had first to change the mindset. In this effort, you have to start viewing yourself as an equal. These issues need to be tackled in a nuanced way. Political leadership and money play a big role here.

When other administrations formulated a budget for development projects, the lion’s share would come from foreign financing. Their fiscal policy was essentially ‘donor-dependent.’ On top of this, public spending capacity was miniscule. I flipped this policy by rejecting foreign-borrowed money that makes us dependent.[4]

My administration accelerated the borrowing from our domestic sources. At least the money will circulate within our own borders. This long-term policy has yielded results. Now you will see that the lion’s share of our public spending comes from our own domestic resources.

Bangladesh prime minister, Sheikh Hasina meets with World Bank Group president, Jim Yong Kim in Dhaka, Bangladesh, 18 October 2016 | Photo by Dominic Chavez/World Bank.

What about policies and projects prescribed by development partners?

When development partners, or international consultants, come to us with big projects, it’s basically money we have to pay. They can be very persuasive. Many Bangladeshi policy-makers are quick to buy what they are selling, without asking the tough questions. What are the consultancy fees? What are the returns on the investment of the project? Whom will it benefit?

We shouldn’t recklessly borrow and burden our taxpayers, just because some foreigners have told us to do it. I am well known for rejecting major projects! Policy-makers should use the money however they deem appropriate, not in an externally prescribed way. Don’t take the loans if you don’t need them. If you take money for unviable projects, it will only create a debt burden.

We can do this now because our policy-makers are no longer easily influenced by externally designed projects. It takes time and effort to build this confidence. Now Bangladeshis, especially from the government apparatus, are getting top-notch training from across the world. Many are pursuing PhDs from the best of places. This is our deliberate policy to nurture expertise within Bangladesh.

Moving forward, we will create a pool of expertise within our country. Then, we will not have to go abroad for policy or project design. Policy-making cannot forever be dependent on foreign consultants. Bangladesh has the capacity to make its own policies.

It’s straightforward for me, our country our policies.

It’s straightforward for me, our country our policies.

What advice will you give to future policy-makers of Bangladesh?

For them, I can share my administration’s policy design process. At the onset, we carry out a needs analysis; then, we chart out policies into three timelines: present, mid-term and long-term.

When the military-controlled government arrested me in 2007, I used the prison time to devise the next development plan for Bangladesh.[5] I set timebound targets on indicators like literacy, nutrition, income and healthcare. The skeleton for a long-term plan was developed during my imprisonment.

When my administration took charge in 2009, we were quick to prepare the plans for different time spans. The 12-year long-term plan we called the Perspective Plan and it served as a future-bound reference tool for shorter-term plans.

This policy design strategy was put to the test because my administration was still around for the next 12 years. By 2021, the policy design had yielded successful results for Bangladesh. For the first time, a long-term agenda was diligently implemented.

Are you suggesting that future policy-makers should follow your long-term policies?

Not really. But they should understand that Bangladesh has progressed as a result of strategic policy-making. Its progress is not a miracle. There is a formula that combines local know-how, flexibility, a progressive vision and long-term planning, all backed by policy research.

If future policy-makers study the formula and recalibrate the plans for the new realities, then they can make Bangladesh an advanced economy. I would recommend to them to not be rigid.

[Future policy-makers] should understand that there is a formula that combines local know-how, flexibility, a progressive vision and long-term planning, all backed by policy research.

Where do you see Bangladesh’s main policy-making and ideological challenges in the next 50 years?

Change is the only thing that is predictable. Science, tech, philosophies – everything changes. I can’t really predict a clash but I know that crisis will surely come. We can only make policies with the foresight we have. Covid-19 pandemic and Ukraine War’s sanction regime have been big examples of unexpected challenges during my tenure.

As for an ideological clash, this may come but the impact is hard to measure. Radical hardliners and terror groups can cause the most harm. Also, those with no well-defined ideology, if they come to power, they will cause instability. It does worry me sometimes, that if people with illiberal ideologies govern Bangladesh, they will surely roll back the country’s progress. This has happened in many countries.

Because there is a rapid shift happening in Bangladesh’s socioeconomic condition, do you see the role of government shrinking or expanding in the coming years?

I see the government’s role being strong. It won’t shrink. I believe in private enterprises, but I also believe that the government still has a major role to play across all sectors.

 

[1] In Bangladesh, the Awami League political party and the secular progressive groups were under severe repression by the military regime in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

[2] In 1975, gross domestic product per capita in Bangladesh was USD 260.

[3] In 1991, gross domestic product per capita in Bangladesh was USD 283.

[4] In 1996, 66% of Bangladesh’s development spending came from foreign sources. In 2023, it was 38%.

[5] In between 2006 and 2008, a military-controlled government ruled Bangladesh as a result of a constitutional crisis created by the previous government. The period also witnessed a state of emergency. In 2007, Sheikh Hasina, along with many high-profile pollical figures, was imprisoned on trumped-up charges.

 

Cover ©️ Sheikh Hasina, Bangladeshi premier, during an interview with Syed Mafiz Kamal, co-editor of WhiteBoard policy magazine, Dhaka, Bangladesh, February 2014. | Photo by WhiteBoard archive.

Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu

Sheikh Hasina is Prime Minister of Bangladesh and President of Bangladesh Awami League. She is a politician. She is also a Member of Parliament for Bangladesh, representing Gopalganj Three Constituency, and Chair of the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Memorial Trust. She was the Prime Minister of Bangladesh in 1996, 2008, 2014 and 2018. She is Bangladesh’s longest serving prime minister and the world’s longest serving female head of government. She has received the Champions of the Earth Award, the Agent of Change Award and the Mother Teresa Award. She pursued her graduate studies at the University of Dhaka.