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Bangladesh Parliament Takes on Millennium Development Goals

April 14, 2010

The Bangladesh Parliament Building is a striking combination of cubes and cylinders in pale gray concrete, surrounded by water and a rare expanse of unbroken green in the nation’s otherwise densely congested capital of Dhaka. On a quiet Saturday morning recently, a group of Bangladeshi Members of Parliament came together in the building’s Oath Room to unknowingly create a small piece of history in the global pursuit of health, education, poverty-reduction, and environmental targets known collectively as the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs. Adopted by 189 nations during the UN Millennium Summit in September 2000, the eight goals set a series of ambitious development targets, measured by 48 separate indicators, to be achieved by 2015.

Bangladesh's parliament building, designed by architect Louis I. Kahn.

Bangladesh's parliament building, designed by architect Louis I. Kahn. Photo used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

An active NGO sector working to deliver health, education, and sanitation services, combined with steady economic growth and some successful government initiatives, have all contributed to significant progress on the MDGs in Bangladesh. Poverty rates have fallen, primary and secondary education has expanded with girls attending at rates close to boys, deaths from malaria and tuberculosis as well as infant and child mortality rates have dropped, and access to safe drinking water has grown in urban areas. Still, maternal mortality is high, rural areas lag significantly behind in sanitation and access to drinking water, and protected wet land and other areas continue to shrink. More importantly for local parliamentarians, despite the overall national progress, are the sharp disparities in poverty and other indicators that still exist among many of the country’s regions.

In a pioneering effort, The Asia Foundation conducted a sample survey of 26 parliamentary constituencies to measure the levels of progress on select MDG indicators. While MDGs are assessed the world over on a country level, and in some countries, on the sub-national region or local government district level, this was the first time MDGs had been measured by parliamentary constituency.

In constituencies ranging from the southeast coastal area of Cox’s Bazaar, the central district of Chandpur bordering the massive Meghna River, and the urban density of Chittagong, respondents reported skipping meals, a key indicator of hunger, far more than elsewhere. Lack of work and large families were the two major reasons cited by those who went hungry. Modest costs of educational supplies and the need for additional income earners combine to keep students out of school in some families. Overall, one in 10 parents saw no merit in schooling their children, and in the far northern constituencies of Rangpur and Dinajpur, one in five did not support schooling for their girls. Other areas, such as the marshy, river-streaked rural plain of Kishoreganj, stood out for their lack of employment, poor health services for women, and lack of proper sanitary facilities.

As MPs processed the survey results and the state of progress in their areas, questions began to emerge. One questioned the current allocation of resources, arguing that more money for lagging constituencies was needed. Others commented that, as MPs, they could encourage citizens to seek health care and to educate their children, but the actual delivery of these services was in the realm of the bureaucrats, often criticized for poor implementation. One female MP linked the poor levels of maternal health to underage marriage, illegal but still widely practiced in Bangladesh.

According to a 2007 World Bank study on MDG progress in Bangladesh, improvement in the quality of services delivered, rather than an expansion of resources, would result in the largest gains. But in some particularly difficult areas, the solution is not always clear. For example, the proportion of women receiving prenatal care from a skilled healthcare worker at least once in her term has climbed to about 60 percent nationwide, but the proportion receiving prenatal care by any health worker including traditional midwives four times or more during her term is just 20 percent nationwide. More government services don’t seem to be the solution, as both NGOs and the government have made low cost or free prenatal care widely available. Distance to the care facility, travel difficulty on poorly-maintained paths, bridges, and roads, lack of acceptance of the importance of multiple visits to receive prenatal care, and traditional beliefs that a woman should remain close to home are all possible contributors to the low rates.

The significant role that MPs can play in supporting the progress on MDGs, including linking them to voter support, was a key objective of the Saturday morning briefing. MPs in their oversight capacity both at the local level, where they retain an advisory role on sub-district councils influencing service delivery by the bureaucracy, and at the national level, where some sit on health and education committees, have the potential to advance MDGs by demanding more effective implementation. In doing so, they may be taking a first step toward gradually shifting away from the current practice of earning voter support through patronage and small infrastructure projects to focusing on the policies and practices that can improve MDGs and their development outcomes. At the briefing, the more prominent MPs showed final support for the formation of an official MDG caucus – an early indication that this shift may yet occur.

Jerome Sayre is The Asia Foundation’s Deputy Country Representative in Bangladesh. He can be reached at jsayre@asiafound.org.

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