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Building a more peaceful, just and inclusive society in Bangladesh

17 May 2016 - Anna Moller-Loswick

Despite significant progress over the last 15 years in areas such as poverty reduction, health and education, Bangladesh still faces challenges related to violence and insecurity, poor access to justice and weakening democratic politics. Anna Möller-Loswick argues that implementation of the 2030 Agenda – the world’s new global development blueprint – and its strong focus on peaceful, just and inclusive societies provide an opportunity for Bangladesh to focus on these challenges as development priorities.

Reflecting on progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stated that, “In our journey, no one will be left behind as we aspire to build a just, progressive, peaceful and prosperous Bangladesh.” The 2030 Agenda, which Bangladesh has signed up to, calls for the promotion of peaceful, just and inclusive societies to be one of five development priorities. Goal 16, in particular, includes targets to reduce levels of violence, increase access to justice, and promote inclusive and representative decision-making. These are evidently all relevant issues for Bangladesh and it is encouraging that the government has stated their intention to integrate the SDGs into the seventh five-year development plan.

Bangladesh’s advances in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are impressive – strikingly, 97.3 per cent of primary school age children were enrolled in school in 2013 and the under-five mortality rate has been dramatically reduced from 146 per 1,000 births in 1990 to 41 in 2013. However, the country is lagging behind on other crucial aspects of development that are captured in the 2030 Agenda.

First, violence and insecurity remain a reality. Homicide rates as recorded by official statistics are low, but violence against women is common. High levels of political violence – including riots and protests – have affected Bangladesh, as too have violent attacks by fundamentalist groups. While intimidation by fundamentalists threatens freedom of expression, political violence has been damaging for economic growth: Bangladesh’s government had to revise its growth target for 2014-2015 down to 6.5 per cent following political unrest. The Institute of Economics and Peace estimates that violence cost Bangladesh $13.5 billion in 2014.

Second, Bangladesh scores low on measures of the rule of law and access to justice, with growing concerns about governance of the judiciary. Surveys of citizens’ experiences of public services point to high levels of corruption within the judiciary. The judiciary faces numerous other challenges – including an enormous case backlog of approximately three million cases. With limited access to formal justice institutions, many citizens rely on informal justice mechanisms such as the local shalish. Justice systems are not only about the rule of law: they matter for people’s economic and social livelihoods, notably with regard to disputes over land, which surveys point to as the most common legal issue faced by Bangladeshis.

Third, politics need to become more inclusive and representative. Although the state of democracy is relatively advanced in Bangladesh, there has been a widening of political repression and a crackdown on press and social media freedoms. It has proven difficult for elected representatives in local government to influence government policy, spending, and activities. In addition, electoral disputes between Bangladesh’s two major political parties have led to allegations of electoral fraud and boycotts. Participation and representation in politics at all levels is, (of course), hugely important for how and to whom development is delivered in Bangladesh.

According to the MY World Survey protection against crime and violence, and honest and responsive government rank among the top six development priorities in Bangladesh. © MY World

Working towards Goal 16 will not require reinventing the wheel in Bangladesh. For example, the Perspective Plan of Bangladesh 2010–2021 already focuses on many of the issues targeted under the goal. In addition, there is a rich array of existing initiatives that contribute to building a more peaceful, just and inclusive Bangladeshi society. In our report, we have identified 20 examples of such initiatives that are carried out by government and non-governmental actors at national and local levels. These initiatives include efforts to reduce violence among youth, improve access to justice for marginalised groups, and promote women’s leadership in public affairs.

Many of the initiatives we have identified – and countless others – will need to be supported and built upon to meet Goal 16. However, the existence of the Goal itself also presents an opportunity for Bangladesh. First, it should be used to respond to challenges in a holistic and joined-up fashion: we know, for example, that justice systems that resolve land disputes can help reduce conflict, or that meaningful participation and representation in politics is a means through which grievances can be resolved and violent protest avoided. Second, Goal 16 should be used as a shared platform for coordination, learning and innovation between official and non-official stakeholders and reformers. Third, given that the SDGs are accompanied by a set of indicators, Goal 16 could be used to agree on shared measures of progress and generate new data on issues like people’s sense of security, or their participation in decision-making. And finally, the 15-year time horizon of the SDGs offers an opportunity to breach out of the short-term project-based thinking that has typified development interventions until now.

None of this will happen on its own: change agents, within both state and society, will need to champion Goal 16 and leverage it effectively. Prioritising efforts to build a more peaceful, just and inclusive society in Bangladesh as a means to protect and sustain the development gains made in the last 15 years provides a strong case for them to do so.

Anna Möller-Loswick is Policy Officer at Saferworld.

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Goal 16, in particular, includes targets to reduce levels of violence, increase access to justice, and promote inclusive and representative decision-making. These are evidently all relevant issues for Bangladesh.

Anna Möller-Loswick