Two top authors compared: Hossain on Bangladesh and Ang on China

OK, so this week I’ve reviewed the two important new books on the rise of China and Bangladesh. Now for the tricky bit – the comparison.

The books are very different in their approach. Where Yuen Yuen Ang focuses on the ‘how’ in China, Naomi Hossain is more interested in the ‘why’ in Bangladesh.

Hossain traces the ‘why’ to the critical junctures that littered Bangladeshi’s creation, especially the appalling famine of 1974, and its impact in shaping elite beliefs and norm. Collective trauma created a ‘moral economy’ of protecting the people from climate, shocks and hunger (an ‘anti famine contract’).

By contrast, Yuen Yuen Ang doesn’t talk much about what’s going on inside Chinese leaders/officials’ heads (other than greed). For her, the institutional process to bring about growth and development is all about incentives and rationality, while Hossain is all about ideas and norms.

So what I would dearly love to see is the two of them forming a dream team to swap countries (or methodologies), because I want to know more about the missing ‘why’ in China, and the ‘how’ in Bangladesh. The traumatic chaos, bloodletting and famine of Maoism must have had at least as profound an impact on China’s decision makers as the events of the 1970s in Bangladesh. And Ang could help Hossain more fully explain the alchemy by which a chaotic and ineffective government somehow gets officials to do good things (or at least not get in the way). I’d also like Hossain to take a look at the gender aspects of China’s rise – almost entirely missing from Ang’s book.

Yuen Yuen Ang

But what about the authors? Purring over these two books got me thinking

Naomi Hossain

about the role of ‘bicultural’ writers. Naomi is a British Bangladeshi, who by her own admission speaks indifferent Bengali, but that means she has a foot inside and a foot outside the Bangladesh story, and maybe that is an asset in detecting and understanding both the subtleties of what is context specific, and how it reflects on broader debates. That might also help avoid the tendency among US and European authors to interpret the world in terms of their own country histories (eg assuming that the purpose of development is to achieve the American Dream in all countries – a la Acemoglu and Robinson).

Now I realise talking about other people’s ‘positionality’ is a minefield, so I contacted both authors. Here’s what they said:

Yuen Yuen Ang:

‘Your point about bi-culture scholars is spot-on. And I don’t see that it’s ever been raised. It would make a fabulous discussion, since much of development studies is tripped by cultural blindspots.

The difference between me and Naomi et al is that I am tri-culture or even quad-culture (Chinese, Singaporean, American, British), making me an unrooted cultural nomad. As a Singaporean Chinese, in China, I’m regarded as a foreigner and sometimes treated with suspicion, even though I’m ethnically Chinese, and in the US, I’ often annoyingly asked “Which part of China do you come from?” When doing fieldwork in China, I can pass off as Chinese because of my appearance and language, but this is distressing because I’m obliged to behave like a native and respond correctly to all social cues, or risk offending locals. Finally, in Singapore, as I’ve been away for too long, I am not local enough. In short, I am foreign everywhere I go.

But as a result of existing in the crevices of cultures, I see the Chinese context through Western eyes and the Western context through Chinese eyes. Forced to always adapt to my surroundings, I take nothing for granted. Hence, I notice things that my Chinese assistants will regard as normal/boring and not worth a thought.’

Naomi Hossain:

‘Yes I completely agree that a partial insider perspective brings some advantages. The benefits of distance with knowledge I suppose. In my case I would probably have not been quite so interested in famine had I not had an Irish mother with a strong nationalist streak who never forgot the famine or what the British did (or didn’t do!).’

Adding Hossain and Ang to my list of personal development gurus made me take another look at the longer list – and a lot of them exhibit something like biculturalism. Ha-Joon Chang (South Korea), Matt Andrews (South Africa) and Amartya Sen (India) are more rooted in their countries of origin, but have long since joined international academia; Dani Rodrik clinks firmly to his Turkishness.

Which suggests that promoting diversity in university faculties, conference panels and all the rest is not just a tokenistic response to colonial guilt, but the best way to get a greater understanding of what is going on in the world. Pretty obvious, when you think about it. As Alice Evans from Kings College, London, commented on the Hossain Review:

‘Naomi is a British Bangladeshi, with long-standing links, interactions and in-depth knowledge of Bangladesh. She has family, friends, [or, more dryly] ‘multiple data points’. She knows more than someone like me could ever know through a few one off trips. If Development Studies remains dominated by white old men from the Global North, we blinker ourselves to these brilliant insights. Building more inclusive research, funding, publishing, conferences etc. is absolutely cardinal to enhancing our understanding of development.’


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11 Responses to “Two top authors compared: Hossain on Bangladesh and Ang on China”
  1. Duncan, thank you for a brilliant post, sparking thoughts along 3 innovative lines —

    1. How should we compare countries? What’s the right way to learn from any country’s development experience? Normally, a study on China and on Bangladesh will not (or perhaps never) be compared side-by-side. Here, you demonstrate a different approach to comparison, focusing on interpretative lenses (why vs. how, rationality vs. norms) and ideas that matter, rather than looking for a silver bullet in each country to “copy and paste” elsewhere.

    2. Positionality! What you see depends on who you are.

    3. Multiculturalism & diversity. (*need emojis for thumbs up & applaud here*)

  2. Alice

    Yuen Yuen, I don’t know if it’s totally unlikely that China and Bangladesh would be compared.. Naomi and I are planning to compare Vietnam and Bangladesh, for instance.. Researching why there’s more labour repression in Bangladesh.

  3. Nothing is more educative than discovering how much of culture contributes to our understanding of development. Take for instance parliamentary privilege in a governance programme, what it would mean in Westminster and then to see what it mean in those who have copied Westminster

  4. Irene Guijt

    Which is why I think it would be good for Oxfam (all affiliates, not just OGB) to think about how it can decolonize itself – and if it can. And reflect on how recruiting certain profiles into higher level management positions can help to maintain an uncomfortable status quo – or challenge it.

  5. Naomi Hossain

    Duncan, thank you again for a very thought-provoking article. But also for a great review of my book – I am so impressed that you actually read the whole thing! Thank you so much. I’m sorry I have not responded before but I have been without internet (working with Oxfam in Tanzania, as it happens).

    On this issue of ‘decolonizing knowledge’ about development, as Irene puts it, I agree. But I think people like Yuen Yuen and myself bring a fresh angle, not the whole story. I haven’t yet read her book (it’s on order) but it sounds like a fascinating take on what happened in China, and the incremental, feeling-by-doing approach to development that is driven by deep political drivers rather than blueprints and the powerful ideological push of neoliberalism. It is a story very like that I try to tell about Bangladesh. I think it certainly helps to have a foot in and one out (as well as an exit option in case you say/write anything controversial) in order to push the boundaries of what we think we know about development.

    Relatedly, Yuen Yuen and I had a brief exchange about the politics of development in states without ‘good governance’, and that is really what interests me now. I’m starting to wonder, in a context of closing civic space apparently worldwide, how important civil society in the broadest sense, has been to both of these cases of unexpected or heterodox development progress. Neither Bangladesh nor China had open societies in the classic liberal democratic sense. But they had embedded political leaderships, that were deeply connected to civil society, not so much in the organized de Tocquevillian sense as in the broader Gramscian concept. How much did this embeddedness in civil society matter? As both societies have become more complex and more developed, and more organized civil society groups emerged that are perceived to threaten the power of ruling elites, will the backlash against and clampdown on civil society halt or disrupt such progress? capture it for business interests? This is the stuff I am concerned with now. And again, having an exit option but a partial insider position, as well as strong emotional and cultural ties to the place, might matter in what you can say and how.

    I wonder what other people think?

    • Alice

      Naomi, I really like your point on positionality – not just highlighting knowledge, but emotions and exit. Superb.

      Question. Arent governments always embedded in civil society? Aren’t there always state-society interactions and connections? Of some ilk? Can you point to a government that is *not* embedded in (some sub-group of) civil society?

      Sometimes state-society synergies promote inclusive growth, but not always. For example, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) has used its political ties to resist state regulation. That’s ’embedded political leadership’ – embedded in garment manufacturers’ associations, at least.

      I’m not sure how important the state-society distinction is. Indeed, it may be a false, and misleading binary. A distraction? I think we need to understand how societies come to collectively champion equality. And that’s an iterative process of state-society interactions; encountering resistance within both society and the state.

      But maybe I misunderstood your point?


  6. Asif Dowla

    I agree with Yuen Yuen Ang’s thesis. It is a way out of institutional determinism. I would be worried about extending the idea to countries that don’t have a functioning government. For example, the Chinese state is more capable than Bangladesh. Of course, history played a role. Yuen Yuen Ang’s thesis applies in case of the garment industry in Bangladesh. Bangladesh government was a latecomer in the sector and it helped the private entrepreneur to create room for maneuvers. I remember Frances Stewert asking me why do Bangladesh has the best NGOs in the world and one of worst government. My answer was the first follows from the second. If the government functioned properly, we wouldn’t need NGOs. Here Naomi’s work on the Elites in Bangladesh is revealing. I know I will not make friends in this blog by point out the role played by structural adjustment programs of WB and IMF in creating better institutions in Bangladesh that the country leveraged to achieve a higher consistent growth rate that is instrumental in reducing poverty. As an example, a Bangladeshi IMF economist set up the VAT program in Bangladesh.

    I don’t agree that 1974 famine was pivotal. I don’t think you can pinpoint a precise cut-off point in a complex history.It all started with the war of 1971. As Sen pointed out in a meeting in LSE the war of 1971 changed the norms.

    As for why labor is suppressed more in Bangladesh is because of lack of elite support for unions. The dislike for unions was formed because of the role of the union being a disruptive element in Bangladesh politics. Instead of being an advocate for workers rights, historically, unions have been an extension of the political parties and were used by them for extortion. This is not meant as an opposition to the union by a neoliberal (I am sure it is coming), it is to contextualize elite’s opposition. I am all for workers right to organize and their representation. This is why elites resist the call for unionization. It depends on who is asking and what kind of union.

  7. Alice

    Hi Asif, can you clarify what you meant here in saying that we can’t pinpoint a critical juncture, but the war was a critical juncture? Having read Naomi’s book, which aspects of her analysis of the famine do you disagree with? Thank you!

  8. Asif Dowla

    This is what I wrote to Naomi:

    “I am not convinced that 1974 famine was the critical juncture. I think the 1971 war was the critical juncture. You yourself inadvertently go back to 1971 war and Bhola cyclone (in a recent blog post) in support of your thesis. As Amartya Sen pointed out (in an event for the South Asia Center of LSE last year) the war created sharing norms that enabled many of the changes that happened. There was a huge amount of social capital after 1971 war that the leadership at the time was unable to leverage. That frustration led to Abed, Yunus and the emergence of NGOs.”

    I would moderate my point and argue that the new social contract and patriarchic bargain (Naila Kabeer) that Naomi talks about evolved over the long history of the country. It all started in 1952 with the language movement and culminated with the war of 1971. The language movement was a catalyst for the emergence of Bangladeshi nationalism, civil society, and progressive politics. These all helped create pro-poor stance of the elite (that Naomi wrote about). People like Yunus, Abed, Shafiq Chy (ASA) were all influenced by leftist politics. However, instead of waiting for the revolution, they wanted to do something. They chose economic empowerment instead of trying to conscientize.

    • Naomi Hossain

      Asif and I have been debating these issues by email for some time now. And I know he is not alone in disagreeing about the centrality of the famine in the development project that developed later. It is impossible, as I say in the book, to prove that this was the case in any robust sense. But the same could be said of 1971 – that was a critical juncture because it changed the ruling elite. But my point is that the incentives and motivations of the ruling elite were irrevocably changed by 1974, and that is why the development project takes a more strongly pro-rural and pro-poor turn after (and not before) 1974. Or 1975, more accurately. I don’t think that just because AMartya Sen says something that makes it true! I have traced the perceptions of the elite, including Abed, Yunus and others to the period following 1974. But perhaps it is more appropriate to see the famine as the final stage in a process that started with the 1970 Bhola cyclone and went on through the war and on through the famine (which should really anyway be seen as part of the aftermath of the liberation struggle). And I take Asif’s point that this series of existential crises was the culmination of a much longer process of impoverishment, immiserisation and disempowerment of the Bengali Muslims. But was there something special about the events of 1974? I think I have shown, as well as it is possible to show with existing evidence, that this marked a turning point for development.

      I look forward to more debates!

  9. Asif Dowla

    Can War Foster Cooperation? Michal Bauer, Christopher Blattman, Julie Chytilová, Joseph Henrich, Edward Miguel, Tamar Mitts
    NBER Working Paper No. 22312

    In the past decade, nearly 20 studies have found a strong, persistent pattern in surveys and behavioral experiments from over 40 countries: individual exposure to war violence tends to increase social cooperation at the local level, including community participation and prosocial behavior. Thus while war has many negative legacies for individuals and societies, it appears to leave a positive legacy in terms of local cooperation and civic engagement. We discuss, synthesize and reanalyze the emerging body of evidence, and weigh alternative explanations. There is some indication that war violence especially enhances in-group or “parochial” norms and preferences, a finding that, if true, suggests that the rising social cohesion we document need not promote broader peace.

    So, not only Sen.