Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Local Control versus Technocracy: The Bangladesh Flood Response Study

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Local Control versus Technocracy: The Bangladesh Flood Response Study

Article excerpt


Since 1947, development planning in South Asia has evolved into a battleground between alternative visions of society; government and human. Is democracy a luxury only wealthy nations can afford, or the best way out of poverty? Does development depend primarily on introducing technologies, or on building institutions? Is it a matter of injecting large amounts of capital, or of building systems of effective management. Does it require greater central control or more local organizational capability? Do low educational levels and general poverty require that development priorities be decided by an administrative or technocratic elite, or does control by an insulated elite assure low levels of general education and continuing poverty?

In Bangladesh, conflicting answers to such questions frame the opposed positions in a life-and-death argument concerning the problems posed by the annual cycle of winter droughts, cyclones, spring storms and summer floods. Although the climatic cycle constrains and supports virtually all productive activities, it also regularly causes tens of millions of dollars of damage and take hundreds and sometimes thousands of lives. Since 1988 most of this discussion in turn has focused on the Flood Action Plan. There is no better example than the Flood Action Plan of the ways development plans in South Asia are repeatedly distorted by the concerned national and international agencies, to the point that they perpetuate the poverty and dependency they should be working to end.

In 1987 and again in 1988, particularly disastrous floods were followed by insistent public demands that the government of Bangladesh should "do something," but there were no mechanisms by which the public could refine this demand into specific proposals. However, donor governments and agencies expressed a willingness to help. In 1988, Danielle Mitterand, the wife of Francois Mitterand, then-president of France, visited Bangladesh's flooded areas. Shortly thereafter the French government submitted a proposal to the Bangladesh government to construct a prototypically centralized, capital- and technology-intensive solution: a comprehensive System of embankments to contain all the major rivers. The French did not, however, offer the necessary funding.

According to a preliminary study, cited by the World Bank as a "pre-feasibility" analysis, the cost was expected to run between $5.4 billion and $10.2 billion, followed by annual maintenance expenditures ranging from $540 million to $890 million.(2) Social costs, according to the study, would include, "expropriation of 19,000 to 21,000 hectares that would affect up to 180,000 people." In addition the study noted that, "in the large set-back solution, about 5 million people living between the main embankments and the bank would not benefit from flood protection and might have to be relocated behind the shelter of the dykes."(3) In other words, 5 million people would be displaced as a result of the French flood prevention plan.

The expected benefits of the French plan were the reduction or elimination of annual losses caused by floods that presently cost about $140 million, as well as unspecified "agricultural benefits, including improved cropping patterns, and a likely improvement in the rate of growth."(4) Although not explicitly stated, the implication was that such benefits might eventually outweigh the costs. However, there are many reasons to doubt this. The existing agricultural system in Bangladesh is closely adapted to the cycle of inundations and is unquestionably productive, supporting one of the highest rural population densities in the world. No rain-fed system and few irrigation system could achieve as much.

Funding for the French proposal proved elusive. The apparent expectation was that a large part of the expense would be covered by Japan or the United States. However, neither country was inclined to agree. …

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