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The politics of social protection in Bangladesh: The making of the National Social Security Strategy



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Idris, Nabila 


Social protection has gained rapid prominence in the global development agenda in the past two decades. Numerous countries across the global South have enacted national social protection strategies in a bid to build state of the art programme portfolios. Bangladesh joined their ranks in 2015 with its National Social Security Strategy (NSSS). This study takes the NSSS as its point of departure to open the ‘black box’ of policymaking in Bangladesh. It particularly focuses on the politics of the food vs. cash debate, the targeting vs. universalism debate, and the role of bureaucrats, donors, NGOs, and labour in Bangladesh’s social protection politics.

The thesis aims to critically understand how the wide-ranging, historically-entrenched political contestations in the country underpin the seemingly apolitical decisions in the NSSS. It is based on over sixty in depth qualitative interviews with key informants, weeks of participant observation in meetings and organisations, as well as analysis of hundreds of internal government documents. First, the study finds that labour has fallen victim to the institutional machinations of neoliberal global capitalism, which deliberately and systematically excludes it from policies of social protection. Second, the persistence of colonial era institutions and the power imbalance between producers and consumers in the rice market is shown to tilt the NSSS in favour of food transfers in the short term and cash transfers in the long term. Third, whilst Bangladesh is lauded for the strength of its NGO sector, this study finds NGOs to be a weak actor dependent on idea transfer to protect rental streams. Fourth, the study reveals how donors employ both coercive and ideational means to promote their favoured policies but succeeds where there is a receptive domestic political environment that supports the donors’ ideas, such as by favouring targeted programmes over universalism. And finally, national bureaucrats are seen to be powerful actors engaged in rent-seeking for both personal and organisational gains.

The key contribution of the thesis is its critical analysis, which reveals the political nature of several significant social protection debates in Bangladesh, with potential lessons for other developing countries. At the theoretical level, it contributes to a growing body of political settlements analysis of social protection policies by proposing that the unit of analysis be narrowed down to the issue-level. At the methodological level, the thesis brings the vantage point of the state’s bureaucratic machinery to the fore, thereby providing a counterpoint to many studies on Bangladesh that centre non-state actors.





Abdelrahman, Maha


social protection, Bangladesh, politics, political economy, development studies, political settlement, social security, policymaking, cash transfer, NGO


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge