Before emerging as an independent state in 1971, Bangladesh had some forms of rural development institutions e.g village-based governments whose origin can be traced back to ancient times. The predominant assignment of these village governments was to collect revenue for the central government followed by other functions as maintenance of law and order and promotion of trade and commerce. The Mughal rulers hardly showed any systematic institutional approach to rural development, except for the construction of limited rural infrastructure and emergency relief operation.
The British created a loyal landed class of zamindars through the Permanent Settlement Act of 1793. The new zamindari system institutionalised the indigenous rural organisations in Bengal and provided the central regime with a sound revenue and political support base. Some philanthropists pioneered a number of localised and limited but laudable programmes in rural development. For example, the great poet Rabindranath Tagore founded the institution of Sriniketan in 1921 to instill the sense of cooperation among the villagers. Under the purview of this institution, the Palli Mangal Samity (village welfare society), health cooperatives, adult education centres, and handicraft training centres were established.
The Village Agricultural and Industrial Development (V-AID) programme, launched in 1953 with technical assistance from the government of United States, marked the first governmental attempt to promote citizens participation in the sphere of rural development in Pakistan. V-AID encompassed all major sectors of rural development such as agriculture, primary education, health, sanitation, cooperatives, land reclamation, physical infrastructure, social and recreational activities. However, the programme largely failed to take roots, as little attention was given to institution-building and community organisations at the grassroots, and all supports were ultimately withdrawn from the project in 1961. The poor performance of V-AID contributed to the conception and development of the Comilla Model of rural development, engineered by the Pakistan Academy of Rural Development (renamed subsequently as Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development (BARD). The four constituent elements of the model were: (a) Rural Works Programme aimed primarily to build communication and drainage network by using local manpower; (b) Thana Training and Development Centre to train villagers on such issues as new agricultural technology, cooperation, citizen’s right and obligation; (c) Thana Irrigation Programme to provide irrigation facilities to farmers and to encourage community management of pumps and tube-wells; (d) Two-tier Cooperatives to promote cooperation among villagers by establishing two supplementary cooperative structures, one at the thana level and the other at the village level.
In 1959, a four-tier local government system called the Basic Democracies (BD) was launched by the military government of Mohammad Ayub Khan, consisting of union, thana, district and divisional councils.
Bangladesh, since her birth, witnessed ceaseless experimentation with varied rural development approaches. In the initial years after independence a number of voluntary and public agencies worked to build up the war-torn economy and society primarily in the form of relief and rehabilitation work. In 1972, the government activated the Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP) to replicate and expand the Comilla Model in other parts of the country. Later the programme was transformed into an institution called Bangladesh Rural Development Board (BRDB). The BRDB eventually became the largest government organisation involved in rural development. Its main activities include rural poverty alleviation and production oriented schemes, expansion of the two-tier cooperatives, and target group oriented projects such as the rural women project, rural poor project, and agricultural development project. The Swanirvar (self-reliance) Movement, a government patronised rural development scheme, was launched in 1975. Distinctive features of the movement were the shift of focus of rural development intervention from thana to village level, formation of the institution of Gram Sabha or village assembly consisting of adult members in the village, and preparation of the participatory village plan of development activities. One major documented scheme under the programme was the Ulashi-Jadunathpur Canal Digging Project in Jessore district, which brought 18,000 acres of previously waterlogged land under cultivation by excavating a 4.26km long irrigation canal.
BARD launched the Comprehensive Village Development Programme in 1975 with the principal objective of ameliorating the socio-economic status of all groups of people in a village through a common institutional framework. The BARD also sponsored another experimental programme, the Small Farmers Development Programme with the operational focus on small farmers in 1993. Its broad objective was to organise the target farmers and landless labourers by providing them with necessary inputs and services for production and institution building. Other major governmental rural development projects include the Vulnerable Group Development, Thana Resource Development and Employment Project, Rural Social Service Programme, Community Development Programme, Self-reliance Programme for Rural Women, and technologies for rural employment.
The government’s current rural development policy’s main emphasis is on employment oriented growth, greater citizen participation in development activities, greater cooperation between public and private sectors, specialised programmes for the disadvantaged groups such as rural poor women, ethnic minorities, children, and the elderly people. Alongside the public initiative, the voluntary and private organisations, more popularly known as the non-governmental Organisations (NGO) cover an wide range of rural development activities including those oriented towards development of income and employment, health and sanitation, agriculture and rural craft, vocational education, relief and rehabilitation, family planning, mother and childcare. There are many NGOs in the country including 89 international ones. Many national NGOs were born out of the relief and rehabilitation activities during the early 1970s. One predominating approach to rural development by the NGOs involves poverty alleviation through rendering small scale credit to the purposively organised groups of rural poor and landless people, commonly coined as the ‘micro credit model’. A number of NGOs have achieved national and international reputation through this approach, notably the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), Grameen Bank, Proshika Manobik Unnayan Kendra, ASA and Rangpur-Dinajpur Rural Service.