Rising Ethical States in South Asia: Bangladesh and Bhutan


The South Asian state affairs are more complex to understand. In a nuanced sense, developed countries perceive South Asian countries in a pejorative marker such as they are politically volatile, economically developing and lack-in-cooperation. Probably they have been missing one anecdote lately. South Asian countries are becoming more inclined in ‘ethical practice’ in policy level be it domestically or internationally. This might not be the same as the Non-Aligned Movement of the 1960s. We are going to argue that the concept of Ethical States is not only limited to English society or Australia; rather it is becoming more prevalent in South Asia also. Examining Bangladesh and Bhutan, we see the practice of ethical state is different for each and outcome can be different as well.   

Although the concept of the ethical state bears on a strong resemblance to the social liberalism of the European countries such as Italy or France, the thorough case of the Australian application could be found in the Marian Sawer’s book “The Ethical State?” Sawer argues that Australia has established an exemplar of the Hegelian ethical state through its commitment to the common good and equal opportunity for the people. The Ethical State refers to the Hegelian tradition of state in his The Philosophy of Right where in his last chapter, Hegel referred to his notion- idea (the relationship between one and many), and considered state to be the “epitome of reasons”. He connected state to constitutional law, international law and world-history.

The key-takeaway from Hegel’s contribution to political thinking is that the state acts as the highest ethical mechanism of the people which connects themselves to a higher cause. This institution functions as a necessity which appears itself in freedom’s shape; a political order, state and institutions take the ordain of public freedom in such. The same idea is inherent to the many core assumptions of today’s social liberalism contrary to either the French revolution or British conservatism. For example, in Australia public institutions such as wage arbitration, social security service, old-age pension system incorporated the welfarist tradition in part as well as mainstreamed the indigenous population in regular society.

In this context, policy-making practitioners are largely concerned about both equal citizenship and equal opportunity issues in a practicing ethical state. This normative openness not only includes at the domestic level but also encompasses a state’s outlook in the international arena also where each state interacts with another based on a number of interests. This tradition of international relations thinking often resonates to the English School scholars led by Hedley Bull, Barry Buzan and others. They advocated an ideal of world society or international society where interaction is not dependent on the nation-state’s sovereignty rather states interaction represented people’s interaction in a way. States which become liable to protect not only its citizens but also migrant workers or refugees. States become more compliant to international law and civility where their outward image matters just the way a society talks about its neighborhood.

The political order of today’s international order thus put much emphasis on humanitarianism and multilateralism. Neither arguing or advocating the American way of ‘humanitarian intervention’, but the concept of ‘human’ has become more critical in today’s political discourse. In the 1980s, this discourse was dominated by the dependency debate between developed countries and developing world. Now, the talks have been shifted to human rights, migrant workers, multilateralism and international law. For example, between 2020 and 2023 around 2.8 million academic books and articles have been discussed on human rights issues unprecedented in history. 

Previously experienced in Europe by the European Economic Community and in Canada through Canadian political liberalism, such ethical state practice is getting more pellucid in the South Asia region especially in Bangladesh and Bhutan. Bangladesh as a developing country has been experiencing a number of political and economic shifts over the last two decades. Both domestically and internationally, the country tries to maintain its benevolent and humanitarian outlook through multilateralism and partnerships. For example, the country created a setmark in accepting 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in the 2017 Myanmar Rohingya influx. Unlike European countries on hosting Syrian Arab refugees, accepting Rohingya refugees of Bangladesh was purely on humanitarian cause rather than being motivated politically. Since then, the country has hosted the largest refugee population in Cox’s Bazar. In its foreign policy, Bangladesh maintains an adaptive preference to maintain peaceful relationships with its counterparts. In its development paradigm, the focus is more on enhancing economic security than to revitalize its geo-security through arms race. 

To this date, the country’s leadership has played a key instrumental role in maneuvering this image. The country’s prime minister has received over 37 awards including Champions of the Earth, SDG Progress etc. of which each award is associated with achieving an objective with global peace and support on behalf of Bangladesh. Similarly, the United Nations has become a critical platform for Bangladesh’s ethical stances. On refugee, climate and humanitarian causes, Bangladesh frequently presides over the UN general assembly which energizes this notion. First adopted in 1999, Bangladesh’s flagship resolution “Culture of Peace” has been passed and facilitated in the UNGA every year which focuses on culture of peace’s transformative role in establishing justice and inclusion in peacebuilding activities.

Although it’s different for Bhutan, who is rather more concerned in practicing welfare at a domestic level. Perhaps, the far-reaching effect of development practice in Bhutan has been on its education system. The country applied a more equity-based inclusive education system rather than an economic-based policy prescribed education system funded externally. This made possible an education system not too intricate but flexible to overcome challenges of long-distance, remote area and disability for childrens. Introducing national happiness as a critical parameter of development, even being a small country, Bhutan has successfully pushed the international development discourse by advocating a more rigorous global sustainability when it comes to governance. The United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 65/309, titled “Happiness: Towards a Holistic Approach to Development,” in July 2011. Bhutan proposed the resolution, which was co-sponsored by 68 member countries and unanimously approved.

These two instances are incredible which shows being small states no longer poses a great obstacle in amplifying ethical social liberalism at home or pushing agendas on a global level. For Bangladesh, this means constructing a humanitarian image through its policy engagement. For Bhutan, this means going from the domestic and engaging the policy-evidence to push the global agenda. In both cases, they are ethical states who prioritizes ethics, value and normative goals over security-based all-front conflict. However, focusing on ethical ground tautologically also refrains any of them from engaging in great power rivalry. Multilateralism also makes it difficult to belong in any certain camp but keep them engaged on peaceful terms. For example, Bangladesh in the UN’s 11th emergency special session abstained from voting against Russian annexation of the Ukraine, while at the same time maintaining a neutral position over picking one definite side.  

The remaining question is how to measure such ethical pursuit of any country globally? Can we really quantify the ethical and normative notion of a country’s policy based on standards and parameters? The long tradition of social liberalism, ethical state has been envisioned by the Hegel, the English School, post-World War liberal scholars, but no substantive works have been produced to engage such ethical policy practice into standardized consideration. This should be a public policy challenge for policy-makers as well as social scientists on how to give the idea of an ethical state in the twenty-first century a more comprehensive look for its impactful reach.

Towkir Hossain
Towkir Hossain
Dhaka based Independent Researcher


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