Meet the author: Naomi Hossain
The DSA is proud to have a book series with Oxford University Press: Critical Frontiers of Theory, Research, and Policy in International Development Studies. One of the current editors of the series is researcher and author Naomi Hossain, who was also the first to be published in the series with her title The Aid Lab: Understanding Bangladesh’s Unexpected Success. The book has recently been in the spotlight, years after its publishing because recent events in Bangladesh have catapulted the country into news headlines after its recent elections and The Economist recommended The Aid Lab as one of eight must reads to understand the country’s socio-political context. The book is also about to get a reprint with a Bangladeshi company, making the book more accessible to local researchers. Naomi talks to us about being an author, development studies, and why the book is still critical to researchers today.
“At the heart of the book is an argument that the 1974 famine was the reason that Bangladesh turned a corner and went on this very inclusive pro-poor, pro-women development direction. But a lot of the younger generation for various reasons don’t know anything about the famine. They know about the 1943 famine, which was covered in the media, portrayed in novels, films and art,” Naomi explains. “People are still very sensitive about the 1974 famine and don’t like to talk about it. So I really wanted to write this book because it’s very important that we remember this for historical reasons, but also because we don’t really understand why Bangladesh went on its relatively pro-poor, relatively inclusive development pathway, if we don’t remember what happened in 1974.”
Remembering is key to understanding, and there are many issues about the 1974 famine that need to be understood, especially to bring about accountability. Naomi explains that the famine was not just brought about due to lack of grain. “Bangladesh was economically and socially devastated at the time, and the government system of the new nation was in chaos, with little experience of administration, little authority and with few resources. There’s also the issue of the US withholding aid during the famine because Bangladesh had exported jute bags to Cuba, a Communist country, at the height of the Cold War. The US was never held to account for enabling a full-blown famine that killed one and a half million people. And the younger generation doesn’t know that.”
Remembrance and accountability is important to Naomi. She has also been working on the legacy of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 with photojournalist Imsail Ferdous to collaborate on an essay on accountability. Prior to joining SOAS, Naomi was working at the Accountability Research Center, at American University. She observed that photography had played a role in accountability of the disaster because people saw the horrific images after the collapse. Ten years later, Ismail and Naomi returned to the site. “We were out there in Rana Plaza, looking at what was there and there’s no memorial. It’s just like it’s just a wasteland there. There’s a little hammer and sickle statue there that the workers put up but there’s just this is just a wasteland, a rubbish dump. There’s still bodies buried there.”
Naomi said for the government, factory owners and brands have moved on, but the people who were there are still living with the effects. Some of the survivors attended a photo exhibition that Ismail and Naomi curated. “They said to us, ‘everyone’s forgotten about us! We don’t have any work, we were injured. We can’t work anymore. Nobody’s giving us a pension. There’s no money. Everyone’s forgotten.’ So this photo exhibition was really important.”
One of the legacies has been the establishment of mandatory human rights and due diligence laws, “We want to go back and try to use art photography, maybe theater, to try to clarify what is this legacy of Rana Plaza? What are these mandatory human rights and due diligence laws [that have come out of the disaster] and what does it mean to be responsible for what goes on down your value chain?”
Naomi is one of the co-convenors of a panel on this topic at DSA2024 which will be held at SOAS. “Manufacturing social justice and the politics of labour in and out the global garment shopfloor” will look at how how social justice claims are manufactured on global garment shopfloors via new labour-rights initiatives or workers’ grievances; and it analyses links between shopfloor-politics and workers’ life. While the focus will be on South Asian workers, analysis from other geographies is also welcome.
Naomi is enthusiastic about attending the DSA conference. “I always love the DSA conference. I always feel like it’s my tribe. I go sometimes even if I’m not presenting a paper, just to go and see my mates! I’ve been to some conferences where everyone’s really stuffy and I don’t think development studies people are really like that. When you’re an early career researcher or a PhD student, you should just go and chat to people about their work. Make contact with people in your areas, because it can be useful in later life. You know, you can write to them, you can get advice, you can get involved with projects they’re involved with. I think the networks that I have in the development studies world have been really useful to me and really supportive.”
With Naomi’s extensive experience in writing for development audiences we had to ask her for top tips for those considering their first monograph in which she is disarmingly pragmatic! “Basically, you just have to sit down and bloody do it! It’s like exercising. You have to get into the habit of just sitting down and writing and writing regularly. And remember, writing is revising, writing is editing. But basically it is about stamina. You just have to keep going. And no you can’t wait for divine inspiration!”
“I also think it’s quite useful to get a dog and go for long walks!” she adds.
The DSA conference will be held online and at SOAS 26–28 June 2024. All are welcome, registration fees apply. Bring your own dog.