When on May 29, 1982, the Bangladesh Council of Ministers approved the proposals for a National Drug Policy, the news was a bombshell to those concerned nationally and internationally with pharmaceuticals. Unlike in other countries, where medicinal drug policies have developed gradually over a period of time and may not be found in one single comprehensive document but several, the Bangladesh example reflects the intensive activity of the Expert Committee which worked out the policy, based on 16 criteria, in 15 days. Its Report, almost unchanged, was made law on 12 June. Thirteen years later it can be observed that despite opposition from many actors, such as the national and international pharmaceutical industry with support from some governments in the North, the Bangladesh Medical Association, parts of the Press, and at a later stage, the Bangladesh Government itself, the output of essential drugs has increased from about 30 to about 80 per cent, prices have in almost all cases gone down considerably, the domestic industry has grown rapidly, the quality of its production has increased dramatically, and people's awareness about medicinal drugs has been steadily growing. The Bangladesh story has been told before and is well known not only to those active in the field of pharmaceuticals but also to the wider circle of concerned citizens in the South and the North who are searching for broad-based, democratic, people-oriented solutions to societal problems. What makes this article unique is that it is told by the central actor in this dramatic process, Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury, from the inside. In 1972, this indefatigable activist set up Gonoshasthaya Kendra (the People’s Health Centre), which initially concentrated on primary health care and the training of paramedics but later expanded beyond the health sector to include in its work education, nutrition, agriculture, employment generation and women’s emancipation. These activities now serve more than 500,000 people. In 1981, Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury set up Gonoshasthaya Pharmaceuticals in order to manufacture essential drugs of high quality and at low cost. This article is a based on a book. The Politics of Essential Drugs. The Makings of a Successful Health Strategy: Lessons from Bangladesh, published by ZED Books, London, in October 1995 in cooperation with the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation.
The abbreviated and edited version presented here was produced in cooperation with Andrew Chetley, a journalist and author specialising in health and pharmaceutical issues.