Vol. 5 Num 1024 Thu. April 19, 2007  

Don't throw out the baby with the bath water

The day before yesterday, I made it to the front page of The Daily Star. Alas, my claim to fame was not a scholastic, entrepreneurial, or industrial achievement. It was that as a relative of a prominent public figure being investigated under circumstances that I find problematic, I, together with the rest of my family, have decided to comply with regulations and laws, even while insisting that they are questionable. Not the usual substance for first page coverage anywhere in the world, except, it seems, in Bangladesh.

This is not a mere reflection on a personal situation. The current upheaval in standards and norms that Bangladesh is witnessing is a dramatic situation that requires a careful examination by all, be it the press, political players, or society at large.

Bangladesh today is faced with a challenging reality with an unelected New Order that is nonetheless implementing measures demanded by much of the population. The role of the media and of public intellectuals in such a situation should be one of scrutiny and critique. Many voices are seemingly critical, but the end result is just amplification of current negative trends. Addressing issues of corruption is a must, but don't throw out the baby with the bath water.

Bangladesh was born a classless society. Not out of choice, and not as a virtue. It was classless because with the departure of the colonizer, all of Bangladesh was devastated. Our leaders, intellectuals -- the best and the brightest -- were slaughtered, our economy was raped and dismantled, and our common folks were left destitute. Upon Independence, some, who were driven by ideals of utopian socialism, would have liked to maintain the nation as a classless society: a country of its "people" presumably united in fate and status.

Unfortunately, reality came back to bite. If it were not greedy entrepreneurs, it was autocrats who ended up monopolizing the wealth of the country. Bangladesh learned the hard way that the only guarantee of real "people power" is the safeguarding of the individual's initiative, through a democratic system with checks and balances.

We did not score well in that respect, and therefore we were taught a "negative" lesson. We have learned that in the absence of transparency, even democracy gets corrupted. The New Order under which we live today, has set "corruption" as its nemesis and target. However, without accountability and transparency, no amount of goodwill will ever move us forward.

Sadly, the media seems to be abandoning a considerable portion of its responsibility as the ultimate expression of transparency. The current lack of transparency in the New Order is seldom questioned, presumably in compliance with Emergency Laws.

A clear standard for the target of anti-corruption investigations needs to be set and explained to the public at large: the interplay of politics and money had subverted both our democratic system and our free-market structures.

Ideally, an elected government should have tackled this problem. The argument can be made however, that the mutual penetration between politics and money had made it delusional to expect such a reform to emerge from an elected administration. If we have reluctantly accepted the actions of an unelected New Order, we have both the right and the obligation to demand an impeccable execution of the anti-corruption sweep. The media seems to have abandoned its duty to monitor, criticize, and propose corrective measures for the current anti-corruption campaign.

Rather than focusing on the shape of the bathtub of a targeted official, the media should ensure that the anti-corruption sweep abides by standards that realize the national interest.

The media should underline that although the Bangladeshi socio-economic elite is burdened with corruption, Bangladesh has leaped forward considerably over its short history. The entire nation should be credited for those achievements, however the role of the Bangladeshi entrepreneur, the risk taker who has assumed the burdens of uncertainty and potentially considerable losses on behalf of society, is not merely the caricature of the corrupt often promoted in media outlets today.

The spirit of initiative and achievement was also a driving force in our successive governments. While it is fashionable today to put down the political class in its totality, public servants under previous administrations have also delivered. Road networks that have transported rural areas into modern day economy, and bridges that have tamed nature and allowed the conduct of commerce to flourish, as well as the management of socio-economic problems on a wide-scale, have contributed to the overall improvements that our nation has enjoyed.

That the road ahead is long is unquestionable. That corrective measures are due is self-evident. This, however, cannot be achieved by blanket dismissal of the record of and the accomplishments of people, who have lived and muddied their hands in the rebuilding of the nation. Ideals should be rationalized with the realities on the ground. Otherwise, we are indeed throwing away the baby with the bathwater.

Maneeza Hossain is Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, Washington DC.