Aristocracy versus meritocracy
Akhter M. Chaudhury redefines the concept of noblesse oblige for today's elite
I may get spat on (hopefully only figuratively and not literally) for what I am about to propound in the next few paragraphs. But that is a risk soothsayers have historically had to endure. While I do not pretend to be one, I nevertheless take the risk of vilification in putting forward a truth, painful and as initially retrograde as it may seem. I express this as it is to my mind a reality we have to face. Only then can we deal with it and address the underlying issues.
The British Empire expanded dramatically during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria. The feudal system of royal patronage was at its peak at the time. Ordinary Britons were by and large serfs and peasants. Education was the preserve of a privileged few. There were not enough trained, educated or competent people to administer what became an enormous undertaking -- the British empire, where it is the said the sun never set.
The blue-blooded were by default the ones who took state responsibility. They were sent to far-flung reaches of the globe to run the British empire. This they did successfully for many centuries.
The Industrial Revolution changed society more than we realise. Wealth began to be disseminated right across society and with it came economic and political power. Democracy, a concept almost a thousand years old in Britain, began to take real shape. More and more ordinary Britons got access to education and qualifications. This change coincided with, or perhaps even hastened, the decline of the empire and with it the power and exclusive domains of the privileged few. More and more ordinary Britons became eligible and indeed were appointed to positions of authority previously reserved for the aristocracy. This was a slow process hastened by the Great War and almost completed by the time the Second World War was over. Remnants of the old system persisted but were practically eliminated by the sixties. By this time a strong work force of educated and competent Britons had replaced aristocrats in virtually the entire machinery of state. Britain today is a strong country with a vibrant economy. The foundations of today's success were however laid by the aristocracy of yesteryear.
Bangladesh today faces a challenge very similar to that which Great Britain faced when first it set its sights beyond its own shores, albeit for completely different reasons. Bangladesh has defied all prognostications of terminal birth defects and an imminent demise. On the contrary it has grown at an average rate of over 5% per year since its painful inception.
Turbulent times have done very little to hold back a country and a people determined to survive and indeed thrive in an unfriendly environment and a hostile climate. Even nature conspires to mortally wound a poor nation that refuses to kneel and be vanquished! Virtual bankruptcy and an unsympathetic world held back Bangladesh's capability to adequately develop its vast manpower resources. Due to resource constraints, policy makers aimed for the lowest common denominator -- basic education for the masses.
As a result the absolutely essential component of economic success, a large and growing pool of tertiary educated technocrats, did not materialise. The "education-economic growth-opportunities-resource generation-better education-greater economic growth" cycle never took off. It is clearly a chicken and egg situation where something has to come first.
In the absence of adequate natural resources, education must come first -- but where will the resources to educate come from? Economic growth? There aren't enough educated and trained people to achieve this. Why not? Because there are not enough resources to improve and educate more people … and so on! Successive governments have tried to jump start this process but with limited success -- mainly because of narrow political considerations. Singapore, a poor fishing village until the sixties, broke this cycle and kick-started itself through sustained and focused leadership whose only consideration was the development of the city-state. They proved that this could be achieved if there is sincerity, focus, and leadership. But this article is not meant to be a political dissertation. As such, I shall move on to the matter I really want to put forward.
Bangladesh today faces a serious shortage of skilled manpower. I believe that this is in every sector. Even the manual worker in the average factory should be better educated. We make do with illiterate or semi-literate workers without realising, or worse -- perhaps even accepting, that people without the right education cannot give the productivity necessary for sustained economic growth. Improved productivity translates into greater competitiveness and higher economic growth. This could be the beginning of the cycle.
At management levels, this problem is even more acute. There are hordes of graduates from universities of every description, the standards of some of which are questionable. Most such graduates with the rest of the world -- not only in products but also in services. No organisation can offer a globally competitive product if its technology and its people are not are of poor standard by any level of international measure. This is most unfortunate as the world economy of today is unhindered by man-made borders. One has to compete take a decade or more. But what should we do until then? Can we survive while the system is being fixed? Will the patient survive the operation or sink into a perpetual coma? of global standards. That is why today Bangladesh is flooded With expatriates, many substandard by global reckoning, in management and administrative positions. The cycle of human resource poverty is a vicious one. Each turn of the wheel makes it worse and it will eventually collapse onto itself. Something has to be done -- and now. Those who have the onerous task of running the country must reverse this debilitating cycle by allocating significant resources to education at a nationwide level. The highest priority should be for tertiary education. We must, as a nation, accept, at the risk of being accused of being elitist, that a university education is not for all and indeed not necessary for all. After all, the backbone of the largest economy in the world, the US, is the high school graduate! The situation is similar in Europe. Mind you the university educated manager is indispensable in the equation but needs only to be numerically very small.
This initiative will certainly put a brake on our decline, but to break through the barrier, the tipping point, sustained investment in educating the human capital of the country, at a standard comparable to the rest of the world, must continue for a period of perhaps 10 or 15 years. Education must become a non-political issue. All parties must be in consensus that this is necessary. Otherwise there will soon be no country left to squabble over.
The prescriptions of this quack of an author may have so far just about tickled your fancy but are unlikely to have come to you as an epiphany. What I say later in this article may however intrigue you and even set you thinking, provided of course you have an open mind and are not driven by any dogma, political or humanist.
What I wish to state is that we cannot accept this state of affairs as it will ultimately starve and suffocate us, slowly and almost unfeelingly like the anecdotal frog in boiling water. Fixing the problem may I hope I have not depressed you -- in fact I have no wish to appear pessimistic. On the contrary, I remain bullish. My proposal is that while the problem is being fixed we should temporarily adopt aristocracy over meritocracy. Let us stop hiring mediocre expatriates for basic management positions. This only blocks opportunities for our own workforce. It is demoralising and demotivating and has a profound effect on the potential workforce. A feeling of despair and frustration seeps down to the grassroots whence future managers emerge.
Instead, let us stop looking for what we do not have. Let us look at what we do have. We do have a small and promising group of young men and women who are smart, articulate, and impressive. Let them take the reins of our businesses. They may not have all the qualifications and experience that one may ideally seek but they will in the long run be better for one's business than the short tenure short horizon expatriate.
Admittedly this may not be possible in all cases but in most cases it will work if one is prepared to take a risk on one's compatriots. Because of the great economic divide in this country, the chances are that the men and women that I speak of will be from privileged well-off families -- in a sense our own little aristocracy. So be it. What of it? Where is the shame in admitting that it exists? Where does it not? Instead of propounding purely proletariat or capitalist points of view why not embrace the reality of our situation?
What I think my proposal would do would be to allow us the breathing space that we need while we gear ourselves up to rise to the challenges of the 2020s. Make no mistake, the world will be unrecognisable by then and if we are not ready with contemporary knowledge and technology we will be bob helplessly and endlessly like flotsam from a wreck in a turbulent ocean of globalisation.
Time and tide wait for no one. The time is now. Be brave. Take courage in both hands. State leaders -- take long term measures. Business leaders -- put your faith in people, not just on certificates. Take a risk -- develop people. It is my humble experience that people usually rise to the challenge.
Give them that chance, even if they are not the ideal candidate. One may have the occasional disappointment but on balance the country and we will be better off. The bottom line is that we have no choice. Jam today and starve tomorrow, or bread today, bread tomorrow, and cake the day after. Which would one rather have? I know I love my jam but I would rather wait a little and have my cake!
Akhter M. Chaudhury is Managing Director, Nuvista Pharma Limited.