In Real Terms, Please
NADER RAHMAN dicusses our national need for external recognition
WHEN I was in high school I may not have had a head for numbers but I still managed to sail through economics. It wasn't rocket science and everything had a seemingly logical answer, which served me just fine.
Funnily the chapter on GDP and GNP stayed with me for some time because as my teacher pointed out, those figures meant nothing without being adjusted to real terms, i.e. without being adjusted to price changes or as we commonly call it, inflation.
Years later I have come to realise that in Bangladesh people have a tough time adjusting figures, rankings and lists to real terms. When it comes to an international list or ranking regarding Bangladesh the press and academics are all over it. There is usually some form of blanket acceptance or rejection (obviously based on where we were ranked and who's in power) and then once the hullabaloo has subsided we are left with nothing but the cold hard certainty that what has been pronounced is either black or white. In real terms the conclusion is probably grey.
Transparency International famously verified Bangladesh as the most corrupt country five years in a row, and for most part we believed it. I am not trying to say that they were wrong, but I am trying to say that they may not have been entirely right either. Surely there must have been a few countries worse than us, how about war-torn Afghanistan, Iraq or Eritrea?
Whatever the case was we accepted it partly because that's what we do when we are judged by foreigners. We seem to blindly accept what they say about us because deep down inside we hope to one day be judged positively in their eyes. Caliban longs for acceptance and affection and till he gets it, will put up with whatever Prospero says and does. Take a guess as to who Caliban is in this story.
When we were finally dethroned as the world's most corrupt nation people celebrated and deliberated (in some circles those words are used interchangeably) as if we had made some historic great leap forward (come to think of it, that didn't turn out too well either, did it?). The problem was that no one really looked at the list in real terms. What actually happened was that a number of countries in far worse condition than us just managed to become even more corrupt than they already were, thereby usurping our position.
There was no real change in Bangladesh, dare I say we were just as corrupt as the year before when we reigned supreme, all that we could take pride for was the fact that other countries rates of corruption outstripped ours. Because the day before those rankings came out one needed to pay a bribe to get a telephone line fixed and the day after it came out was just the same. So while people were fixated on our upward move judged by foreigners, few if any wondered if that success was real, or what it meant for the everyman in real terms.
Our first ever sovereign credit rating came out recently and yet again it was treated as a success, and, one could argue, for good reason. But the point remains, the rating of BB- puts us a mere 4 places off the bottom, with just 12 out of the 124 countries on the list receiving a worse rating than us. While everyone was busy discussing how great it was for us, few if any spoke about the rating in real terms. Would it greatly aid foreign investment in Bangladesh? Would it make other countries sit up and take notice of us? Most importantly did it do anything other than boost our morale and self confidence? Unfortunately the answer to all three questions is no, but therein lies the answer.
While these rankings and ratings are actually of little everyday or real importance, more often than not they serve as a timely tonic for a country used to be being referred to internationally in an unflattering manner. They do nothing for us other than lift our spirits, which I admit is important for a country so used to sulking rather than celebrating.
Sadly, we seek external recognition to help us feel good about ourselves. Rather than questioning the position or place we are awarded we rejoice when they are marginally above our expectations and cheer even louder when they above our judge's expectations of us. Like true high school economics students we should judge any rating or list in real terms, please.
Nader Rahman is Assistant Editor, Forum.