A View from Abroad
ZIAUDDIN CHOUDHURY asks how far we've come as a nation in the last four decades -- and how to forge ahead.
My first visit to the US was in the infancy of Bangladesh, in 1973, as the junior most member of a delegation led by late A.H.M. Kamaruzzaman, then Minister of Foreign Trade. I have a special recollection from that visit, which is of a meeting of the Minister with Congressman Poage, then Chairman of Foreign Relations Committee of the US House of Representatives. Toward the end of the meeting in the Capitol, the Congressman asked the minister what were the chances that the newly independent Bangladesh could eventually merge with West Bengal since both regions spoke Bengali. The question took everyone by surprise, but Mr. Kamaruzzaman took the question in his stride, and calmly replied that there were no such chances. Language was not the basis on which Bangladesh was born, he politely reminded the Congressman. The Congressman hastily added later that he had meant no offence. But the point was noted by everyone in the delegation at that time. Bangladesh would need a lot of hard work to be recognised abroad as a viable country.
I quote the incident to bring to surface the great amount of cynicism and uncertainty that surrounded Bangladesh immediately following its bloody birth. From such disparaging remarks as an “international basket case” of Kissinger, to the forecast of doom and gloom from our adversaries, we became accustomed to acceptance of a fate that could be avoided only with divine intervention. We inherited a territory that was depleted of its resources, an infrastructure that was destroyed from within, and a population that required rehabilitation in almost every part of the country. A nine-month war, which actually was not between two armies, but a war by an occupation force against unarmed civilians, left millions dead, and an umpteen number uprooted from their homes. Our economy was in a shambles, as every sector needed to be rebuilt.
For three straight years our nation building work was actually a reconstruction and rehabilitation effort. Our government's focus was attending to the basic needs of food, shelter and medicine. The nation was actually one large refugee camp. There was very little hope that we could come out of this morass, least of all develop the country economically and socially.
Even a decade after the birth of Bangladesh, I would face a somewhat similar quandary in responding to questions on the viability of Bangladesh at Cornell University (which I was attending for my higher studies in 1981). How could a country that depended mostly on foreign assistance (over 80% of development budget that time) ever stand on its own and get moving? More importantly, how would a country cope with a fast growing population that rose at an average of nearly 3% in the past decade? Would the country ever be able to meet its food gap that in a bad year ran into several millions of tons?
Just to put in things perspective, it is worthwhile to note that our economy for the first 10 years of our existence was mainly dependent on agriculture. It contributed to 60% of our gross domestic output, and employed nearly 80% of the total labour force. Our main export, jute and jute goods, accounted for more than two thirds of our foreign earnings. Earnings from industry and manufacturing were at the bottom of the table. We had an adult literacy rate hovering around 30%, with a much worse rate for women. Over 70% of our population lived below the line of poverty.
It took a great amount of courage and optimism of a visionary to speak about the future prospects of a country in such a crisis in the 1970s, and for much of the first half of the 1980s. Our image abroad was that of a country waging an unending battle against poverty, mounting population, and natural scourges. We existed in the peripheral vision of the international community, appearing in full vision when natural disasters struck the country.
Where are we now almost 40 years later? Are we still a poster child of malnutrition, poverty and hunger? Are we still considered an international basket case? Can we say that we have left that image behind us?
Let us review some results of our country's endeavours in the last forty years. These are substantiated by both our government's statistics and those from international agencies including the World Bank and United Nations. In the last four decades we raised our food production three folds -- from less than 12 million tons in 1972 to nearly 30 million tons in 2009. Our food gap dropped from an average of four to five million tons to less than one million a year. We have halved the rate of population growth of the 1970s. Our exports grew from less than half a billion dollars in 1972-73 to over 15 billion dollars last year; our per capita income rose from less than a hundred dollars to nearly six hundred dollars in the same period (all in nominal terms). After jute and jute goods and staples our foreign earnings were replaced by manufactured goods -- mainly readymade garments that became new icons of our exports. Our total national income quadrupled over the same time. The number of people in abject poverty (described in economic terms as people earning less than a dollar day) declined from 70% of the population to under 50%. But does this mean much for a nation of 16 crores? Have these achievements really changed our people's lives and their expectations?
In a recent trans-continental live call-in session (over phone) arranged by The Voice of America that I had participated in as a discussant, a recurring comment from listeners that I had to respond to was viability of Bangladesh both economically and politically. It was in a sense déjà vu all over again. The majority of questions that were asked were refrains of those we had heard nearly four decades before. It appeared that despite progress on many fronts, cynicism of future growth and economic self- reliance still persists both nationally and internationally. There are good reasons for these questions and cynicism among many about our future. One is that the generation now living in Bangladesh is a post-liberation product that cannot see or properly evaluate our relative progress since independence. The other major reason is that our current generation still finds the country impoverished, largely illiterate and affected by large-scale corruption and a feckless leadership on all fronts. Are there ways to sustain our success and forge ahead tackling these obstacles and challenges?
There is no magic wand that will suddenly eradicate all the ills and failures that we face as a nation today. We will probably be struggling with some of them even decades later, such as a burgeoning population (even if we grow minimally), and demands for consumption expand. But there are actions that we can take to help us grow and sustain our hard-earned success. I will name only a few.
First is education. In today's economy where knowledge and skills rule, we cannot achieve success and compete with other countries with half of our adult population remaining illiterate. We export a vast amount of manpower to other countries to perform low-level jobs because they have no superior skills that come with education and training. We fail to attract foreign investors to our country because we have very little tradable human resources that have education and training. We need more investment in education, teachers and good training institutions.
Second is ending corruption. We seem to have been permanently clustered with the most corrupt countries of the world since the world index on corruption began to be tabulated. It is ironic that despite corruption becoming a buzzword in Bangladesh aid circles, despite corruption being a central theme of a World Bank publication (Government That Works), and despite corruption figuring as a major obstacle in the governance process of Bangladesh, we seem to make no headway in addressing it, let alone solve it. Quite a few of the recent writings by a few of our thinking elites dealt with corruption, its cause and effects and ways to tackle them. Most of our people are aware of what causes corruption, where these are and some can even suggest how these can be tackled. However, all this knowledge is meaningless if the political will to tackle corruption is lacking. This political will and determination is needed at all levels, starting from the top.
Third is establishing and sustaining good institutions. These are not merely educational institutions, but political and social as well. We need good institutions in politics, administration, economic development and to act as watch dogs over the actions or inactions of our leaders and bureaucrats. We established an autonomous Anti-Corruption Commission three years ago that thrilled the country in the beginning with some dramatic actions. However, instead of arming it further with power and authority, we are attempting to de-claw it. We need institutions that people can have faith in, and see results. Building institutions must be separated from the periodic ups and downs of our political scene. Governments may come and go, but institutions must continue.
As we take stock today of our success and failures of the last four decades, we need to be fully cognizant that an alert and responsible political leadership is key to our future success. We attained independence with the sacrifice of millions, in lives and property. Those who are gone are neither beneficiaries nor witnesses of our achievement; but the generations that live now and those that will come will benefit or suffer from our collective actions today. I only hope that we learn from mistakes in the past, and do our best to avoid them. We must forge ahead.
Ziauddin Choudhury works for an international organisation in the USA.