City of Seminars
Dhaka is a city of many peculiarities, indeed it is something of an anomaly to those habituated to the countryside. As most of the country consists of miles and miles of flat land, at least at this time of the year, wetland, the sky risers of the urban metropolis may even instill an air of portentousness to the traveller used to more, shall we say, provincial settings. That which is unusual can sometimes be inviting by virtue of its nonconformity. A change of pace can be welcoming, but at times making the transition to a new pattern of logic from the rural sites to the urban one for example- can be a process beset with difficulty.
One of the conundrums faced by a newcomer in Dhaka is that the city is almost always flooded with an outstanding number of seminars sponsored by so called “think tanks” encompassing every possible issue of concern. Sometimes these kinds of gatherings are masked with different appellations, in addition to seminars, they can be called, dialogues, workshops and forums. But troubled reader be assured, they all essentially share the same purpose.
For those who have been living under a rock, travelling abroad or simply unfamiliar with the term seminar, allow this writer to relieve you of your present bewilderment: In Dhaka a seminar is basically an occasion where concerned members of the community, usually those possessing some high social rank, choose a topic of concern, say Climate Change and invite learned guests to speak, give them titles like, Chief Guest, Special Guest or Honoured Guest- sometimes all three in one event- so that they may carry the aura of distinction. Invitations are sent out to guests and the press to observe the event and hear its suggestions to alleviate the effects of pertinent issues in question - usually one that can only be alleviated by policymakers. If you are lucky enough to be invited to one of these events, you may even be given a folder full of useful facts about the issue discussed, handy to carry around and advertise to your friends about how you were once an attendee. Usually after this flaunt parade is over, the substance of the seminar is lost or at best locked in memory.
Now, if these are the thoughts that are running through the readers mind: But, that doesn't sound perplexing, in fact it sounds rather useful! Or, for the more experienced among you, whom one suspects have frequented these gatherings: dialogue is the most important feature of democracy! No one is trying to discount your claims. Rather it is to find the source of the seemingly illogical number of seminars that have overwhelmed the city but provided no policy implications.
Organisations known popularly by their acronyms such as Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI) or Bangladesh Institute for International Strategic Studies (BIISS) or the Bangladesh Institute for Law and International Affairs (BILIA) are categorissed as think tanks and in addition to organising a substantial number of the seminars in the city also house research associates that produce research project after research project. To enumerate all the think tanks in Bangladesh would be too exhaustive for this short piece but focus will be placed on those that have acquired some stature.
Generally speaking most think tanks in the country are directed by former bureaucrats, some of whom attended esteemed educational institutions, and constantly remind you of this fact. Indeed, a simple question about research initiatives may very well begin with “Well you see, when I was at Cambridge…” Some will remind you of their pedigree if their schooling was decidedly average. But, these are only the foibles of a select few, and though these tidbits may raise a laugh or two, they should not be taken to represent everyone who can be categorised as a bureaucrat.
It will be useful to start our analysis by asking, what are these think tanks and what is their purpose?
A think tank is an organisation, institute, corporation, or group that conducts research and engages in advocacy in areas such as social policy, political strategy, economy and business policies. Some think tanks are non-profit organisations. While many think tanks are funded by governments, interest groups, or businesses, some also derive income from consulting or research work related to their mandate. The main purpose of think tanks is to draw in outside thinking, drive new ideas and keep government thinking fresh, and at a safe distance. When assessing the impact of think tanks in Bangladesh in this respect, they clearly fall short for reasons that fall outside their influence.
Perhaps attempts to illustrate how think tanks flounder to achieve their goals in Bangladesh will be easier if we take into consideration places where they are successful. Think tanks in the United States play an important role in forming both foreign and domestic policy. For example an issue like national missile defense will be debated between think tanks and the results of these debates will influence government policy makers. The important point is that these think tanks can propose and debate controversial ideas that the governing body chooses to eschew.
The United States also houses commissions, which are a form of think tank dedicated to advising the President or the Executive branch of government. The research that these committees produce directly influences policy making in the United States.
There is no such direct relationship between think tanks and the governing body in Bangladesh as confides a senior member of a prominent think tank in Dhaka, “In this country, the government hardly thinks that research centres can produce anything useful,” he says, adding, “the government itself will take a long time to understand the value of a think tank”
Although that does not mean to imply that no relationship exists. At times, the government will enlist a certain think tank in drafting a policy. BEI for example is an independent non-profit research centre carrying out research and advocacy work focusing on private sector development. Recently, members of the BEI team helped to draft a competition policy for the private sector which at present is circulating ministry for approval.
However, the main criticism is that think tanks in Bangladesh do not readily produce new ideas on a wide scale and those that do to some degree face reluctance from the government to make use of them.
It does not help matters that the research institutes themselves deviate from their specified mandate by attempting to cover issues that are best left to other institutes that specialise in the matter. BEI for example, which specialises in private sector business, released a strategy paper on how to counter terrorism in Bangladesh.
BIISS, a statutory and autonomous institution established with the aim to advance knowledge and understanding of contemporary international and strategic issues in national and regional perspectives, is arguably one of the most prestigious think tanks in the country. However it cannot expect to produce controversial debates and innovative ideas that may run counter to existing polices because it is owned by the government of Bangladesh. Unless it maintains distance from its founders, one can only expect BIISS to produce work relevant to the interests of the governing body.
The story is not all discouraging, in fact, fairly recently some promising events have occurred to open up the thinking space between research institutes and the government. On July 10 a National Energy Awareness Campaign was launched under the auspices of the Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources to convince the public to conserve energy. Demonstration booths were set up in Sheraton's Winter Garden to show the public first hand the efficiency of alternative resources. The idea was sold to the government by the Heritage Foundation in Bangladesh, a new think tank. The point is that the foundation approached the government with its idea and the government realised it.
Though events such as the latter point to potentials and possibilities available it may take some time to for a dynamic relationship between think tanks and the government to emerge.
In the meantime, the flurry of seminars will continue to ransack the city. Though immediate action regarding their suggestions may not be apparent for some time, it remains a useful educational venture for those in need of some enlightenment. In addition, there is nothing more conducive to producing animated discussion in any social function than the phrase “ So the other day, when I was invited to a most timely seminar…”
(R) thedailystar.net 2008