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THE name Wilton Park may not ring a familiar bell to many readers; there is no reason why it should. In fact, a book on its history starts with, "Wilton Park has never been a secret. But you will not find it on a map." But, of late, it has featured in media reports in Bangladesh -- for having organised a two-day conference on, "Bangladesh: The Prospect and Means to Strengthen Democracy," between June 23 and 24.
For those that are not very familiar with Wilton Park, it is an institution in the UK, "set up in 1946 as part of an initiative inspired by Sir Winston Churchill, who had called in 1944 for Britain to help establish a successful democracy in Germany after the Second War." Since then it has, in its own words, "been influencing international decision-making for six decades at our centre based on the south coast of England."
This year it will be organising over 50 policy conferences at Wilton Park and other places. Since 1946, Wilton Park has run over 1,000 events addressing the most sensitive and pressing issues affecting the world. It claims to be an academically independent agency of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), which brings together decision-makers and opinion-formers from around the world to address the most pressing global issues.
Instances of discourses on political developments and other topical issues in Bangladesh, being organised outside the country, are not new. Over the last few years, several of the kind have taken place in the UK and the US, the most recent one was at Harvard a couple of weeks ago -- sponsored by the Citibank -- entitled, "Bangladesh in the 21st Century." And perhaps the previous one to be held in England was organised by RUSI in 2007, on terrorism in Bangladesh, which was "replayed" in Dhaka a few months later. And each of these has a particular motivation. It is either to sell an idea or defend a position, or, as in a few cases, castigate the government of the day. Such like inspirations prompt governments, groups or individuals to spend money and sponsor writers and speakers to present their case.
In this instance, the program looks like presentation of a report card on the reforms in Bangladesh in the political and other sectors as well as on the anti-corruption drive. There is a good deal of crystal-ball gazing too as the theme of one of the discussion topics so aptly says: "Through the Looking Glass"
Interestingly, of the 50 Wilton Park conferences scheduled for this year, and of the 22 or so held to date, this is the only one that deals exclusively with internal issues of a country. There, of course, are/were other country-specific seminars -- like on Pakistan, China, Japan etc., but those topics had/ have a regional or global implication.
Given that these events are conceived months, if not years, in advance, the very short notice on which it was organised must have got our friends at the FCO worried about where Bangladesh was heading. And one could stretch the argument far enough to show that disrupted democracy in Bangladesh might eventually assume the significance of a "global issue."
Admittedly, political developments in Bangladesh have evinced keen interest among our friends abroad, particularly in our development partners. We are being constantly reminded of the fact that the tenor of economic relationship with them would be dictated by how things shape up politically in Bangladesh in the future. Only recently did the visiting UK overseas development minister sound a cautionary note in this regard. "Development partners" is a euphemism for aid-giving countries, countries that we approach every year with our begging bowl. In fact, the success of our finance minister so long has been measured by the amount of aid he had managed to get from the donor countries.
It is no wonder then that an institution supported and funded by the British DFID and the FCO will provide the fund and the space to Bangladeshi politicians and intellectuals, and to our government agencies too, to discuss about the future of democracy in a country where it has remained in a limbo for the last eighteen months, and we have the word of the chief advisor that parliamentary election will be held by December 2008.
Nobody can take issue with the spirit of the seminar. I feel that at the back of the minds of our friends is a holy idea, of the good of Bangladesh, but I hasten to add without any hesitation that the conference also betrays the apprehension of the British government that the political evolutions that are underway currently may not lead to the ideal dénouement at the end of the day.
The program, I repeat, looks like the presentation of progress report -- and the presenters include government agencies including the MOFA represented by a DG and the ACC represented by its chairman. Among the major discussion themes are, Democratic Reform and Anti-Corruption Drive, Political Party Reform, Democracy, Good Governance and Development; included also are topics on the past performance of the parliament and the post-election scenario. The list of participants is as impressive and interesting as the subjects. It includes some well-known luminaries of our academia, ex-bureaucrats, and politicians.
By the time this article appears in print the conference will have been over and many of the participants will have been and back. And one presumes that the discussions have been intellectually stimulating, rich and thought provoking. Unfortunately, there is very little in the Bangladesh media about the two-day deliberations and the major conclusions.
Apparently, there will be a consolidated report on the conference, but it will be sometime before that is finalised and put on the web site, by which time a lot of water would have flown through the Buriganga. Thus, it will remain an esoteric exercise, participated by a selected few, and for the ears of the chosen few, on matters concerning the many.
Thus, one would like to ask as to what is the actual purpose of the two-day deliberation? If it is to gain the necessary inputs to devise a new strategy for the British government vis a vis Bangladesh then there is very little that one can comment on. But if, according to the acting British High Commissioner to Bangladesh, "the Wilton Park conference is designed to facilitate discussion among leading Bangladeshi players and how democracy in the country can be strengthened now and under the next elected government," one would much rather it was organised in Bangladesh, and participated by not only the old "leading players" but the new and prospective ones too. Understandably, the charm of visiting a beautiful country is hard to resist, but the Bangladeshi participants would have done the country a world of good by insisting on having the conference in country.
It is unfortunate that ours is one of those countries whose future is deliberated upon and determined in the lecture halls of Harvard or in the lobby of the Commons or the committee rooms of the Senate or the seminar hall of a foreign think-tank.
The author is Editor, Defence & Strategic Affairs, The Daily Star.