Political economy of Bangladesh


VIEW: The political economy of Bangladesh —Ishtiaq Ahmed

The key to development and progress is always a combination of political, economic, social and cultural changes that complement one another. Thus a country once derisively described by Henry Kissinger as the ‘world’s basket case’ can actually become the most dynamic of all South Asian nations

The news from Bangladesh in the last few years has been consistently good, though we in Pakistan have learnt more about the spectacular political advances that country has made in the last year or so. The political advances should indeed be described as spectacular because in an era salient with the menace of Islamism and terrorism, Bangladesh has most wisely and foresightedly chosen to establish itself as a secular democracy. No doubt the political basis for it was laid when an Awami League government won a landslide victory in the December 29, 2008 elections, but the crucial decision was taken by the Supreme Court of that country, which declared Bangladesh a secular democracy in constitutional terms.

Later, even more dramatic decisions have been taken, including a prohibition on the issuing of fatwas by the ulema and recently the media has reported that the government has decided to remove the books of Jamaat-e-Islami’s Maulana Maududi from public libraries. The latter decision may irk absolutist champions of the freedom of expression but it can be argued that during the formative phase of democracy, restrictions on the freedom of expression are justified if such freedom threatens peace and harmony.

The writings of the three main ideologues of Islamism: Maududi, Syed Qutb and Imam Khomeini appeal readily to semi-literate Muslims who have failed to enter the modern world and in reaction converted their frustration into damning the modern world as a product of some grand conspiracy against Islam. I consider as semi-literate a rather large portion of South Asian Muslim intelligentsia comprising engineers, doctors, ‘scientists’, mathematicians, ulema and literally the semi-literates because they have never been exposed to a liberal education that would make them question received wisdom or to the social sciences that tell us that modern human existence is too complex to be reduced to some magic formula of perfection if the wheel of time is turned back to the 7th century.

However, no political reform can succeed if the economic foundations remain inimical to such reform. A secular democracy is premised on the equality of men and women and if women are not empowered then democracy remains a procedural ritual to elect the government. The empowerment of Bangladeshi women started when a number NGOs began to promote female economic emancipation and education. In this regard the most well known is the one taken by Grameen Bank of Nobel Prize winner Dr Muhammad Yunus, as it started extending small loans to poverty-stricken women with a view to enabling them to set up small businesses and enterprises. Once women acquired the means to earn an income they began to assert their rights and independence, thus denting traditional male domination. The Grameen Bank model of micro-financing has proved to be a thundering success and has now been adopted by both developed and developing countries. The other leading NGO is the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC). It is said to be the largest NGO in the world, and apart from micro-credit, has many other roles such as non-formal education for women. BRAC is now also active in Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province as well as in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Sudan.

The third initiative is about prioritising such industrial development that can be profitably marketed globally. It was the apparel or garment industry that was chosen for stimulation and expansion. Currently Bangladesh is the fourth largest exporter of apparel after China, the EU and Turkey. It exported over $ 10 billion worth of apparel goods in 2009. Such production was particularly suited to a female workforce and thus proved to be another avenue for providing employment to women and thus empowering them.

Micro-financing, female education and employment in the garment industry has meant that women are less available to produce children against their will. Consequently, the population growth rate in Bangladesh has decreased dramatically from the earlier 2.7 percent to 1.42 percent. The total fertility rate (TFR) that captures the population growth dynamics of a country has also improved positively. In Bangladesh it has declined from 6.85 children per women in 1970-75 to 2.36 in 2005-2010. It means smaller families, and if the family income is improving then it also means that the overall standard of living will improve.

However, such initiatives can bear fruit only if the national outlook is properly geared and focused on productivity and all-round societal development. The current Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina decided that cooperation with India instead of confrontation had to be translated into practice. Fortunately for Bangladesh the absence of a large military meant that it never tried to enter into military competition with India. Although right-wing Bangladesh governments flirted with anti-India rhetoric, there was never any serious attempt to embark upon militarisation. It has enabled Bangladesh to invest its scarce resources into economic production and now the nation is benefiting from such policies. There is no evidence that India is planning to invade that country, and so a major bugbear accentuating the Bangladesh security paranoia is conspicuous by its absence.

The key to development and progress is always a combination of political, economic, social and cultural changes that complement one another. The combined impact of a number of initiatives has been that Bangladesh is currently the calmest country in the region. Thus a country once derisively described by Henry Kissinger as the ‘world’s basket case’ can actually become the most dynamic of all South Asian nations.

Since the Muslim world has the longest-running misogynist record in both time and space, one can theorise with confidence that the progress a Muslim nation has attained can be gauged by the empowerment of women it has achieved. Thus Saudi Arabia and Iran — both filthy rich — would be at the bottom of any ranking about progress and Turkey and Bangladesh at the top.

The second lousy record of the contemporary Muslim world pertains to the situation of religious and sectarian minorities. Once more advanced than medieval Europe, the Muslim world either stagnated at treating non-Muslims as dhimmis (non-Muslim subjects of a state governed in accordance with shariah law), or much worse in persecuting them to either convert to Islam or run away for their lives. Since Bangladesh now constitutionally asserts its secular democratic identity, hopefully the roughly 10 percent Hindu minority and the minuscule Buddhist tribes will also benefit from their right to equal citizenship.

The writer is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at billumian@gmail.com

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