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Bangladesh: Quest For a New Progressive Era:

Paper No.5387                                      Dated 11-Feb-2013

By Kazi Anwarul Masud

In a harsh but realistic assessment of the US economy Columbia Professor Jeffrey Sachs observed that it was yet too early to predict that President Obama would be able to usher in a new progressive era for the US where policies would be legislated and implemented for the benefit of the large majority of the Americans who since the Reagan administration till now have been at the receiving end resulting in making the US one of the most inequitable advanced economies of the world.

"It is certainly too early to declare" writes Jeffrey Sachs "a new Progressive Era in America. Vested interests remain powerful, certainly in Congress – and even within the White House. These wealthy groups and individuals gave billions of dollars to the candidates in the recent election campaign, and they expect their contributions to yield benefits.

Moreover, 30 years of tax cutting has left the US government without the financial resources needed to carry out effective programs in key areas such as the transition to low-carbon energy..... Billed as a "free-market" revolution, because it promised to reduce the role of government, in practice it was the beginning of an assault on the middle class and the poor by wealthy special interests. These special interests included Wall Street, Big Oil, the big health insurers, and arms manufacturers. They demanded tax cuts, and got them; they demanded a rollback of environmental protection, and got it; they demanded, and received, the right to attack unions; and they demanded lucrative government contracts, even for paramilitary operations, and got those, too.

For more than three decades, no one really challenged the consequences of turning political power over to the highest bidders. In the meantime, America went from being a middle-class society to one increasingly divided between rich and poor." Are we any different? With gini coefficient of more than 33%( 2005) that measures the inequality of wealth distribution in a nation Bangladesh displays a picture of a mirage where the great majority of the people think the water is round the corner while the oasis is controlled by a small segment of the population where the large majority is denied entry.

Powerful interest groups were always opposed to progressivism because it meant more equitable distribution of national wealth. From a historical point Princeton Professor Charles Boix wrote: Big landowners have always opposed democracy, whether in Prussia, Russia, the American South of the nineteenth century, or Central America in the twentieth. By contrast, for democratic institutions to prevail, at least before industrialization, there had to be a radical equality of conditions. The Alpine cantons of Switzerland in the Middle and Modern Ages or the Northeastern states of the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are cases in point.

But assuming we have crossed the threshold of underdevelopment Bangladesh displays good macroeconomic indicators. In a situation of global meltdown where the developed economies are either in recession or just getting out of it Bangladesh is posting 6% growth rate, has comfortable foreign exchange reserve for a low income country, respectable remittance by Bangladeshis working abroad when employment of foreigners in traditionally manpower importing countries has shrunk, and export of our main foreign exchange earning commodities has remained steady.

Though agriculture accounts for less than 20% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) the sector employs 45% of the population. Industry accounts for about one third while services accounts for more than half. With GDP of Bangladesh of about $300 billion and per capita income $1770(PPP) Bangladesh is well placed to be one of the twenty post-emerging economies expected to do well if the challenges are met honestly and with dedication.

The question is shall we? Have we reached that level of societal development where we automatically understand our responsibilities to other members in society that the benefits we want for ourselves as citizens’ are circumscribed by the same rights and privileges that are due to them? Are we conscious of the rights of other motorists or passersby on the road while we are driving our vehicles or that we have to form a queue to get into a public transport or anywhere and not try to elbow out the persons ahead of us and who had come before we did? Are our leaders inherently conscious of not doing public work for private gains? We are now faced with the question of accountability that is the essence of good governance and democracy without which sustainable development would not be possible.

Professor Richard Sklar( of UCLA) points out that there are two principal forms of accountability that need to be distinguished: accountability of the leaders to their followers or democratic accountability as opposed to obligation of the office holders to be answerable to one another that Professor Sklar would call "constitutional accountability".

Regardless of the polemical debate on the form of government that is demanded in the name of the "people" one may wish to put more emphasis on development – a concept that embraces economic growth along with social development measured by a complex of indices. One may have constitution without constitutionalism as alleged by an African political scientist who claims of " simultaneous existence of what appears to be a clear commitment by African political elites to the idea of the constitution and an equal rejection of classical or at any rate liberal democratic notion of constitutionalism".

Basically we are talking of a society where a small segment of people through money and muscle do not dominate the larger portion of the populace. One can argue that from the beginning of human history there has always been domination of a segment over others in the society. In the ancient time and in the middle ages the system of absolute monarchy reflecting Louis the XIV’s famous words-l’tat c’est moi (I am the State) the subjects had to obey the king’s command however much capricious it might have been? In 1215 English barons forced King John to grant them certain rights that paved the way to later developments ushering in what today we now take for granted in democratic societies.

On Magna Carta famous British jurist Lord Denning described it as "the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot". On the issue of domination landed aristocracy has been replaced by the moneyed class some of whom have earned their wealth through questionable means.

But then the question arises whether economic development can be achieved without investment by the moneyed class. Many development economists would argue that development process has to include the moneyed class disregarding for an initial period the source of their wealth. Walt W Rostow’s Stages of Economic Growth stressed that Europe and North America were at a linear stage of development that the underdeveloped countries would eventually catch up with. He argued all countries must develop through a number of stages starting with traditional agrarian society and culminating in a modern industrialized society. The key to this transformation was seen to be mobilization of domestic and foreign resources for investment in economic growth.

Capital formation was considered as crucial to accelerate development. High savings leading to high growth as a "virtuous circle" and low savings leading to low growth and the reverse as a "vicious circle" that could be through governmental intervention ( Hans W Singer’s doctrine of balanced growth) . This robotic development presupposed fruits of growth to trickle through from the top to the lower parts of society that ignored the concept of equity and justice that every society demands.

Trickledown theory, however, has been found to be unsatisfactory as it failed to ensure justice in society. Despite the form of democracy practiced in Bangladesh we still have about 40% of the people living in poverty and millions of them in abject poverty. This is amply demonstrated whenever a part of our people are affected either by natural or manmade calamities they immediately ask for help from the government. This is because their existence is so fragile that by themselves they are unable to save themselves from economic ruin and provide for themselves and their families minimum sustenance. Food security is now universally recognized as a fundamental human right. The 1996 World Food Summit defined food security as "when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life".

Bangladesh has pledged to implement the UN Declaration on the Right to Development, which in 1986 made it the state’s responsibility to create "conditions favorable to the development of peoples and individuals". It also signed the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights (which said everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for their health and well-being, including food) in 1993. The country is legally bound to implement the right to development after it ratified the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights in 1998

According to the most recently published National Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) from 2011, 40 percent of children are too short for their age (known medically as "stunting"), a harbinger of lifelong development delays and one of the leading causes globally of brain damage. Some 36 percent of the surveyed children in Bangladesh under five were underweight for their age (showing signs of stunting, and/or "wasting" - weighing too little for their height) (Mubassha Hasan-22nd January 2013). Given the increase in population from 70 million in 1971 to 150 million today food production trebled in the same period. But there is always the specter of food insecurity looming on the horizon. If population goes on increasing at this rate then in the future it may become difficult to provide food to the total population in Bangladesh. As the international and domestic price of food items are expected to increase over the years the larger segment of the population could face both malnutrition and starvation.

Additionally one has to take into account reduced production and decrease in acreage for cultivation as result of climate change. Trans-border flight of climate refugees from Bangladesh to neighboring countries is likely to create problem along the border. So instead of becoming a middle income country is Bangladesh looking at a possible class stratification of wealthy and poverty stricken people. Could the absence of "living wage" of factory workers and logical price of farm produce ( middle men making abnormal profit) and consumers burdened with income-price disconnect while a group of plutocrats constituting an insignificant minority but owning incredible amount of wealth lead to socio-political instability in the country? In such a case can the government, regardless of the party in power at that time, be able to depend on the capacity of the law enforcing agencies to control mob violence?

It is so difficult to predict what and when people will lose their patience and take to street agitating against the authority that was thought to be impregnable. Did anyone in wildest dream could imagine that self immolation by a Tunisian vendor would cascade into Arab Spring dethroning decade old dictators in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and now possibly in Syria?

In Bangladesh thousands of people have now taken their protest to the street demanding capital punishment for a convicted war criminal that has been given life sentence. The general expectation was that the convict, Abdul Quader Mollah, would receive capital punishment as he has been convicted of crimes against humanity. The current protest reflects peoples’ frustration over a sentence considered lenient in the light of the gravity of the crimes committed. This agitation does not have any political color nor is inspired by any political party. This is like the one in Tahrir Square, albeit of a smaller scale and is not directed against decades old dictatorial government. It is as said earlier venting peoples’ frustration over an unfulfilled expectation. In the avalanche of non-political peoples’ protests meeting some leaders of the ruling party were shouted down on suspicion that the government influenced the judgment of the War Crimes Tribunal. Such a belief may be construed as contempt of court. Yet the persistence of such opinion is a reflection of some reports by international bodies of corruption in our judiciary.

The agitators, young and old, are sitting down at the "New Generation Square" insistent on their demand that capital punishment must be given to those convicted of war crimes. The assembly is also cautious that their vigil should not be politicized. The government reportedly is considering amendment to the International Crime (Tribunals) Act 1973 to allow prosecution to appeal against any verdict especially inadequate sentences. But then unless done quickly the possibility exists that youngster-driven agitators may lose patience. Can it lead to civil commotion? Who knows?

One may also deduce that this protest is a signal to the authorities to ban religion-based political parties in Bangladesh who have now come out in their true color as an undemocratic, fascist, terrorist and communal party masquerading as a political party. While judicial recourse is still open one cannot be sure when the patience of the people will run out. It is to be understood that the trial of war criminals is to reaffirm our identity as a liberated country from bondage and aspiration for punishment to those who stood in the way to cleanse our conscience for once and for all time to come. This assembly of people from all walks of life and of all ages have sworn to continue agitation till war criminals are tried and punished, religion based political parties are banned, collaborator-financed banks and hospitals should be boycotted and facilities now being enjoyed by the collaborators should be cancelled. In short Bangladesh has to rid herself of the presence of these criminals.

Therefore a solution has to be found to promote Bangladesh’s quest for a new progressive era. It would be too easy and too quick to reach a conclusion that the agitation is centered around the demand for capital punishment for those accused of war crimes. But how can one be sure that the agitation is also not an expression of peoples’ frustration over the way the country has been ruled in the past decades—politicization of almost all segments of the society, pervasive corruption in private and public sectors, degrading moral values, selective implementation of law and order, decimation of middle class and pushing some middle class people into poverty. There can be a long list of failure of the successive governments that failed to come up to the expectations of the people and consequent feeling among the new generation of protestors of hopelessness about their future. The very fact that some Ministers were not permitted to address the gathering reflects the determined refusal of the assembly to be associated with any political party.

But for the moment the agitation is pure in its intent unspoiled by the Byzantine( in the Hegelian sense) political influence and determined to achieve their goal of a Bangladesh free of corrosive elements of a bitter past. Such a movement inspires one to believe in the success of Bangladesh’s quest for a new progressive era.

The writer is a former Secretary and Ambassador of Bangladesh