Category Archives: Development

Dhaka traffic: The common sense approach

by Rumi Ahmed and Jyoti Rahman

Published in the Daily Star on 7 January 2010.

We need massive funds to build power plants. Instead of waiting for donors’ funds, let’s use our common sense to fix the traffic problem. Instead of paying consultants for recommending expensive constructions, let’s listen to experts with local knowledge.

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Where do the children play?

Jyoti Rahman and Rumi Ahmed

Published by the Daily Star on 5 October 2009.

ACCORDING to American political philosopher John Rawls, a society should be judged on the welfare of its most vulnerable. In this regard, macroeconomic survival of the global recession or buoyant foreign reserve is not enough to understand the quality of our social life. Since children are among the most vulnerable in any society, a good test using the Rawlsian framework of how the Bangladeshi society is faring would be to look at how our children are doing.

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Microcredit 2.0

Mridul Chowdhury and Jyoti Rahman

Published by Forum on 7 September 2009.

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Food Prices and Food Security

Jyoti Rahman

Published in the Forum on February 2009

“We will have to … reduce price hike and improve people’s living standard,” said the prime minister at her first news conference after the landslide election victory. Since then, she and her senior ministers have repeatedly stressed that bringing down the prices of essentials within people’s purchasing power is a priority task for the government. This is not surprising given the importance most voters accorded to high prices in the lead up to the election.1

The Awami League capitalised on voters’ concerns by pointing to its better record on this issue. Prices of essentials — the proverbial rice, lentil, cooking oil and salt — either remained virtually unchanged or fell between 1996 and 2001, while all prices rose under its rival (Chart 1). To put the price rises in context, a male farm labourer earned an average daily wage of 48 taka in 1996 (with which he could buy 3.1 kg of rice), 67 taka in 2001 (buying 4.3 kg of rice) and 95 taka in 2006 (buying 3.7 kg of rice). Continue reading

Digital Bangladesh: Going Beyond the Rhetoric

Mridul Chowdhury

Published in the Forum on February 2009

In the lead up to the 2008 election, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia seemed to be on a race to promise a Digital Bangladesh to the citizens. Khaleda went on to promise the “delivery of a Digital Bangladesh” much before 2021, the AL-proposed date, as if the concept is something tangible like a bridge or a highway! All this war of words indicates two things:

  • Even if those leaders do not really know what they mean by Digital Bangladesh, it is a positive sign that they are thinking that this term associates them with modernity and progressive-thinking;
  • There is a growing public demand from at least the educated section of the society to see their government place more strategic emphasis on the use of information technologies (IT) for national development. Continue reading

Lessons from the Women Development Policy Debacle

Jyoti Rahman

Published in the Forum (June 2008 )

As part of a program marking the International Women’s Day, the government announced a National Women Development Policy on March 8. The announced policy was condemned by a section of Muslim clerics as un-Islamic. Specifically, the clerics objected to any possible change to the inheritance laws such that women could get equal inheritance rights as men. On March 11, the government announced that it had no intention of passing any law that is “anti-Islam.”

On March 27, the government formed a 20-member committee to identify inconsistencies in the policy as per Islamic rules and suggest steps to remove any such inconsistencies. While the committee deliberated, the clerical opposition continued. Continue reading

The triple bottom line

Amer Ahmed

Published in the Forum (Feb 2008) 

The failure of communism in the twilight of the 20th century seemed to vindicate the champions of the free market — be they Chicago libertarians or Washington Consensus neoclassicists. However, even as command economies fell, the world came to witness new crises in the fledgling free markets. From the disastrous privatisation of Bolivia’s natural resources to the violent upheavals in the former Soviet Union, capitalism and the free market failed time and time again to provide sufficient conditions for sustainable growth. The promised virtuous cycle of economic and social development often did not come to pass. Continue reading

Of food and fuel

Jyoti Rahman

Published in the Forum (Feb 2008)

Politically, Bangladesh stands at a cross-road in 2008, with credible elections and sustained democracy being a realistically attainable choice. Yet, it is an economic issue that can overshadow all socio-political developments. Rising food price inflation — agflation — is arguably the greatest problem facing the country today. And while there are domestic factors at play, the global nature of agflation makes it difficult for the policymakers to stem its rise.

Although agflation started picking up in 2003, it has gathered pace in the past few months (Chart 1). Food prices rose by 11.7 per cent during the 12 months to October 2007, to be over 50 per cent higher than their 2002 levels.

There are many reasons for high and rising agflation. Continue reading

The new way forward

Asif Saleh

Published in the Forum (January 2008)

I carry a Newsweek from last year that has on its cover a profile of a confident young sari clad woman and a caption that blazes: “New India.” My dream is to have Bangladesh on that cover one day, flashing: “The Resurgent Bangladesh.”

In January this year, like most of the populace, I had hoped that we could begin that journey towards resurgence. But it didn’t take long for that bubble to burst. There have been a lot of negatives and positives in the past eleven months. Mistakes have been made, credibilities have been dismantled, moral authority has been lost.

But it is not too late to start to get that Newsweek cover out in 2009 — after our election. If our current power holders can assess where they are now and be innovative about the next few months towards the election, it is still possible to bring back that positive aspiration that has now all but disappeared.

Lessons for the caretakers
The four most important lessons that the government should take from the past few months are:

  • The capacity of this government is much more limited compared to the tasks they have taken.
  • The political forces are a reality in Bangladesh and they will not just disappear without a fight.
  • A policy is a bad one if it does not take into account its macro impact.
  • With no direct mandate or moral authority, its not possible to forcibly make drastic changes in the rules of the game without disastrous side effects.

As the government started implementing a more expansionist agenda with increasingly less transparency, its acceptability has gone down and its legitimacy has been questioned. Its response to these events have caused a further down-ward shift in popularity. The moral authority with which the government came to power has slowly eroded over the last eleven months, making it more vulnerable to various internal pressure groups. That pressure is only going to increase if there is no drastic change in how the caretaker government is approaching reform and the upcoming election, and chances are the government may resort to harsher measures to stop the dissent.

There are twelve months left to the election. For a government whose legitimacy is now increasingly under question because of the sweeping changes it is trying to make, that is a long time for things to go as per plan. They must understand that it will be impossible for people to have complete faith in their end game without restoring their moral authority to previous heights. Ultimately, the big question is will the status quo work and what is the best way to move forward keeping the big picture in sight.

In order to see whether the existing set up will work, one must look at the issues that are currently facing the government.

Moral authority
When the government came to power, it was told that it would be purely judged by its actions, and its acceptability and legitimacy will solely depend on their being able to continue to carry the moral authority they came to power with. Unfortunately, the moral authority has somewhat eroded due to certain actions. Unquestionably, the government scored its biggest points by taking on the untouchable high almighties. However, widely reported human rights abuse cases still remain unpunished. The result is that there is a growing number of people who feel the justice is not so blind towards the neo-ruling class.

With a goal towards setting a standard for good governance, along with coming up with a lot of good measures, the advisers themselves have not been able to stand out. As politicians are getting jailed for lying in their wealth statements and government officers are being asked to provide their own wealth statements, the advisers themselves and the our top power brokers strangely seem out of the whole process, not having to furnish their own wealth statements. Most importantly, the government seems to be taking fundamental policy decisions, claiming mandate without bothering to justify it.

The current caretaker government has set a precedent in dealing the politicians who have established reputations in corruption or have been perceived to be corrupt. The efforts were initially seen as cleaning up the politicians’ mess. But it is setting a dangerous precedent for the future. Similarly, the amount of policy decisions they are taking without clear constitutional legitim- macy is setting an alarming precedent that our constitution can be ignored as long as you can claim the people are with you.

The government has tried to engineer the reform process and break up the political parties. With the falling popularity of the government, these reformers are increasing being seen as the latest in the turncoat politicians that the country has seen. In the process, the government has successfully managed to completely disengage the majority of the parties and their grassroots workers.

Given the issues of legitimacy, this government will simply be unable to govern without addressing the issues above. Nothing short of a wholesale change in government policy will actually do that.

Lessons from Iraq and Nepal
The current political mess in Iraq began when the United States banned all members of the Ba’ath party from the new government, as well as from public schools and colleges. Under the previous rule of the Ba’ath party, one could not reach high positions in the government or in the schools without becoming a party member. So by excluding the Baathists, US designed ways to block many experienced and able people to participate in the new government. By the time, they reversed this policy, it was far too late and the political vacuum was filled by far more dangerous extremist elements in the country. The present regime in Bangladesh, has successfully portrayed politics to be a dirty word and decided to leave the politicians out of the process of cleaning up their “mess.” But the end result of this might not be a new set of clean political leaders, but possibly rather sporadic violent protests and the political land grabbing of opportunists like Jamaat-e-Islami,

As the government claims that conspiracies by the “evil-doers” from the political parties caused the unrest a few months ago, it is also tacitly accepting that the political parties are capable of shutting the country down completely as well.

Is nation building for the supposed new era possible without the millions of people that support the mainstream BNP and Awami League? Without venues for expressing dissent, the response from these groups is bound to become increasingly violent if they are not brought in as stakeholders in the process. Similarly, political parties must try to engage in meaningful conversation with the powers that be. In this context, a meaningful national dialogue is in the best interest of the country to come up with a roadmap towards a functional democracy with all the key parties having a stake.

In order to make the political parties stakeholders in the process, we can suggest that the caretaker government should be revamped within the framework of the constitution to include politicians. Some of the advisers from the current lot should be replaced by members of key political parties. The trust between the government and the parties must be brought back. The main political parties along with all the stakeholders in the current government need to come together and sign a national accord to agree on keeping some of the existing reform agenda to be pushed after election by whoever is in power. We have examples of such agreement where in 1991 both BNP and AL agreed to revert to parliamentary democracy in 1991 after the election.

The national accord among other things can discuss having an election like the Nepal model to elect an assembly that may be in place for two years with a room to review the constitution and make amendments as necessary based on what worked and did not work in the past 16 years. Nepal is heading to election to elect a constituent assembly for two years, that will decide the future of monarchy in the country among other things. Not only they are resolving the long-standing Maoist problem by bringing them into the political process, they also are forming a truth commission for all the minority communities to come together and form a constitution where the rights of all these groups are well protected.

Similarly, Bangladesh also can elect a constituent assembly which will be responsible for implementing solutions for the long-standing issues that have plagued our country. This will implement further reforms agreed to by all the parties and further strengthen reform and institution building for the following two years with a much needed legitimacy in their actions.

Post 1/11, the country looked forward to a new kind of politics. Unfortunately, due to some poor decision making, the country is headed for the same old confrontational politics and election boycotting. It is time to throw the challenge back to all the groups to show some vision and far-sightedness.

On one hand we need to admit, the politics and democracy practiced in the last fifteen years had flaws and on the other hand we must acknowledge politicians are key stakeholders in our future progress and bypassing them forcibly will only bring more chaos and unwanted results. So let’s have national unity and regeneration as the key goal towards any future settlement in order to see that Resurgent Bangladesh that we all envision.

Urban poor

Amer Ahmed

Published in the Daily Star (26 September 2007)

With its runaway growth over the past few decades, Dhaka has become a 12 million citizen strong mega-city and the center of Bangladesh’s political and economic life. Unfortunately, the city’s leadership has failed to establish a comprehensive strategy for dealing with this rapid urbanisation and urban poverty. Its failure in the former has continued to systematically exacerbate the latter, to what may soon become a breaking point. Continue reading