Faisal Hamid

A necessary culture of criticism

August 8, 2010

I had a meeting with an Awami League minister a few days back. He was dressed in white, smiled widely, and was as congenial as could be. We spoke for over an hour, during which he laughed at consistent intervals and polished his words; predictable of a party big wig. While I expected polished words, I was blown away by how flawless the polish was—it was a conversation about Bangladesh after all.

The goal of my interview was to glean some insight to problems in Bangladeshi government that could be helped if brought to light. Try as I might with every rhetorical tool I had, I found a sealed chest. He listed certain “challenges” the government was facing but was quick to highlight the innovative approaches it had already adopted to meet them.

I was troubled upon hearing this Awami League commercial. He urged me to come back to the country after my studies at Yale because Bangladesh was quickly coming to the “top.” His proof, however, was quite revealing of a critical problem with the Awami League and Bangladesh’s political culture—the utter lack of critical self-examination.

He cited the fact that Bangladesh was a leader in the anti-climate change campaign. Rather than being a point of pride, that fact should be a reminder of how vulnerable we are. He proudly cited the fact that Bangladesh has already collected Tk 800 billion in taxes and planned on increasing that amount to Tk 950 billion—both of which are abysmal to anyone else. The fact that we are the world’s number one contributor of UN troops (almost all of our countrymen in this category are also desperately poor) and the fact that we don’t have a major problem with terrorists were all listed as proof of why Bangladesh was going places.

If these are the medals one of our top politicians wore proudly, I am worried. The signs of Bangladesh going places would be nine percent economic growth, a significant reduction in poverty, and a fall in corruption. Whether or not a lot of our troops are wearing blue helmets seems almost trivial.

The Bangladesh I know is desperately poor, desperately corrupt, and desperately in need of innovative leadership. The minister was boastful of almost irrelevant accomplishments, revealing a startling complacency with Bangladesh’s severe problems. If our leaders have such low expectations of our country, we may eventually go places but we’ll move slowly.

The minister’s complacency has reason—he and rest of the ruling party leaders are not used to being critical of their party. Bangladeshi politics lacks a culture of self-criticism necessary for development. Our politicians would be astonished to hear President Obama’s closest advisers, like Vice President Joe Biden and the White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel publicly criticise Obama’s policies. This culture of self-criticism allows for real debate within the ruling party, where it matters most.

The current government has disturbingly continued this dangerous precedent. Instead of being self-critical, our government seems very interested in magnifying and publicising incremental improvements upon the last government’s track record. Incremental change is unacceptable, so are 5 percent or 6 percent growth rates. The deterioration of our judicial system is unacceptable. The reason why our slow rate of development is unacceptable is that there are so many examples of countries that were poorer but are now leapfrogging above us. They are our model. Malaysia is our model, as is Indonesia and India, not the previous BNP government.

As the world becomes flatter, our standard needs to become international. While our government’s efficacy is certainly improving and our economy is inching upwards, we are being left behind. China’s quarterly growth “slowed down” to 10.3 percent. India has introduced an array of social security measures. Even Pakistan maintains a GDP double the size of ours.

We don’t have to reinvent the development wheel. There are different wheels of different sizes out there and Bangladesh needs to craft its own. As of now, the process is often awry and only somewhat corrected every five years with the change of power. However, if our government adopted a culture of self-criticism, we could correct our development process much sooner.

The current government’s top leadership needs to adopt the most critical eye possible on its policies and hold this critical eye to an international standard. Catching up to our impressive neighbors will require us to be nimble.  Right now this eye is blindfolded by apathy rooted in pure clientele politics.

Voters have all the power to alleviate political danger associated with bold, constructive criticism by rewarding such courage. As the renowned American historian Howard Zin said, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”

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