I have been travelling for work all over Europe for the last month or so. I ended up in London just in time for a wedding reception. Met a lot of people I have not seen for a while. As happens in Bengali gathering there were a number of animated talks among groups of people about Bangladesh politics, especially about the upcoming (OK, maybe upcoming) elections. One of my nieces chirped up, “We need to get rid of both the Begums if there is any chance for Bangladesh to improve”. So, I asked Sayeeda (her name) what happens once the Begums are done for. What does she think the country looks like and who governs. Of course she had no answer. I then asked her what specifically her concerns were. I wanted her to name at least two. After some hemming hawing she came up with one. “The law and order and safety situation in Bangladesh are intolerable”. She told me her parents could not go to the beaches near Patenga (the parents live in Chittagong) because they are afraid of the deteriorating law and order situation. That is what law and order situation looks like to the privileged, folks! Never mind that way back in 1969 you could not go to the Patenga beaches without paying protection money to the local tough guys and not so tough guys. However, this privileged child had no answer as who would succeed the two leaders in case we managed to actually get rid of them!
A week later I am at a dinner party back in Denver. A guy in pencil moustache is lording over a clutch of people, talking about the same topic. Of course no one should listen to a guy with a pencil moustache but there he was talking away about Bangladesh, the two leaders and how he had great inside track on all political data from Bangladesh. He was certain the current state of Bangladesh was abominable and the economic misery will destroy the two Begums. I pointed out that Bangladesh has had unbroken string of 5%+ growth for some 13 years and millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. The Pencil moustache said, “I do not believe in those numbers”. Well, there you go. I have a rule, I never ever argue with a believer because belief trumps all including facts, eye witness and independent statements.
Now, therein lies my dilemma of happy, happy joy, joy or cut my throat! The two begums probably represent a poor set of choices for Bangladesh but the poverty of choice hides a few facts. These facts taken together should probably result in a big yawn and a “who cares” from us all. We should probably learn to live with the dysfunctional government until the institution become irrelevant. The one thing we need to do somehow is tackle the whole institution of Hartals. This is crippling business activities and the country’s march towards prosperity. As they say, “it is the economy, stupid”. The economic forward march may make the inadequacies of the Begums irrelevant. The key is to adapt and keep the engine moving and that exactly what is going on despite the angst of the Talking Heads and the inaptness of the ruling and opposition parties. Here are some of the facts in comparison to the neighbourhood that Bangladesh is situated:
1. This year (2013) for the first time Bangladesh has overtaken India in the Legatum Prosperity Index. The country is now ranked 103 and rising whereas India has fallen to 106 with a downward trend. There is no comparison with Pakistan (ranked 132 and falling) as that would be like comparing a race horse to a sick donkey!
2. Average Bangladeshi worker has more secondary years of education — 1.8 years compared to India’s 1.3 years.
3. Bangladeshis live 3.4 years longer than their Indian counterparts. Per capita more people have access to sanitation.
4. Bangladesh has the largest foreign currency surplus and reserve than any of its South Asian neighbours.
5. Bangladesh garments export went up by 26% even after the colossal disasters like Tazreen factory fire and Rana Plaza collapse.
How are all these advancements possible if the Begums are raping and pillaging the country as various folks would tell you if you are willing to give them a minute of your time? There actually is an explanation. Bangladesh has a serious governance problem and that stymies our potential for growth but the desire of the people to have a better life, hard work and the entrepreneurial spirit that got unleashed in Bangladesh in the mid-’80s for variety of reasons has been able to fight through the morass of poor and corrupt governance. For historical and cultural reasons we do not have the equivalent of a Taliban in Bangladesh and that coupled with a modicum of respect for private property has made Bangladesh a development darling. But, the governance issue and uneven application of rule of law is a huge problem for the country’s growth trajectory. Some people have estimated that as much as 1.5% of the growth rate is cut off by endemic corruption and inaptness. However, that still leaves 5.8% rate of growth over sustained periods of time. That in a country of some 150 million that was described as a “basket case” by arrogance dripping Kissinger is no small feat! Somehow, the Bangladeshis have managed to export garments in the middle of non-stop hartals, managed to improve the quality of education for the children, increased life expectancy and in general improved every single indicator of wellbeing and prosperity. “Basket Case” no more.
It seems that Talking Heads and Tea Shop crowds want us to believe (that word again) that the sky is falling and we should simply cut our throats and be done with the misery of the two Begums and constant doom and gloom. Given the fact that we have no viable alternative to either of the Begums and their inapt and corrupt ways why not make them irrelevant by simply focusing on the things that we do have control on. In the US we would call it, “put points on the board and let the details take care of themselves”.
If we accept that whichever Begum comes to power will enrich herself and her cronies and families then does it really matter which Begum comes or which one goes out the door? What we should worry about is the potential for a military takeover and dictatorship. Though it is far more difficult today for the dictators to get away with murder, mayhem of yesteryears because of the improvements in communication, the ever present possible video emerging on the Internet and so on. But, a dictatorship can reset the trajectory of the country in a fundamentally bad way. Pakistan got to become the pitiless place it is today because of one man, Zia-ul-Huq. That guy thought he heard voices from beyond and he set about making sure that purity is achieved no matter what the definition of purity was concocted in his own pretty little head! The danger is that the current dysfunction may invite something like that in the name of law and order. A bigger disaster for Bangladesh cannot happen. So, we must resist the temptation of some dictatorial sugar high and promise of a quick fix.
Democracy is a messy business. Everyone has an opinion and they have a right to express it. However, governance is a whole different beast. That has to be learnt over time and institutions have to be built that can endure the messiness of democracy. Bangladesh’s dysfunction is probably no greater than the dysfunctions the America faced in the similar stage of economic growth. After 250 years we still have gerrymandered elections, dysfunctional government that cannot seem to get anything done. So, should I cut my throat? I think not. I am perfectly happy if the Begums get into a circular firing squad and be efficient with their purges. That should not impact our march to a better tomorrow if only we can tame the beast of unlawful haratls, bandhs and vandalism. Can we stop this? I think so. At the civic level we need to figure out a way to stop the dysfunction that destroys our lives and our hopes. As a first step we should record and publicise the violence that accompanies the hartals and then work with local law enforcement to make sure that the evil doers are caught and put away. This can be done even if the Begums are embraced in a death wrestle. Let them be begums and let us get on with our lives. That is the lesson from almost any country where political dysfunction crippled the society. The civil society must take action to get rid of the dire problems and co-opt as many of the state functions for this purpose as possible.
We have a lot to dance for and we should probably not cut our throats worrying about the Begums!
Kayes Ahmed lives in Boulder, Colorado, USA with his three dogs. He runs a small yet global apparel and design business based in Boulder.