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BANGLADESH-ECONOMY-WELFAREI 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.

KhaledaZia-SheikhHasinaNow, 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.

114_Shitakunda_Jamat_BNP_&_Police_Clash_1How 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”.

Photo: Hassan Bipul
Photo: Hassan Bipul

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.

16 Responses to “Dance for joy or cut my throat!”

  1. H.Iqbal

    I am just thinking about the photograph . How ironically true it is !
    Difference is, no “shabash” from any quarter for anyone,..on the contrary, boos are only what we can offer to our (mis)leaders !

  2. Reality Bites

    The writer is sitting in his cozy place in the US and saying all these great things about Bangladesh, then why don’t he brings his family and live there?? Business, money, wealth is not the indicator of standard of living. Yes, Bangladesh has had steady GDP growth and produces hundreds of new millionaires every year, but what about the real life of people who live there…..rich and poor. The rich talk about it cause they are aware of what is out there and the poor accept whatever is thrown their way.
    When everytime you buy groceries, fruits, fish, meat, etc nicely laced with formaldehyde that you will feed your family, buy “bottled water” that comes from polluted rivers, go to a restaurant where the chef never heard the word ‘salmonella poisoning’ in his life….you will then realize where the country is going. I am not sure if the writer has a family that he dearly cares about, because the helpless feeling of a father to feed poison to his kids is something unimaginable to parents in the US.
    I can ramble on about many more day to day scenarios to how life has detoriated over the decades. Yes bd economy has grown….partly because world economy has grown, population has grown! Any economy with 160 million people is bound to bring positive financial changes that trickle down to everyone eventually.
    Our underprivileged have learnt to accept life for what is given to them….hence ranking high up on the list for ‘happy and content’ nation repeatedly. These two women or not, living in Bangladesh is almost like a curse with the million uncertainties you have to deal with every single day.
    I ask the writer to live in Bangladesh for a couple of years with his family, and then write again. But good to see you are optimistic, but not realistic!

    • Kayes

      Except, I do know a little bt about poverty. First of all it is an expensive porposition. It is actually expensive to be poor. I am not going to debate personal travails. But, here is the thing, when I was growing up the women of the villages had absolutely no option than get beatne by the frustrated husbands, there was always shortage of food, one time I can came out SM Hall in 1974 and I had to jump over dead bodies of 5 people (three kids and two adults). They simply gave up and died of hunger. The progress that you see now is light years ahead of those dark old days. I am old and decrepit and I am informed by the experince of utter poverty and hopelessness. You may want the whole loaf but I am happy have even a bit of the loaf.The problem with wanting it all is that, you may be wanting a long time and like :waiting for Godot” and die of little needs and small poverty.

  3. Khaleque

    But yes kudos to all those hardworking people of the country especially the RMG workers and the expatriate workers who are pulling this country towards a better tomorrow.

  4. Badiul

    Bhai amader to ekjon neta lagbe je amader aro egiye niye jetey parbe? Ei dui netri to shudhu pechonder dikey teney dhorche.

  5. Mita

    Dictatorship is a big no! But can anyone please put some senses in these two women?

  6. Md. Ariful Islam

    We people are toiling days in days out and the politicians are vandalizing and ruining everything.

  7. Nurunnabi

    no i don’t agree with you Mr Kayes. People are sick and tired of the political clash, and the fighting of the two Begums. They want respite from them.

    • Kayes

      Agreed. What would be the alternative? You need to form third party and see if you can get votes. Do not rely on the militray to make chnages for You!

  8. futu

    Can you please write another one on our two illustrious leaders? The two who are apparently ruining our country.

  9. Nazmul Halder

    How i wish our political situation were better. Then Bangladesh would have become a middle income country a long time ago.

  10. Gazi MA Alim Palash

    An excellent article. I completely agree with the writer where he talks about the socialites trashing the political leaders and painting a picture as if Bangladesh is going down the drain. These socialites when however asked for a solution don’t have anything to offer. I have come across a number of them and understand completely how annoying they can be and how misleading they are.

    Bangladesh have always had the biggest strength that lies in the people, the general people. We have seen that in 1971 and we have been seeing that when Bangladesh despite all the political upheaval is moving towards prosperity. Hail people!

  11. Golam Arshad

    Kayes: To quell and kill a “DOOSRA” in reverse stroke. All in praise of “Power and Money”. Shooting Mollah OUT and embracing A MARTINI BY THE ROCK IN FIRE. Right Partner! Who Cares, “The Mess in Tan tum Confusion”. Fishing out in COLD AND WARM! Carry on skipper the Rolling Tide in Code BLUE not yet RED!What a shot in “Fazing Dark”!!!!

    • Kayes

      I wish I understood what you are trying to say Arshad.Run this thing thru the Flesch-Kincaid index and you will find this indecipherable. Pray tell in plain English what you actually mean.

      • Golam Arshad

        Kayes: In plain, simple English, it means, All in Praise FOR NOTHING. Dance on skipper on a Code RED DAY!!

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