A local church congregation that I sometimes visit begins its services by thanking God for “waking us up to this day, a day that has never been seen before.” I am grateful for being alive in this year, a year, which also has never been seen before. That pronouncement is the miracle of life, infinite variety, infinite permutations, infinite possibilities! How ardently I hope this is true for Bangladesh’s new year. I wish for all Bangladeshis, especially my dear readers, a day that has never been seen before, a day where good, fair, representative governance will be able to give remarkable individuals the freedom to solve the real problems of everyday life, from inadequate minimum wage, to security issues, to problems of infrastructure, to traffic safety to pollution.
You have the talent to accomplish these goals in record time. Since the unkind pronouncement of US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who, in the 1970’s called Bangladesh an “International Basket Case”, Bangladesh has made great strides. Last year, the Bangladeshi government paid The Times, a British newspaper, $150,000 to run an article called “Accomplishment Beyond Expectation.” The basic arguments in the article cannot be disputed.
According to WHO statistics, Bangladeshis have surpassed Indians, Pakistanis and Nepalese in life expectancy. In fact, since 2010, Bangladesh has increased life expectancy by half a year.
Of the nations in the region, Bangladesh has the highest literacy rate despite a lower average number of years of schooling than neighbouring countries such as India. This means that the teachers there in Bangladesh must be doing an excellent job with the limited time available.
Bangladesh is also universally hailed as a leader in disaster preparedness. To whom can we attribute such success?
The government’s paid advertisement deemed these successes beyond expectation. To that, I ask, Whose expectations? Perhaps these achievements were beyond the expectations of partisan rabble rousers to whom political advancement and individual benefit must take precedence over paving the streets and controlling the traffic. Such people could never expect anything beyond their own political survival. What of the Bangladeshi visionaries who are responsible for the great strides made over the course of your history?
So many individual citizens have set their sights on just those expectations that the government can now claim to be a results of its policies. They expected to succeed, and did.
Individual Bangladeshis have partnered to create many small NGOs. These mini-NGO’s are the results of informal relationships between three or four energetic, well-intentioned people. These small groups of people have focused their ambition on solving problems, not on gaining political or popular acclaim. As a result of their industry and high expectations for success. They have become the true authors of progress in Bangladesh. For instance, the Dhaka-based NGO “Shelter” has tackled issues from human rights to environmental concerns for people living in slums. This organisation has its own nursery and trains people in agriculture and sewing. VAB (Volunteer Association for Bangladesh) has helped 57 rural schools achieve above a 90% success rate on the SCC exam, with seven VAB schools scoring 100%. They have accomplished these goals with only five paid staff members.
Other NGO’s and civic-minded individuals were able to accomplish amazing progress without burning a single vehicle or calling for a single work stoppage. They do it on shoestring budgets and a wealth of goodwill and energy.
“This government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free…It does not educate. The character inherent in the… people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way.” These words were spoken 165 years ago by Henry David Thoreau in his influential essay Civil Disobedience . They speak universally of the axiom I often tell my children. Government, like medicine, is a necessary evil. It is, at best, like the leeches of old, useful to a wound, but if not controlled, will soon grow greedy for the healthy tissue.
When I turn my thoughts to Bangladesh, do I expect a year of good governance, responsible and responsive patriotism trumping politics? For my part, I can only predict the predictable: Unopposed, Alal defeats Dulal (BNP). India continues to do as it pleases along the borders and waterways. Politics continue to be driven by a personal battle between two women. Corruption and infrastructure issues dominate the headlines. Buildings collapse, cars burn, and people march.
But here’s a solution to the problem:
If you have a handful of incompetents, if you have fat politicos and party hacks, keep them together in a location where they can do the least harm. Set the most contentious and perhaps least-talented people in your nation in a perpetual gerbil wheel and let them run and feel that this running is important, by showing their faces in the news every day. Wall these people off inside a pretty building and let them rant and moan at one another and accomplish absolutely nothing. Let corporations give them tons of money to continue to run in that gerbil wheel; give them nice haircuts. Distract them so that the real movers and shakers can do their work.
We have such a solution here. We call it Congress.
Seems you also have a similar gerbil wheel. No doubt, it will continue to spin in 2014, even as the protagonists burn vehicles and create work stoppages “for the good of the people” on one side, and work Machiavellian machinations on the other to maintain a grip on power “for the good of the people” on the other.
Meanwhile, the truly talented among you there in Bangladesh are hard at work in a world-class act of polity: the many NGO’s, which The Economist among others has called “magic,” and that have brought each measure of success listed above. As long as the government, running on its dysfunctional gerbil wheel, does not interfere with the genius of your visionaries, the only people who will not progress within the country will be those involved in politics. Are these visionaries newsworthy? Is a bowl of rice in front of the street beggar as spectacular as a torched truck?
The strides achieved by these people are within the expectations of the many great minds that your nation has produced. And since 2014 is yet another year where nothing is really going to change, politically, it is our job to follow the labours of these visionaries, and leave the politics to the funny pages.
Far from the cameras and notepads, Bangladeshi students will learn to read in greater numbers than ever before. Fewer Bangladeshi children will go to bed hungry. Women will gain more empowerment in Bangladesh than in any nearby nation. The life expectancy of a child born in 2014 will be higher than ever before. Good people of great genius will work tirelessly to create the “magic” that whoever is in power can then claim as her own accomplishment. Politicians and their lackeys will burn, disrupt, oppress and censor. We in these pages will report on these burnings, maiming and disruptions as if they were newsworthy. Garment workers will get representation from eloquent women within their own ranks. People will peaceably celebrate the holiest days of the calendar, do charitable acts, smile at one another, graduate, invent.
This year, let us, the chroniclers and commentators ferret out and report on the real stories of the slow, steady engine of social progress that happens, unsung and unobserved every new day, and is the envy of the world.
Whoever is in power, let them stay out of the way of the real engineers of Bangladesh’s future. Let 2014 be the year of the NGO’s. After all, they are the ones who will bring about a day that has never been seen before. And if either of the two women in the gerbil wheel want to be covered in the news?
Well, I’d be happy to write a twelve page insert for them at half of what the Times is charging.
Frank Domenico Cipriani is the founder and CEO of The Gatherer Institute — a not-for-profit public charity in USA. He is also a writer and a friend of Bangladesh.