Political conflict and the development question in Bangladesh

by Rashed Al Mahmud Titumir

spc07THE cyclical nature of confrontational polity in Bangladesh, even after 44 years of independence, brings home the question of ‘development problem’ anew. There have been warnings that if a sustainable settlement is not reached, not only human sufferings and haemorrhage to the economy could intensify, but also there could be rise of extremism, and most importantly these all could culminate into long-term damage to development prospects of the country.
The recurring political contestations and accompanying violence point to a larger unaddressed question in the contemporary discourse on the development. Rightly, the current debates on development investigate into the most rapidly growing countries of the world and the so-called ‘failed states’ to find out determinants of acceleration or deceleration of the transition from low to middle-income and high-income status. Yet, these miss major political economy questions as regards the crisis in formation of post-colonial independent states and the primitive accumulation strategies pursued by different political parties in their struggle for capture and sustenance of power and material benefits.
The failure in comprehension has ended in enormous cost to the world. These catastrophes remain unabated and some countries have plunged into failed states in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

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THE miscarriages stem from the flaws in intellectual foundation on government by the ‘mainstream’ or neo-classical development economics, which conceives government as a benevolent deus ex machina, exogenous to social, historical, and political contexts. Accordingly, till the late 1970s, the Western governments and their international agencies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund channelled official development assistance to the post-colonial governments to offset low levels of domestic savings for investing into social and physical infrastructure such as transport and education for increasing returns to private sector, with no attention to state building in the post-colonial reality. The effectiveness of aid still remained questionable, though comprador classes have emerged and are thriving everywhere.
In the post-cold-war, the Reagans and Thatchers injected a new political project of neo-liberalism through dictatorial regimes — either military or civil — across the developing world to undertake liberalisation, deregulation, and privatisation, sugar-coated as structural adjustment, again with no attention to institution building. These bore limited success, apart from usurpation of power and wealth by vested coteries.
The institutional failure diagnosis led international engagements metamorphosed to the so-called panacea of market-enhancing good governance framework, avowing to institute the rule of law, transparency and accountability, and yet again these reforms fall short to take on board the structural issues of political settlement and institutional reality in these independent states.
These myopic a-historical intellectual bases, devoid of nuanced understanding on politics, power, institution and development, have not looked at the formation and building of state and to help building transformative institutions for these independent countries, in order to move out of the gallows of the colonial extractive structures.

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SETTING aside the theoretical complexities, a state is a voluntary association of its citizens, bound through a social contract, the abstract of which is concretised as the constitution. Questions were not asked: Do the citizens have a social contract — the constitution — that translates those cardinal principles into reality? Does the system of representation reflect the wishes and diversity of the citizenry? Do the executives work for a citizens’ state?
Rather the erstwhile colonisers still divert financial and other support to sustain their residual structures. For example, the British official independent watchdog, the Independent Commission on Aid Impact, in its scathing report, warns that British aid budget funding helped Bangladeshi regime track and imprison political opponents (The Telegraph, February 5), ‘We found that the Department for International Development’s (DfID) attempts to promote reform were largely failing to deliver any real difference for poor people,’ the report concluded. ‘Indeed, we found that DfID was repeating activities that have little prospect of success.’ The Bangladesh Police is still run by the raising oppressive act of 1861. The constabulary was established against the backdrop of India’s first war for independence (aka Indian Rebellion of 1857), and has remained inherently authoritarian, with people perceiving them agents of the party in power and immune from accountability to the community.
The same holds for the bureaucracy. The East India Company created it to collect revenues (e.g. Robert Clive, who led the colonisation on behalf of the company, himself returned as the richest man in Europe, with £234,000 or in today’s currency around £23m and transferred £250m or then valued £2.5m to the company). After the partition of India, the Pakistan bureaucracy called it Central Superior Service (the notion being that they are superior beings!) to perpetuate the hierarchy over the citizens. It has hardly transformed to a public service in Bangladesh, though the British taxpayers alone spent around £8.2 million in a Public Sector Capacity Building Project known as Managing at the Top for the period of 2007-2013, which ended with ‘slower than expected progress’. An independent assessment states that ‘the project documentation does not explicitly identify a theory of change’ and ‘to a large extent however, achieving political commitment, e.g. legislative reform such as the Public Service Act, is rather beyond the control of the programme’ (iati.dfid.gov.uk/iati_documents/3681013.doc). Therefore, the politicisation of the civil service and reliance on political patrons for protection and career progression, together with a hierarchical and personalised institutional culture that mitigates against performance-orientation remain in place.
As regards ‘improving democracy through parliamentary development’, the United Nations, the European Union, and other bilateral partners have spent millions. For example, a namesake project of the UNDP webcast establishment of an international network of parliamentarians for climate justice, and support to standing committees, such as the Ministry of Environment and Forests, and the Committee on Women and Children Affairs as its ‘accomplishments’. This is well known to all that the constitution does not provide any teeth to parliamentary standing committees in Bangladesh (http://www.bd.undp.org/content/bangladesh/en/home/operations/projects/democratic_governance/improving-democracy-through-parliamentary-development.html).
These projects have not even conceptualised to steer public debates with concrete proposals and options at least on three moot issues — the process of electing representatives, the checks and balances by the lawmakers over the executives, and the organisation conducting the election — to shift away from the all encompassing tendency of concentration of power. The current first-past-the-post system, allowing for maximum seats with minimum votes, could have been replaced with a mix of regional and proportional representations and bicameral houses to entice wider participation and limiting monopolisation. The parliament, with lawmakers apparently keen on amassing fiscal and non-fiscal benefits, may be activated with authorities of checks and balances over the executive branch of the government. The election commission requires a constitutional overhaul to ensure inclusive, free and fair elections. Never should it be forgotten that merely holding elections regularly is not tantamount to democracy.
Bangladesh has remained a centralised state — all power to the prime minister — paving the way for the winners-take-all strategy. Americans and Europeans have spent millions on projects that lecture about strengthening the local government, yet these miss the real issue — there is no government at the local level, despite administrative divisions and several tiers. The local governments were not instituted with basic minimum functions of a government such as a legislature or a rule-making body, a police to ensure protection of life and property, and a bureaucracy to provide basic services such as education, health, housing, transportation, social security and other public services. Furthermore, the central executive can sack the elected representatives. What a fallacy of people’s representation!
Not to much surprise, the development community has hardly factored in relationship between the hunger for power and the primitive capital accumulation. In Bangladesh, perhaps the same holds for other countries, there is tendency to cling to the power. The process is authoritarian, takes aggressive and brutal forms, and cannot afford to withstand even muted dissent and public scrutiny. For its sustenance, such process harbours mutually rewarding clientalist resource-dependent networks. The networks are symbiotically connected at vertical layer (grassroots, regional, and national) and intrinsically interlinked at horizontal level with business, administration, law enforcement agencies and judicial system. For example, political party leaders employ cadres to expropriate public resources and loot or deprive soft targets (minorities, indigenous people, opposition, and general people without political affiliation). The administration dishes away bounty to, and benefit from, the ruling political ring. The police usually do not arrest the ruling party men for their wrongdoings. The business elects the ruling party men to lead their bodies. In unison, they bleed the public exchequer and the banks are easy prey. For example, most of the outstanding loans totaling 2.5 billion dollars was rubbed out when the military dictator HM Ershad, who gave away loans in exchange for political support, was forced out of office by a pro-democracy movement in December 1990. A whopping amount of more than two billion dollars or 1.33 per cent of the country’s GDP was written off during the last five years, which was almost half of such loans erased from the banks’ balance sheets since this system was introduced. A group of companies alone scammed about $141 million from banks.

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IMPOSITION of too many accolades on Bangladesh including ‘a basket case’ and ‘the test case for development’ or ‘Bangladesh paradox’ implies less of an understanding on the country. Her economic performance and social development outcomes in the new millennium compared to the countries of similar level, despite governance deficits and low per capita income, have been touted as a ‘surprise’ or a ‘paradox’. One of the clear gaps in the understanding is that these 20 years (1990-2014) also mark the rotation of power amongst the two major parties in the post-military junta and authoritarian period. The 10 parliamentary elections held since independence further demonstrate a noticeable trend — six ensured continuation of the party in power while the opposition party only got elected in the elections conducted under party neutral administration.
Returning to the current most populated discourse on finding out the determinants of the transition from low to middle-income and high-income status by studying the most rapidly growing countries vis-à-vis the so-called ‘failed states’, the convergence is that state plays actively in diverting economic rents for acceleration (or retrogression) of development. Simultaneously state can (dis)empower positive and cooperative relationships with each other to live together to achieve freedom by positively developing concrete social relations.
When beneath the surface is dug, what is immediately observed is that the development community is in bed with defective intellectual basis and consequential policymaking, for their divorce from political economy. What can be more disturbing examples of citizens’ disenfranchisement than those of tax-dollars spent on the symptoms that permeate reigning on without an exercise of people’s power or of remaining deeply alienated from joining in co-building institutions for citizens’ state, suiting to the new realities of post colonial societies? If the development community is to find their feet hold, they have to come to terms with the fact that the compulsion of citizenship and state building warrants a new social contract — writing of new democratic constitution – to build institutions for citizens. The question that Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore summed up in his usual eloquence is: ‘Do you hear the marches of time?’
Dr Rashed Al Mahmud Titumir, who teaches development studies at the University of Dhaka, is chairperson of Unnayan Onneshan, an independent multidisciplinary think-tank. He is currently researching on ideas of state. rtitumir@gmail.com.

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