Thursday May 30, 2024

Getting to Bangladesh

By Zaigham Khan
November 20, 2017

Before we become a Britain or a Germany, I am inviting my dear countrymen to become a Bangladesh. Before we become the least corrupt nation on the planet, I am suggesting to descend a few steps down, provided we do some other things right. Our narrow political narratives may have their advantages, but they also carry a huge cost. These narratives are giving us tunnel vision, forcing the nation to bark up the wrong tree.

Corruption is a curse and we must do whatever we can to ensure transparency. But is it our only problem? Are we even defining it properly? Do we know what it takes to minimise corruption? Will we become a developed country only by electing a saintly leader as our prime minister, whose mere presence on the Pride Rock will rid our country of corruption within days?

We remain obsessed with what many development professionals refer to as the problem of ‘getting to Denmark’ – ie how to turn a developing country into a developed one. Unfortunately, there are many complications associated with this agenda. The people of developed countries themselves don’t remember how they got there because it took them such a long time. Not only this, the institutions of a country reflect its cultural values. So, be a bit careful when someone tells you that he has cracked the code just by playing cricket in a developed country.

Dealing with this problem, Mahbubul Haq and Amartya Sen suggested a faster and more efficient route by analysing the way Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan) covered centuries of distance in a few decades. We have had the advantage of observing them while they took the leap. The two South Asian economists gave us the development approach known as ‘human development’.

Our opportunity of learning from changes in our neighbourhood has not ended. There are other nations around us stealing the march right now and it will do us no harm to learn a thing or two from them.

Identical twins are favourite subjects of psychologists studying the great nature vs nurture question. Pakistan was born with a congenital twin, surgically separated less than five decades ago. Bangladeshi is a Muslim South Asian country equally unstable and more chaotic than Pakistan. What is even more interesting is that it is far more corrupt than the Islamic republic it separated from. And yet it is making progress by leaps and bounds, overcoming its birth defects including a narrow resource base, very small land mass and vulnerability to extreme natural hazards.

According to the Corruption Perception Index prepared by Transparency International, Bangladesh is almost on the bottom of the heap of corrupt countries. It ranks 145 on a list of 176 countries. Pakistan is proudly 29 notches up and is placed at 116. Not a great place really, but I am making comparisons here. What’s even better, Pakistan has improved its ranking sustainably during the last decade. In 2006, Pakistan was at 142 out of a list of 163 countries listed that year.

Yet Bangladesh’s GDP is growing at a whopping 7.1 percent , creating jobs, throwing up a vibrant middle class and reducing poverty – things that will soon work against corruption in that country. It was the sixth year in a row that GDP growth in the country was greater than 6 percent and most analysts expect this run to continue.

What is even more impressive is that Bangladesh’s rapid growth is reaching the poor. In 1991, well over 40 percent of Bangladeshis lived in extreme poverty. Today, according to a World Bank estimate, extreme poverty has gone down to less than 14 percent; so about 50 million fewer Bangladeshis are in extreme poverty as a result of the improving economy.

We have barely touched 5.3 percent GDP growth after a decade. Contrary to the popular narrative, Pakistan’s economic development went down as it became less corrupt. I am not saying that the co-relation is a causation here. I am merely saying that we did not pay attention to other equally important factors.

In fact, some of the measures aimed at fighting corruption might have caused serious economic harm to Pakistan. For example, the way our superior courts dealt with economic matters has inflicted a serious blow to foreign direct investment (FDI) and the overall business environment in the country, while also attracting billions of dollars of international penalties we may be forced to pay very soon.

Bangladesh’s exports during 2016-17 were $34.02 billion, while Pakistan’s exports during the same period stood at $21.938 billion. Bangladesh’s GDP per person is now higher than Pakistan’s. Converted into dollars at market exchange rates, it stands at $1,538, while Pakistan’s is about $1,470. That means that a common Bangladeshi is slightly better off than a common Pakistani.

I am not claiming that I have cracked the Bangladesh code because I have been there four or five times. I only know that Bangladesh is not making progress due to a messiah or because it has become a very clean country. I wish our experts would take a break from their tours to Europe to study their neighbourhood better. In my opinion, three factors stand out.

First, while Pakistan’s economy has been stuck with crony capitalism – sugar industry, spinning and real estate – Bangladesh has been able to promote value addition and exports through Small and Medium Enterprises and by unleashing entrepreneurship in the country.

Secondly, Bangladesh has made great progress on many social indicators. Bangladesh is on the top of the South Asian countries in gender equality. The World Economic Forum (WEF) has ranked it 72nd among 144 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report 2016. Pakistan was placed on 143rd.

Bangladesh has been able to bring down its population growth rate to 1.1 percent while we are growing at 2.4 percent. It means that in all likelihood, our indicators will get worse in comparison to Bangladesh. Such improvement in population growth rate cannot happen without improving women’s health, bringing down infant mortality, empowering women and raising level of awareness.

NGOs have played a great part in Bangladesh’s social development. They have organised rural communities, empowered women, set agenda for social development, put demands on the government and tried to fill the gap in the delivery of different services. Bangladesh’s powerful civil society runs much of its education and health services. In Pakistan, NGOs are being treated like criminals. They often require written permission from the DC sahib to carry out a small social survey in a village.

Third, despite being a deeply religious country, Bangladesh has not turned religion into a millstone around its neck. Though religion is the only thing that differentiates it from Indian Bengal, Bangladesh does not rely on religion for its national identity. It remains a secular country and has been able to deal with religious extremism better than Pakistan.

There is a chicken and egg relationship between transparency and development. Transparency helps economic development, but economic development plays a bigger role in bringing down corruption. Since the government of a prosperous country can pay its employees well, it can set aside administrative and technological resources to end corruption. On a social level, as the middle class expands and becomes influential it makes a stronger demand from the government for transparency.

A demagogue may promise to put Pakistan on Mars but the problem of corruption cannot be solved simply by putting a clean man on the top. Perhaps Liaquat Ali Khan was the most honest head of the government in our history. However, the allotment mayhem during his period corrupted the whole society to an unprecedented level and set the precedent for large-scale corruption in the country. While our leaders are selling us dreams of turning us into a Britain, we may be losing our chance of becoming a Bangladesh or a Sri Lanka.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.


Twitter: @zaighamkhan