The world is increasingly paying attention to Bangladesh for its spectacular economic success. Yet there are many who lament that the country is falling behind in terms of good governance. Hasan Ferdous looks at this proverbial glass half-full/half-empty syndrome.
Shashi Tharoor, my former boss at the United Nations, recently enthusiastically endorsed Bangladesh's economic gains which have taken it past both India and Pakistan in terms of per capita income. Tharoor, who grew up in Calcutta and speaks Bangla, has always had a soft spot for Bangladesh. In 2019, on the occasion of the centenary of Rabindranath Tagore's visit to Sylhet, an event not many people in Bangladesh itself noticed, he penned a tribute to Bangladesh calling it 'one of the most steeped in literature and culture'. Hence, it was no surprise to see him tooting Bangladesh's economic success.
In a tweet widely shared among his followers, he noted Bangladesh's GDP per capita has grown by 9% over the past year, rising to $2,227. By comparison, India's is $1,947, and Pakistan's $1,543. The information he cited came from an article that was published in Bloomberg News, a US-based news site best known for its economic reporting. Its lead columnist Mihir Sharma, using key economic indicators, including GDP growth and public debt-to-GDP ratio, called Bangladesh South Asia's standout star. He surmised, both India and Pakistan have much to learn from their once-poorer neighbor.
That Bangladesh is making dramatic advances in terms of economic development is no longer breaking news. For the past several years, it has consistently registered record GDP growth, often exceeding 7 percent annually. This success was duly noted by the United Nations, where its apex body the General Assembly last year upgraded its status from least developing to developing country. According to the UN's own press announcement, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution A/RES/76/8, graduating Bangladesh and two other countries (Laos and Nepal) from the LDC category after an exceptionally extended preparatory period of five years.
Earlier, in 2014, the World Bank upgraded Bangladesh to low middle-income country status and later formally pledged to support the country's drive to achieve middle-income status by the end of 2021.
The truly exceptional character of this achievement becomes clearer when it is contrasted with Pakistan, a country that lorded over its eastern wing for some 23 years until they split apart in 1971. Mr. Tharoor, quoting Mihir Sharma noted, in 1971 Pakistan was 70% richer than Bangladesh; today, Bangladesh is 45% richer than Pakistan. Sharma in his own article quoted a Pakistani economist who lamented that it should surprise no one if by 2030 Pakistan has to approach Bangladesh for assistance.
That this is no empty talk was well demonstrated by the Times of India, which in a special article published on 16 December 2021, the fiftieth anniversary of Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan, featured a series of charts that demonstrate how Bangladesh has moved away from Pakistan. One of them, reproduced here, shows how the two wings of Pakistan charted different courses, taking Bangladesh in front. Mischievously it headlined, how divorce from Pakistan made Bangladesh the better half.
The ultimate compliment was made by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times who in an op-ed published in March 2021 advised President Biden, who is seeking to lift America's poor out of poverty, to look to Bangladesh. As that nation turns 50, its surprising success offers lessons about investing in the most marginalized, he wrote.
This is the half-full part of the glass. Now let's look at the other half. Since we have quoted mostly foreign sources to validate Bangladesh's success story, let's use similar sources to measure its governance hiccups.
Human Rights Watch, an international watchdog, in its most recent year-end report on Bangladesh, documents a disturbing picture in which the current government is presented as behaving increasingly authoritarian. It is cracking down on free speech, arresting critics, and censoring media. Arrests under the abusive Digital Security Act (DSA) has increased dramatically. Impunity for abuses by security forces, including enforced disappearances and extra judicial killings, remains pervasive.
Earlier, following reports of widespread election irregularities in the 2019 general elections, Human Rights Watch called for an independent and impartial commission to investigate such allegations, including attacks on opposition party members, voter intimidation, vote rigging, and partisan behavior by election officials in the pre-election period and on election day.
Bangladesh's failure to respect basic human rights has also been criticized by several UN bodies. Particular concern has been expressed at the widespread use of the Digital Act and extra-judicial acts by the country's security elements. Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a tough-worded statement made last year in March, called the Digital Security Act 'ill-defined and overly broad' that has been used to punish criticism of the Government.
The UN has been particularly severe in its criticism of the Rapid Action Battalion accusing it of torture and ill-treatment. The UN's Committee against Torture, an independent monitoring body of ten international experts, had earlier asked Bangladesh to set up an independent inquiry into allegations that members of the unit have carried out torture and other rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings 'as a matter of routine policy.'
Actions by RAB came under further scrutiny in December last year when the US State Department in an unprecedented move sanctioned several senior officials of the unit over allegations of large-scale human rights abuse. Citing media reports and complaints by NGOs, it accused RAB of being responsible for "more than 600 disappearances since 2009, nearly 600 extrajudicial killings since 2018, and torture" and of targeting opposition political party members, journalists, and human rights activists under the guise of Bangladesh government's war on drugs. To demonstrate its displeasure, the US has now barred several top security officials from traveling to the US and ordered the freeze of their bank accounts.
Clearly, under these two competing narratives, Bangladesh is doing great in terms of development but slipping behind in democratic good governance. The true challenge for the country, one may argue, is to find a way to marry the two. Could development go hand in hand with good governance?
The answer is: yes, of course.
Development and good governance are not mutually exclusive. Rather, in most cases, they complement each other. The objective of development is not mere accumulation of wealth but using the national wealth to improve people's lives, among other things, through education, healthcare, and employment. Good governance, on the other hand, according to the Council of Europe, includes greater public participation, fair conduct of elections, rule of law, efficiency and effectiveness, transparency and accountability.
Can Bangladesh do both?
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