As Muslims around the world embark upon yet another Ramadan, the Islamic calendar's holy month that is observed in unison by the faithful across the entire globe, and irrespective of whatever calendar they may otherwise follow. In the communication-driven world we inhabit today, it has emerged as an immensely powerful cultural signifier, able to consistently command the commitments of roughly a billion people, and on its own act as a kind of glue binding them.
People in general, when they get together will almost inevitably engage in commerce. It's why so many industries - everything from fast moving consumer goods to IT and hospitality - thrive on holidays or other occasions for people to connect. This is why apart from the message of piety, and self-improvement and overall fraternity, Ramadan commands its own distinct economy. It is substantive globally. Locally it can be transformative.
Even outside traditional commerce, and the notable spikes in consumption that can be observed across the board in Muslim countries - indeed any country with a sizable Muslim population - there is the additional aspect of philanthropy associated with the month. In 2019, UNICEF and the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) launched an innovative fund that opened new opportunities for Muslim philanthropy to reach the millions of children currently in need of humanitarian support and help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
The Global Muslim Philanthropy Fund for Children is the first fund focused on Muslim giving to be launched by a United Nations organisation together with a Multilateral Development Bank. The fund will enable multiple forms of Muslim philanthropy, including obligatory giving such as Zakat and voluntary giving such as Sadaqah donations and Waqf endowments, to contribute to emergency response and development programmes.
It is estimated that global annual Zakat contributions alone may reach up to US$600 billion, making this a significant potential source of sustainable funding to help achieve the SDGs. The Fund will be administered by the IsDB and unite giving from private and public foundations, Zakat agencies and individuals. Zakat, or 'alms-giving', is non-negotiable for Muslims each year. This requires Muslims of a certain income level to donate 2.5 percent of their wealth each year to charity.
The vast majority of Muslims pay their Zakat during Ramadan - many Zakat collecting bodies estimate that 85 percent of their donations come during the holy month. The World Bank has estimated that global Zakat funds reach $600 billion each year. Assuming that 85 percent of this is paid in the next month, this "global mandatory wealth tax," as it has been described, payable by a quarter of the world's population, could have the effect of a hidden stimulus to the global economy.
The generous Muslim
The world's 1.9 billion Muslims spent the equivalent of US$2 trillion in 2021 across the food, pharmaceutical, cosmetics, fashion, travel, and media/recreation sectors, all of which are impacted by Islamic faith-inspired ethical consumption needs. The spending figure reflected an 8.9% year-on-year growth from 2020. From an economic perspective, Ramadan is a time for spending money.
Spending levels surge dramatically during these months, as Muslims splurge on food, gifts and Eid outfits. It is estimated that Ramadan spending is worth more than £200 million to the UK economy alone, and billions across the Muslim world.
That was the finding of a 2018 report by the Islamic marketing consultancy Ogilvy Noor. Two researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School however, Filipe R. Campante and David Yanagizawa-Drott, released a study back in December 2013, addressing the economic effects of Ramadan, and fasting down to the individual level. Titled "Does Religion Affect Economic Growth and Happiness? Evidence from Ramadan," the study concluded that Ramadan has a direct adverse effect on the productivity of Muslim society.
The study examined data from six decades and found that the GDP growth of Muslim countries drops significantly during Ramadan. Longer days, combined with working on an empty stomach, often found workers having a difficult time focusing on the job.
According to the study, research found "significant prevalence of individuals reporting tiredness and unwillingness to work, as well as reduced levels of activity and concentration ability, during the month of Ramadan," especially when under conditions of heat and humidity. Apparently, this leads to a general "slowdown" in work and productivity. The study cites to "robust evidence" of a causal effect of longer Ramadan fasting on economic growth, with an overall detectable 0.7 percentage drop in efficiency per additional hour of fasting. Evidence also suggested that Ramadan has a negative impact on labour demand, "with a decrease in labour supply, or possibly both."
The study also found "direct suggestive evidence that Ramadan fasting affects work-related individual beliefs and values. Specifically, Ramadan leads Muslim men to report that they care relatively more about religion and less about work and material rewards." It concluded that, "religious practices can affect labour supply choices in ways that have negative implications for economic performance, but that nevertheless increase subjective well-being among followers."
The study is clear, however, that despite a negative impact on the economy, there is an increase in levels of self-reported happiness and life satisfaction among Muslims. This aspect was mirrored in an earlier study along the same lines of enquiry by an organisation called Productive Muslim Ltd.
Holy month, unholy acts
In Bangladesh however, the vastly more common economic phenomenon one associates with Ramadan is a far more negative one - of price spirals that exploit the religious fervour that permeates almost every sphere in a country known for its piety across faiths.
According to the economist Selim Raihanb, price hikes of essential food items during the month of Ramadan had been a regular phenomenon in Bangladesh. In the months of Ramadan during 2007 and 2008, preceding the last global food crisis, the Ministry of Commerce had been consistently maintaining that the stocks of essentials were sufficient and thus there was no cause for a price hike.
Also, in 2009, when the food prices in the international market were declining, the Ministry of Commerce had been calling the businessmen to reduce food prices in the domestic market. However, the businessmen were arguing that because of the rise in international commodity prices local prices were getting pushed up.
An article published in a British daily newspaper did not find valid reasons for the soaring local prices as the current stocks had been procured when the international market prices were lower, according to Raihan. The same article also mentioned that despite calls from the commerce minister to the business community to avoid stockpiling and hoarding, especially during Ramadan, as this would create artificial scarcities and thus manipulate prices upward, such practices were still observed in the retail community.
Worst of all the prices of commodities once raised in this month become a new level of hiked prices that do scarcely come down even after the end of Ramadan. Consequently, prices of almost all commodities settle at a new hiked level for all time to come. The general narrative that prevails is that these illogical spikes in prices are the work of unscrupulous businessmen out to profiteer off the good vibes of Ramadan amongst the general populace.
That is why we find Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi busy these days mostly trying to urge businessmen, of which he was one, and a very successful one at that, to spare the sufferings of the people. Just this week he was heard urging businesses to make marginal profit during the month of Ramadan considering people's sufferings.
The commerce minister also advised the common people to cross-check and shop without stepping into the trap of lucrative advertisements. He was speaking as chief guest at a discussion meeting organised by the Directorate of National Consumer Rights Protection (DNCRP) on the occasion of World Consumer Rights Day 2023 at Bangabandhu International Conference Centre in Agargaon in the city.
Taking into account the suffering of the people, the commerce minister asked the businesses, "There are various discount systems in different countries of the world during various festivals. They make little (profit)."
"In Bangladesh the situation is different, the holy month of Ramadan is ahead. Be a bit more moderate. Keep prices reasonable in this month, less profit margin less," he added.
The commerce minister also said: "Consumer rights are human rights. When we can inform consumers about all their rights, half of our work will be done. Consumer awareness is very important."
The government is working on this, he said. Munshi then urged people not to buy products in a rush during Ramadan. "Once you buy a product in bulk quantities, it affects the market, and then the traders take it as an opportunity to hike prices abnormally."
President of the Consumers Association of Bangladesh Golam Rahman, who was present at the same event, clearly felt such pleas on the part of the minister were destined to fall on deaf ears. He in his speech called for strengthening the government's steps to reduce the unequal competition in the market as well as the necessary reform of the legal framework and to be proactive in its implementation.
Munshi has been particularly vocal against stockpiling - even of the innocent kind that doesn't look to profiteer off it by later selling the items at higher prices when a shortage is felt. Some days before the Consumer Rights Day, he had again said there would be no price hike of daily essentials- if people refrained from purchasing excess items ahead of Ramadan.
"The Consumer Rights Protection Department is monitoring the market, and the Commissioners and District Commissioners are cooperating with their work," according to Munshi. He announced law enforcers, including special force RAB, would be deployed as part of the government's market monitoring programme.
"Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) members, police and executive magistrates will monitor markets and there will be no price hike of essential items if people do not buy excess items ahead of Ramadan," he said, while talking to reporters after attending a programme at Chandpur Police Lines Auditorium.
Due to the dollar price going up, prices of daily essentials have gone up in many countries and the prices of imported goods have also seen a rise in Bangladesh, he said. Keeping this in mind, the government has started selling edible oil, sugar, dates, chickpeas and lentils through state-owned Trading Corporation of Bangladesh (TCB) at low prices for one crore low-income families, he added.
Inflationary pressure persists
This year, there is also the fact that inflation, even going by the government's official figures, stands at the highest it has been in the period preceding Ramadan for years. The general point-to-point inflation rate increased slightly to 8.78 percent in February mainly because of the slight rise in food inflation, according to the monthly Consumer Price Index (CPI) of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS).
The inflation rate was 8.57 percent in January and 8.71 percent in December. In February, the point-to-point food inflation increased to 8.13 percent, which was 7.76 percent in the previous month. The point-to-point non-food inflation declined slightly to 9.82 percent in February down from 9.84 percent in January.
State Minister for Planning Dr Shamsul Alam said the inflation rate had been falling in the country from September till January, and he didn't want to read too much into a single month going the other way. He also noted the wage rate has been increasing. He said although the inflation rate witnessed a slight increase last month, it is not 'uncomfortable'.
Dr Alam said that currently, the BBS is calculating CPI index based on the average of 412 commodities, but the number would be increased to 700.
Citing that the price of vegetables is now on the downtrend, he hoped that the prices of commodities would come down also.
Considering the ensuing Holy Month of Ramadan, the state minister said there would be an additional demand among the consumers. "But, there has been sufficient import of essentials for which I believe the prices of commodities will remain in a tolerable state."
Fool me twice
As sincere or well-meaning as his pronouncements may be, we cannot help but feel Tipu Munshi may be on a hiding to nothing, having set himself up for yet another disappointment along the same lines as we saw last year. Back then, the issue centred on the price of a single item, edible oil. Again, Munshi had implored the dealers and businessmen to not cause any turmoil in the market during Ramadan by hiking the price of edible oil.
After prices skyrocketed abnormally at one stage, Munshi, rather red-faced, was forced to admit his failure. The businessmen were asked to maintain a stable supply of edible oil in the local market and not to increase its prices during Ramadan, the minister explained.
They did not increase the prices during the month of fasting, but they started hoarding oil 10 days before the Eid-ul-Fitr and the whole supply chain was abnormally disrupted, he said. The millers, refiners, wholesalers and retailers hoarded the edible oil as they knew its prices would be increased after the Eid.
"So, it was a mistake to believe them as they committed that they would maintain a normal supply of edible oil in the local markets," the commerce minister said. Later he added: "Believing people is a sin. We have made such mistakes by believing businessmen. This is our failure to have trust in them."
And yet, he may be following the same path again. To the extent that words can work, surely far more more noteworthy than the commerce minister or indeed any other member of the cabinet is the word of the prime minister herself. And with Ramadan knocking on the door now, we have seen her wade into the ethical concerns around hoarding or profiteering.
She came down heavily on a section of businesspeople for their unethical act of increasing the prices of essential commodities during Ramadan inflicting suffering on the common people. The prime minister was attending a program inaugurating 50 model mosques along with Islamic cultural centres in parts of the country.
"Ramadan is ahead. Some unscrupulous businessmen are trying to increase the price of commodities. It is a very abominable task," she noted with dismay. "It is unnecessary to give people pain after increasing the prices of essentials when they will be busy with observing Ramadan and offering prayers."
Only time will tell whether any good comes of the PM's harsh words. Clearly, the legislative and institutional gaps we face in this regard can only yield results in the long term. But they are addressed in proposals worked on by the Directorate of Consumer Rights Protection. Whether they will ever see the light of day is the question.
We may end with this quote from the Productive Muslim:
"A productive Ramadan is about asking oneself the critical question: How can I be the best version of myself - spiritually, physically, and socially during this blessed month? If enough Muslims ask themselves this question and follow through with practical implementation of the latest productivity science that helps them be productive, healthy and balanced human beings, then perhaps in a few years we might get a different result from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government research, one that will say Ramadan not only improves subjective wellbeing among followers, but also improves economic performance and productivity."
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