The current performance of the Bangladesh economy is really remarkable. Sustained gross domestic product (GDP) growth at the rate of around 6.5 per cent or 7.0 per cent a year for a decade is a testimony to the resilience of the economy. Be it per-capita income growth, incremental food production or social advancement, the standard so achieved is praiseworthy compared to that achieved by other developing countries. The remarkable successes in social sectors have been recognised by none other than Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen.
By and large, Bangladesh is recognised as a role model of growth for developing countries. The so-called 'bottomless basket' of the 1970s has turned out to be 'bottom-full' within two decades! But that alone may not lead us to become a high-end middle income country by 2030 as projected by the government, unless other things change for the better. What Bangladesh needs now is a major shift in gears in policy efforts, strategic thrusts and innovative solutions.
As one eminent economist has put it, "neither feel-good prescriptions nor encyclopaedic wish-lists will produce this required shift of gears". We could, however, identify the strategic priorities with the promise of accelerating the growth process. These, among others, include: overcoming infrastructural drawbacks, finding new markets, engaging in skills development, formulating proactive policies for urbanisation, regional connectivity, climate change, and repositioning agriculture.
While the potential for reaching the goal of high-end middle income country status within two decades seems to prompt us to proceed forward, it would be a serious flaw to overlook the possible risks that could damage our development endeavours. There are, in fact, many cases in history where countries such as ours missed the bus despite huge potential to utilise. While the economic balance-sheet has been good, the political balance-sheet continues to be poor. Based on available research materials on governance and politics, we can possibly identify three critical features prevailing in political sphere: 1) a dysfunctional political culture, 2) a policy process lacking political capacity on 'big decisions' but relatively more open and engaged on 'small' challenges, and 3) an electorate assertive on the basic issue of continuity of competitive democratic politics.
Bangladesh has a strong record of waging war against autocracy to reinstate democracy. Prolonged autocratic rule did cause serious damage not only to democracy, it also had its ill-effects on all institutions. Unfortunately, due to mutual mistrust among political parties, the national elections had to take place under a 'caretaker government' comprising a group of technical experts. It was unfortunate that the caretaker system, despite producing credible elections, drew applause only from the party that won but invited wild criticism from the party that lost.
The two major political parties in Bangladesh thus, in turn, mistrusted people's verdict from a sense of insecurity. Looking at the studies and research papers, two clear perils could be identified in the realm of electoral democracy of the last decades: jurisdictional over-reach by parliamentarians and 'spoils without standards' approach to administrative and other appointments. The quota system, having its application in selected areas, has been extended as far as possible to demean merits. Teachers are now being recruited on the basis of political affiliation rather than on academic competence; bureaucracy has become the boot of the party in power. MPs want to dominate all institutions in their respective areas, be it local government body's educational institutions or central government agencies. 'Be with power or perish' seems to be the ingrained mind-set of those serving the 'people's republic'.
After almost 50 years of independence, Bangladesh lacks a credible election commission (EC). The rise to power seems to come through powerful manipulations, aided by the EC, rather than through productive and meaningful management of things. Election is a zero-sum game when one party has to lose to pave way to power for the other. But democracy-- where a national election is necessary but not a sufficient condition-- is a positive-sum game where both parties can produce a win-win situation.
At this moment, the country is caught in uncertainties in the run-up to the upcoming national elections, scheduled to be held in December. Private investment has already stagnated, capital outflows from the country seems to loom large. The country lacks an effective opposition in parliament to raise strong voice against various economic, social and political evils.
Without an acceptable general election, the uncertainties could linger with serious adverse impact on investment and growth. And without a fair election and mindset for accepting election results, elections will remain controversial. Political peace and stability is needed for sustainable growth and development. The country could immensely gain from good politics. Good politics results in good economics and vice versa.
The writer is a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University. firstname.lastname@example.org
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