Viewing socio-economy through a semi-political prism

Asjadul Kibria | Published: July 05, 2018 21:36:13


When economists write for newspapers, they generally struggle to keep their write-ups short in length with less jargon, almost no graphs and a few numbers. The reason is limited space in newspapers and even some online outlets. A large number of economists thus avoid writing in newspapers or online media outlets. They find that the allocated spaces are not enough to express their thoughts and analyses with supporting graphs and illustrations. Nevertheless, some economists overcome the challenge to a certain extent. Dr Anisuzzaman Chowdhury, popularly known as Anis Chowdhury, is one of them. Being an international macro-developmental economist of Bangladesh origin, he has been writing in the local and international newspapers for long.

A selection of his 54 published articles has been compiled in a book titled 'Bangladesh: Reflections on Economy, Society, and Politics.' The articles compiled in the book are divided into two parts. In the first part, there are 36 pieces on economy. In the second part, there are 18 articles on politics and society. Unlike the orthodox economists, Anis Chowdhury believes in strong ties of economics with people and society. He also believes in the strong role of politics.  It can be noted here that the late Indian Marxist-economist Ashok Mitra, at a public lecture in Dhaka in 2012, said that economics is not the end of economics and politics is the ultimate controller of economics. Anis Chowodhury also widely believes in the proposition. At least his current book reflects this in a different way. 

The articles were published in newspapers between 2007 and 2016. Thus the data and statistics of the articles are not up to date and the writer acknowledges this. He, however, asserts that the messages of the articles are still relevant.  Readers will agree with the claim. However, a number of things have changed in the political and economic front of the country in the last 10 years. These changes are not captured in some of the articles.

But most of his observations and analyses are quite relevant till today and also for near future. Take the example of the third article titled 'Why agonise over economic growth?' It is very relevant now when obsession of growth grips the mind of policymakers. Dr Chowdhuy agrees that economic growth matters and without it or rise in income people can't meet their basic needs, achieve human potential and fully participate in the society. But he categorically mentions, "… just as the level of growth matters, quality of growth also matters. Economic growth will always be higher if, for example, there is a higher level of construction activities. But this does not necessarily imply greater human welfare. The higher level of construction activities would be welfare-reducing if, for example, more concentration camps were constructed by a repressive regime" (P-21).

In the article titled 'Was the Rana Plaza tragedy necessary?', the author rightly mentions, "In the context of Bangladesh, we have often seen that the rises of wages are quickly matched by hiking of prices of essential items such as food and house-rent. Thus workers always find themselves falling behind and hence are forced to come to the street demanding wage increase" (P-31). To overcome the crisis, Dr Chowdhury suggests 'social wages' and argues that it is the responsibility of the government. He also says that the government can bankroll the social wages by collecting tax revenue through efficient tax management and widening the tax base. He argues: "We the citizens have to pay taxes if we want to benefit from industrial peace, higher productivity, lower inflation and a dynamic competitive economy" (P-32).

The articles under the broad theme of economy are quite diverse. The writer tries to shed light on economic sovereignty, international political economy, aid dependency and neo-liberalism. He also raises question on the credibility of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). 

In the article on 'New International Economic Order', Dr Chowhury argues that the world has been transformed in many aspects since 1974 when the order was formally adopted in the United Nations, but not in line with the declaration. He also shows that "inequality around the world and the gap between the developed and developing world have also been increased sharply" (P-130).  The widening disparities between nations are caused by a number of factors, such as unequal exchange or trade and technological gaps" (P-131). 

Dr Chowdhury's articles on political and social issues are quite interesting. He revisits some historical events briefly, like the 1974 famine. He also focuses on Moulana Bhashani in two articles.

In another piece, he strongly criticises politicians and others for maligning noble laureate Dr Yunus. He finds, "One should not be surprised to see that a host of people have become overzealous in maligning Dr Yunus and eager to beat the drum in competition with one another. Their behaviour makes perfect sense when incentive structure is so perverse, and rewards only the loyalists" (P-172).

The economist boldly deals with so-called 'democracy vs development' controversy in two articles. For the last couple of years, a section of ruling party members and activists have been clamouring for 'development only'. They are trying to argue that development is the core priority to Bangladesh and democracy has little importance. A number of intellectuals also joined the chorus. Dr Chowdhury tries to debunk the hollowness of their argument with empirical evidences of countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. He says: ".... democracies exhibit a smaller variance in economic performance than autocracies. That is, economic growth rates may be lower in democracies but they are more stable. In case of Bangladesh, though, economic growth rates have been not only more stable, but also higher than the autocratic regimes" (P-178).  

Dr Chowdhury's three pieces on Islam and Shariah are also thought provoking. He says, "Unfortunately, Islam, now-a-days has become synonymous with violence and intolerance due to the acts of some who are interpreting the Qur'an and Hadith a very narrow way. Their citations from the Qur'an and Hadith are taken out of contexts (P-204). He also finds that "due to the silent majority, a vocal minority with an archaic interpretation of the Qur'an has hijacked Islam.  To these self-proclaimed puritans, sharia is confined to a mere public display of harsh punishments. Thus, sharia became attractive for the despots as an effective shield against their misrule and misdeeds. In fact, it is these despots, especially the Saudi kings who are funding the puritan Wahabbi movement" (P-205).

The book ends with a personal tribute to Kazi Zafar Ahmed, the late veteran politician of the country with whom the writer had a close association for long. His personal tribute, however, turns into a narrative of switching of political alliances and the fall of the left-leaning progressive politics in the country.

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