On December 16, 1971, Bangladesh became an independent nation-state at the cost of a 9-month long war for freedom, democracy, social justice and self reliance. Since independence, the densely populated country has swung between hope and despair, between mass apathy and violence on the streets. Bangladesh's application of macroeconomic growth-oriented development model has brought both gross and net happiness for the country's elites, failing to bring the same for the large majority of the population. The premise of a self-reliant social development model remains an ardent desire for Bangladeshi population to achieve political, economic and social emancipation.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (1920-1975) concluded his historic 7th March Speech in 1971, invoking: " The struggle this time is the struggle for our emancipation. The struggle this time is the struggle for our independence." He called for economic emancipation of the people, besides freeing the country from the clutches of a West Pakistan-based military junta. Moreover, the inception of Bangladesh was based on Bengali nationalism - a political ideology that challenged undivided Pakistan's economic exploitation of its eastern wing. Carefully, a group of Bengali economists documented the process of economic disparity in 1950s and the 60s demonstrating how a 'two-economy' system had increased the economic inequality between East and West Pakistan. Bangabandhu's economic and political demands, as stipulated and enumerated under the historic 6-point Proposal, besieged the citadel of Pakistan's post-colonial exploitation and its militarised authoritarianism. As a result, Awami League contested the general election of 1970 to secure economic and political autonomy for the people of East Pakistan. Bangladesh emerged out of a quest for economic and political sovereignty - where people's participation was to be the key to the country's development.
In 1972, Bangladesh had 75 million people and its gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was $100. The country's population has increased to 160 million and GDP per capita to $1,327 in 45 years. Since 1991, Bangladesh's average annual growth has been at the rate of 5.3 per cent compared to 5.1 per cent in the South Asian region as whole for the same period.
A country that makes development plans which are dependent on substantial foreign aid may destroy the spirit of self-respect and self-reliance of its people. Even the narrowest economic terms usually consider such loss greater than the gains since resources like money are not value-free. Thus understanding self-reliance from a sustainability perspective is crucial for the lifestyle of a people in developing countries like Bangladesh. It allows for a unique concept of poverty alleviation by reframing the achievement of material possessions and paving the way for wholesome lifestyles in a happy social environment within a healthy ecology. The following five characteristics of self-reliance show the connection between such philosophy and the sustainability concept:
(1) Simplicity - This concept comes from the original idea of the value and pride in the things and ideas that are present. In essence, the future of a people is built in the glory of the present and the acceptance that the future is secure if appropriate things are done today. Another implication from simplicity is the nature of technology that a community uses. In Gandhi's words, such technology should be Swadeshi or 'home-scale' that allows full control by people over the technology, avoids technological determinism, dominance and dependence, and protects the natural environment.
(2) Responsibility - A self-reliant community takes the responsibility for its actions in creating and using goods in a self-sufficient manner as much as possible. Related to the used technology, responsibility translates into reduced dependence on fossil fuels, rejection of nuclear power and introduction of renewable energy (solar, biogas). Innovative appropriate technologies, either domestic or imported (or mixed), is the option for rural population's self-reliant sustainability. However, rural communities should have the full responsibility for management of such technologies which implies that they would not only operate them but understand, adapt and develop further according to their own requirements.
(3) Respect - Respect is practised in a cultural framework without harming the environment. It links to both social and environmental aspects of sustainability. In Bangladesh, Baul philosophers are deeply respected and people can follow their advice. Respect of social cultural norms and traditions is also an important component of self-reliance and the sustainability of indigenous societies.
(4) Commitment - A community should be committed to the collective efforts and should not rely on external help to guarantee its economic security. From an economic point of view, long-term equitable access to resources is guaranteed by the replenishment of used resources. An implication from such notion of self-reliance is the choice of resources used and the preference for renewable resources that can be replaced in an appropriate way.
(5) Creativity - Innovations are the key to success for implementing such a change. The concept of self-reliance implies that a community is a constant source of creativity and ideas about how the present can be made better. Historically, human beings have been the real protagonists of their own development. The quest for sustainable solutions must involve the people who are in need of these solutions.
The desired transformation should occur in the attitude of the people. Once people acknowledge their full potential, they are likely to take action. A strong partnership should be established between the government and the grassroots. The international community has praised Bangladesh's micro credit programme. In order to attain a radical level of poverty alleviation, Bangladesh should do more than disbursing loans to its rural populace. More innovative approaches need to be evolved.
The writer is a former Secretary and Chairman of the National Board of Revenue (NBR).