The Financial Express

Nurul Islam: The accidental economist

| Updated: January 25, 2018 21:12:43

'By far the most distinguished economist of Bangladesh, Dr. Islam's chequered career, recorded in lucid prose mostly from memory and some notes, makes pleasant reading for anyone interested in a snapshot of Bangladesh's economic history and the political economy of policy making' 'By far the most distinguished economist of Bangladesh, Dr. Islam's chequered career, recorded in lucid prose mostly from memory and some notes, makes pleasant reading for anyone interested in a snapshot of Bangladesh's economic history and the political economy of policy making'

Professor Nurul Islam, the accidental economist, as he deems himself to be, leaves yet another lasting legacy for Bangladeshi economists and professionals, in his book -- An Odyssey: The Journey of My Life, published by Prothoma Prakashana  -- about his life and times. And it is no ordinary life, in extraordinary times. By far the most distinguished economist of Bangladesh, Dr. Islam's chequered career, recorded in lucid prose mostly from memory and some notes, makes pleasant reading for anyone interested in a snapshot of Bangladesh's economic history and the political economy of policy making. For the more serious economist of Bangladesh development, the book is a supplement to his earlier treatise, Making of a Nation: An Economist's Tale. Lucidly written, it could be bedtime reading for some, with modestly analytical approach to be found in some sections dealing with economic issues. But, trust me, I did not find it monotonous anywhere, completing the entire book of 287 pages in about three sessions. The book gets more absorbing as you reach the middle.

In describing his life from childhood to professional retirement - spanning 70 plus years -- his book provides a broad sweep of history in the making. Yet he makes it a point to record several "incidents" which are inherently interesting, yet highlighted in the context of broader social, political, or professional developments in the course of his educational or professional career. For the ardent reader there is always some underlying message not to be missed. Curious and inquisitive to the core, the peculiar social mores of communalism in evolving post-colonial Bangali society did not escape his notice even as a child being brought up in a conservative Muslim family of Chittagong. This naturally inquisitive bent of mind coupled with an argumentative style of probing, exploring, and discovering, i.e. accepting nothing without questioning, led some of his professors at Harvard University to suggest to him that he should have been in Harvard's prestigious Law School rather than in the Economics Department.

Personally, I had a reason to be drawn to this book about the life and times of a famous economist from Chittagong. It brought a sense of affinity and even nostalgia, as I myself, an economist by accident, hailed from Chittagong, studied in a school neighbouring his Muslim High School, went to Chittagong Government College for HSC (I.A. in his time), then proceeded to Economics Department of Dhaka University. Perhaps that is where the similarities ended. He distinguished himself as the top student at all levels of his educational career, whether in high school, college, Dhaka University, or at Harvard. Despite the prestige and high esteem that went with the Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) -- a hangover of colonial times, as he calls it - Nurul Islam preferred to stay with academia, opting instead to take a scholarship for higher education leading to PhD at Harvard University.

His Harvard days make interesting reading. For economists of our generation, the list of Harvard students and scholars he names sounds like a Who's Who of economics and government. There was Gottfried Haberler, the leading trade economist of those times, who taught international trade at Harvard and became his PhD supervisor no less. Edward Chamberlin, a leading proponent of economic theory, taught microeconomics. However, it appears he did not get along smoothly with Alexander Gershenkron, a leading scholar of economic history. Famous economists Henderson and Quandt, whose book on microeconomic theory became a classic, were his class friends. So was Otto Eckstein, the famous Harvard economics professor who propounded the theory of 'core inflation'. And there was Henry Rosovsky, who later became the most famous Dean of Arts and Sciences at Harvard.

For the curious reader, a long list of Harvard students at the time included Sheikh Zaki Yamani,a long-time Saudi oil minister and member of the Royal family, and Princes Sadruddin Aga Khan and Karim Aga Khan, with whom he had developed contacts that admittedly were not lasting. In this instance, perhaps the income divide was far too wide to forge any sort of friendship even among Harvard students of those time. Henry Kissinger (known for his infamous remark on Bangladesh as a basket case) was a young instructor at the International Summer Seminar at Harvard in those days. His name comes up in a not too complimentary episode occurring in 1973 when he visited Dhaka as US Secretary of State, making an exaggerated claim that Dr. Kamal Hossain, then Bangladesh Foreign Minister, was his student. Kissinger appeared not too pleased when Dr. Islam points out that he himself was a PhD student at Harvard at that time. Kissinger's towering personality or status seemed not to have restrained him from setting the record straight.

Again, on completing his PhD in 1955, he opted to return to Dhaka University and took up a teaching position as Reader/Associate Professor in the Economics Department, though he had a standing offer to join the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in a career that would have "made him wealthier and perhaps a better economist", he states candidly. But for the steadfastness of an Englishman, then Dhaka University Vice Chancellor W.W. Jenkins, he might have ended up in a different choice of post-PhD occupation when the entire US academia beckoned a fresh Harvard graduate in economics. For bypassing the traditional first appointment as Assistant Professor, he notes in passing the "murmurs" of discontent among university colleagues and the erroneous use of the term "nepotism" by the local media. Similar controversy is recorded on his elevation to the position of full professor at a time when seniority rather than professional competence was still the predominant criteria for eligibility.

Not to be missed is the part on his friend and colleague, Rehman Sobhan (current Chairman of Center for Policy Dialogue), who shortly joined the Economics Department, fresh from Cambridge, adding versatile talent to the teaching faculty. Rare in those days perhaps, Rehman's fluency in the English language attracted students and faculty alike. But Nurul Islam gripes at having to spend most of his limited social interaction in a foreign language as Rehman Sobhan and Kamal Hossain, both of whom became his closest confidants, chose to converse in English as their lingua franca. It is common knowledge that whereas Dr. Kamal Hossain taught himself to give public speeches in fluent and sophisticated Bangla, somehow Professor Rehman Sobhan could not get over his linguistic binding even to this day. 

In teaching some of the leading subjects no doubt he outshone his colleagues in the Economics Department, even senior ones, thanks to his training from one of the topmost research universities in the world. Though his PhD was in international trade and macroeconomics, in later professional life he had to deal with a much broader spectrum of subject areas that, I believe, contributed to his stature as a development economist. It took him barely five years to become a full professor in 1960. Among college graduates, the best and the brightest chose BA (Honors) in Economics. One could glean a lament from his long list of students he taught, many of whom went on to become luminaries in their own professions, not necessarily in economics. Perhaps his greatest regret that comes out loud and clear was the fact that he could not lure some of his best students to opt for an academic career despite offers of lucrative PhD scholarships from Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. The allure of the Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP), an elite government service in the tradition of the British Indian Civil Service (ICS), was far too great for most if not all the top students of economics. In later years, when he served as Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission of Bangladesh, the tussle between the bureaucracy and economists of the Planning Commission became legend and he makes it a point to recapitulate some of the simmering strife that might have undermined the smooth functioning of the Commission.

In 1965, Dr. Islam left Dhaka University to become Director of the leading research institute in Pakistan, Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), the precursor to the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS). The government authorities felt they had neutralised an irritant university professor who was freely expressing strong views on East-West economic disparity. Since the PIDE, funded by Ford Foundation, was managed by Yale Growth Center, this research institute gave him an opportunity to interact with some of the leading economists - "mainstream of economics profession" - from Harvard, Yale, and other universities to bring him up to date with the frontiers of economic research. More importantly, it gave him a platform for mobilizing data and engaging in research on the burning issue of economic disparity between the two wings of Pakistan.

The tenure at PIDE takes an important place in his book. Nurul Islam makes some introspection behind his appointment as Director of PIDE - an attempt to neutralise an irritant professor who spoke his mind and delivered rigorous analysis of the evolving nature of economic disparity. The stint at PIDE gave him the time and scope for engaging in research (often considered controversial by authorities) and sharpening his skills while interacting with mainstream economists from leading institutions around the world. Leading names include Nobel Laureate Jan Tinbegen, Gustav Ranis (USA), Just Faaland (Norway), and Austin Robinson (UK). These contacts stood him in good stead in his later professional career. It must be recognized that under his stewardship PIDE rose to become the leading institute of development economics in South Asia. His stint at PIDE would conclude in tumultuous times as he was engaged in shifting the HQ of PIDE to Dhaka in 1969 and notable personalities that helped him in the entire process included General MI Karim (Military Secretary to President), M. Raschid (Governor, State Bank of Pakistan), and Md. Farashuddin (later Governor Bangladesh Bank).

In those years leading up to the March 1971 crackdown, he became a close economic advisor to Bangabandhu, responsible for giving strategic economic formulation to the Six Point Programme so that it could no longer be wished away as populist rhetoric. For the rigour he brought to the analytical content of the Six Points and subsequent policy challenges in advising a de facto government prior to March 1971, Rehman Sobhan (in Nurul Islam: The Economist as Freedom Fighter) adorns him with the credential of a "Freedom Fighter."

Next comes the hardest part of Nurul Islam's professional life though in stature, as Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission in 1972, he was elevated to the level of a cabinet minister in the new Government of Bangladesh, becoming the closest professional confidante of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. His wealth of experience in dealing with leading personalities of the time - politicians and civil servants -- is a critical knowledge source for economists as development practitioners. Even for a man of his background, he realised there was a steep learning curve. The first challenge was to learn the technique of communicating good economic ideas and policies in a language politicians could understand - a stratagem in which many leading economists fall short. Next, he understood that good economic policies was not always politically palatable. So understanding the political economy was critical to formulating economic policies that are feasible in a democratic polity. Though he tried his best to formulate and deliver what was feasible, he admits candidly that the degree of success was much less than desired. All this is very sound take away for the current generation of practising economists.

Dr. Sattar, founder Chairman, Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh, is a former member of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP), former teacher of economics at Dhaka University, Boston University, University of Massachusetts, and Catholic University of America, and a former World Bank economist. 

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