Our hopes may be colliding with our inheritances. One set of instincts dashes in that 'developed country' direction, evident in our dialogues and dictionaries, yet without amply modifying our practices, especially behaviours and institutions. Another set just wants to hang on to our Bangalee identity, worried that it might get too diluted and we will become the lesser for it. Oftentimes we experience these in their extremities, where the tendency is towards a more zero-sum (your gain is my loss), than a mutually beneficial outcome. This is only natural in any transition, particularly those touching culture or legislations. How we modify them would then dictate the length of that transition, with the less being better than the lengthier, given the pace of technological progress.
That Bangladesh is flying is being noted everywhere. From the Saudi desert, where major companies have been contemplating investments of up to $30 billion in Bangladesh, to those very islands where the sun rises and once built the world's second largest economy, Japan, where Bangladesh generates more corporate optimism of business expansion than anywhere else in the economically hottest continent this century, Asia. These are not just dormant hopes, since several Saudi delegations have been knocking on ERD (Economic Relations Division) doors with specific plans, with the optimism now building behind Bangladesh, after the gory Holey Artisan incident inflicted such deep a gash, with bilateral economic relations expanding, not in trickles or inches, but with leaps and bounds. India falls almost 5.0 per cent behind Bangladesh, in second spot on that JETRO (Japanese External Trade Organisation) optimism list (Jagaran Chakma, "Japanese firms most optimistic of their prospects in Bangladesh out of Asia," The Daily Star, February 19, 2020); but if we examine the 5 percentage points behind India, we see more contestation, with at least three other countries vying for second place, after Bangladesh. That something is happening across Rabindranath Tagore's 'Sonar Bangla' is undeniable. We hope it traverses smoothly.
At a time when the country's special economic zones (SEZs) and export promotion zones (EPZs) have begun to catch external attention, there is a lot policy-makers can scurry for. Of course, they have not been idle in the past few years, building a string of high-cost megaprojects, mostly upon borrowed public money. Among other effects, these show how a strangulated transportation sector and overloaded port-storage capacities have only unnecessarily added costs to virtually every commodity reaching the consumer. They also grow from all the potentials to supply the country's own energy for its exploding needs, intensify crop production for not only an expanding population, of which increasing proportions now want a 'second helping', that is, the extra plate, at every meal. They also know a huge number of Bangladeshis also travel abroad, if for medical reasons, then why not build infirmaries here; if for holidays, then what's wrong in cultivating sea-sides, hill-tracts, forest areas, and the like for tourist outposts domestically; and if indeed for business, then just bring the investors here. Much has been rippling in nooks and corners up and down the country, confirming the 'developed country' light at the end of the modernisation tunnel is, indeed, attainable and closer to materialisation than otherwise.
Yet, bottlenecks remain, some so glaring as to raise questions whether we actually 'look' when we 'see', whether we stop to smell the flowers as we build our edifices and bank-accounts. It is not that policy-makers have not noted them, but brisk attention may be worth a few percentage points on that business-friendliness scorecard. Much media attention has indeed been made how one-stop shops can really turn businessmen on, for example, getting all licenses online, rather than personally seducing bureaucrats, even obtaining e-visas. In fact, the less the time one spends in queries, the more attractive the business welcoming-mat becomes; and the more the on-line transactions, the wider and farther will the interest to come to Bangladesh, or invest within the country will reach. Adding a little public relations to staid secretariat offices and tasks can yield larger consequences commensurately than the input.
Once the business person, tourist, or visitor is here, sprucing up the stay could also bring harvests. Hotel-stays have been paid a lot of attention, for which reason, other arenas can be placed under the microscope. Of course, the first demanding area would be ground-transportation, particularly how to cut back transit-time. Going beyond building megaprojects is the key. For a city as large as Dhaka, the availability of sufficient taxis, visiting sites, tourist agency staff, and indeed shopping-malls conducive enough to attract and cater to international consumers become imperative. Bangladesh may be the quintessential 'nation of shopkeepers' that the Founding Father of capitalism described over two-and-half centuries ago; and though they are not structurally, stylistically, or substantively far different than their counterparts in India, or Thailand, for example, they are not being visited by enough international tourists to make a difference, or clinch the coveted spots these countries occupy among tourists. This can be changed with institutionalised support in language-training, building and making available more diversified local products, instituting a price-range, and converting shops into transaction centres with foreign-exchange conversion possibilities, rather than consolidating the gossip-corners, or 'fielding' (aggressive lady-watching) haunts have tended to be.
These might be minor changes, but they are the sticky once that could, in the final analysis, allure the visitor or consumer willing to go the extra yard, or obscure similarly inclined potential purchasers. Let's face it, travelling is defined by consumption and expenditures. How attractive we make the transaction is the key to moving up the developmental ladder: from making profits to building a reputation others can disseminate is the tested, tried, and trustworthy pathway. Sifting traditional habits through this transaction perspective might help nourish Adam Smith's other notion: consumer's surplus. Once the shopkeeper can see beyond his or her own 'tree' towards an imaginary 'forest', we might be opening many more possibilities a lot faster than ever before.
Behaviour, habits, and perceptions don't always rule the day. Sometimes infrastructure costs may become the trip-wire. With Bangladesh and Dhaka being among the most expensive countries and cities, certainly across South Asia, one must stop to device ways to reduce those costs. Pollution automatically comes to mind, as too real-estate values in the world's most congested country/city. Whereas pollution can be tackled, how to neuter sky-high rental prices should also keep our juices flowing. No type of pollution can be tackled without respect for the law and strict penalties for violators. Here again, behaviour, habits, and perceptions can rock the boat more than one might wish them to. Just as toilet-training says a lot about a person's degree of civility, so too does classroom-training speak about the student's future professional capacities. A lot can be learned on both accounts by Bangladesh to become fully 'developed'.
Curbing consumption and innovating alternatives have been the way many 'developed countries' have climbed the modernisation pole. Both would do Bangladesh wonders if we paid more attention: at the minimum, we would learn to disassociate ourselves from non-biodegradable product components and flush the soot from the air; at the most, we could drive our globally-recognised solar initiatives in the countryside to begin dictating metropolitan lifestyles. Lowering energy costs goes a long way to guarantee rents do not alone bankrupt us.
Building SEZ and EPZ communities offers a more social opportunity: cultivate residential, shopping, educational, recreational, and all other modern-day engagements within each compound. Then we can begin to learn how regulations and laws actually help enhance community-living rather than impose constraints. Proper learning cannot but end in an environmentally stable, renewable 'developed' country others can now begin to envy Asia for like they do its economic growth dynamism.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Dean (Acting), School of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (SLASS) and Head, Global Studies & Governance Program Independent University, Bangladesh