World Bank reports 736 million people live in "extreme poverty" today, one-half in South Asia (Bangladesh and India), the other in Sub-Sahara Africa (Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Nigeria). Its 2018 "Poverty and Shared Poverty" report projects both Bangladesh and India will eradicate poverty by 2030: having come close to fulfilling the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of poverty-reduction target by 2015, they are on track to complying with the Sustainable Development Goal's (SDG's) "Leave no one behind" as well. Fuelling the economic fires, a simultaneous United Nations' ESCAP (Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific) report, finds South Asia (along with East Asia) as the planet's "most dynamic regions" in 2018. There is a caveat: the document's subtitle asserts "risks are increasing." South Asia's risks include "an abrupt tightening of the global financial conditions . . . setbacks in the implementation of reform, [and] political uncertainties." Between the lines, one cannot help but add invisible socio-cultural adjustments wreaking more damage.
Those socio-cultural adjustments cover the entire range of the sudden upward social climb, from the breakdown of traditional mores and norms that had kept a stable socio-cultural order to conspicuous consumption that chews progress away. Supplying education and appropriate infrastructures helps bridge such a spotty transient landscape.
Addressing these in reverse order, the availability of appropriate infrastructures may actually dictate the overall transformational tone: from physical infrastructures (residential, roads, ports, markets) to educational (schools, colleges, universities, and post-graduate institutions), social (civic groups at all levels, from the grassroots to those centralized ones at peak), health (hospitals and doctors), financial (house-building capacity, banks and insurance companies), and transactional (markets of all sorts), their capacity to let betterment efforts "sink in" softens resistance, supplying the kind of stability each upward climb any transformation seeks. For instance, prioritising university education before schools and colleges have absorbed a bulk of the population would be both awkward, extravagant, and imbalanced, a misstep that only replicates itself as more transformational steps enter the picture. The same with hospitals and social groups: in this case, more (rather than wrong) infrastructures (the skeleton) than people (flesh) predict irreversible wastage, ultimately breeding maladjustments and more complications than rewards. Commensurately constructed, infrastructures play the stabilising roles that the traditional family or clan once would. In countries like Bangladesh and India, parents feel relieved to release their children or wards to the safe hands of responsible institutions.
These become all the more necessary once classroom education is brought in. Just as education opens limitless windows to a wide range of outcomes, so too must infrastructures accompany or complement them to ensure the transformation's success. The growth of libraries or other accesses to higher learning is part and parcel of that transformation, and in this Internet age, the sensible availabilities of software knowledge in appropriate hardware (that is, institutions imparting software training at all levels), can help divert traffic from Internet-related abuses, while fulfilling its knowledge enhancement role. Any government should be able to chart present and future policy priorities from the education locally available, relating education to jobs and jobs to national needs: stability from acquiring a steady education without financial disruption logically extends to the job-market where an adequate employment must await the hardworking student for his/her entire work-life with a steady income. Supplying those jobs must presume the availability of proper educational opportunities, and building the proper infrastructures at the right time, remains the key. Many countries have planning commission charting this progression in advance, and once in place, both Bangladesh's and India's chances of averting bumps, challenges, even erosive development increase.
Banking and finances can (and must) be related to education. It is in the classroom that the youth learn about money management and investment, and infrastructures facilitating such training have tended to remain more viable than those built upon whims and sand: opening an account begins the process of helping students distinguish between savings and spending, and subsequently the various types of investment and market-related options (stocks, bonds, and so forth). Amid growing scarcities and competitiveness, learning to keep a balance under all circumstances paves the way for building the responsibility we need in future leaders. Without the appropriate training and relevant infrastructures (especially for banking and insurance), future leaders will never learn of the multiple options available, nor of why the legitimate pathways ultimately produce long-term gains only after enduring short-term pains.
All of this training, and learning from trials and errors, chips away at extravagance and conspicuous consumption, which silently eat away one aspect or another of traditional society's stability. For example, the habit of not paying taxes, indeed interpreting taxes as the "enemy," can be watered down immeasurably once the taxpayer sees the rewards of paying taxes through the various infrastructures built with that collection. The sense of being "civic" brings with it a sociability guided less by blood and inheritance than by the duties and responsibilities of another "collectivity," this time society's, and nurtured in classrooms (rather than exclusively at home or within the family): a sense of environmental protection, neighbourhood protection, or health-cultivating calisthenics will eventually demand every citizen's attention and sense of urgency; but with the proper training, ignoring, delegating, or haphazardly addressing them will diminish. That may be just the antidote needed to absorb the unavoidable extravagant habits of many of our quick-rich or illegitimately-enriched social climbers (as the recent arrest of a huge number of Yaba "kingpins" in Cox's Bazaar indicates). Familiar, accessible, and stable current behaviours function better as future pivots than upstart actions.
Society, and within it the norms, behaviours, and guidelines, change constantly, sometimes too glacially to be noticed, at other times too rapidly for comfort. 'Evolution' and 'revolution' respectively, describe those adjustments. Yet a stable future is possible only because familiar, accessible, and stable current behaviours acknowledge, accommodate, or adjust past norms, behaviours, and guidelines rather than displace them outright.
Returning to the elimination of poverty, Bangladesh reaching that goal by 2030 would mean a complete transformation from its basket-case origin. The journey was slow, and we were not always picture-perfect with our norms, behaviours, and guidelines: extended families became more nuclear, farmers could not but migrate to overloaded metropolitans, and low-wage migrants returned with more cash and a determination to change their own lot loudly, among other disruptive factors. Social spaces must open up to soften pressures like these without disrupting cultural conformity or complicating the 2030 poverty-elimination target. Adjustments and balances of this kind will be increasingly urgently needed for which no UN, MDG, or SDG collaboration can supply the full cure. We must look within ourselves.
It is in how smooth that transition that the seeds of sown democracy grow, get harvested, and ultimately institutionalised, much like the family before, this time in place of the family. Sincerely executed, democratisation opens up the proper space for economic liberalism, and with it a "collective" advancement reminiscent of the traditional family's stubborn sense of "clan" welfare enhancement, this time of society's. Appropriate infrastructures serving as both the catalyst and nurse of future welfare plans, like the family once did, become the truest confirmation that a poverty-free society prevails.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.