23 years ago, in January 1998, five economists gathered for an urgent discussion on the social role of economists in Bangladesh. In 1998, Bangladesh was reeling from the devastating impact of unprecedented floods. The conversation brought to light the need for economists to have a social responsibility if they want to create impact on the development of the country. It raised questions regarding the role different generations of economists have played and of their success in doing so. Bangladesh in 2020 looks vastly different than it did two decades ago. The changing context in which economists operate - social environment, economic actors, political backdrop - means changes in economists' roles too. To revisit the conversation from 1998 and to explore the social role of economists today, they - Dr Hossain Zillur Rahman, Dr Akhtar Mahmood, Dr M M Akash, Dr Mustafizur Rahman, and Dr Syed Hashemi - again came together in an episode of Ajker Agenda, a policy dialogue series hosted by Power and Participation Research Center. Despite their title of being economists, the four speakers have followed different life trajectories - some in academia, some in policymaking, some in think tanks, some in activism. These various lenses allowed us to unpack some significant differences in the social role of economists in the two different periods.
The different roles that economists can and should play have to begin with the conversation of what we understand by economics. A mainstream idea about economics is that it is merely a discipline of study. If one looks at economics as an engineering science upholding ideas of scarcity, demand and utility maximisation it would do the field a disservice. As came up during the conversation, we have to remember that economics is not a value free science and is closely tied to the idea of social justice. Syed M Hashemi says, "We have to also ask questions beyond market economy." As economists taking on some level of social responsibility, one should ask questions about and seek answers to structural inequity and social structures of oppression. Social role of economists thus can take the form of educators, political activists etc.
Mostly, the social role of economists is discussed in terms of policy making or influencing. But we cannot devalue the role of economists in the education sector. To develop a society, we need to help young minds to have better visions and points of views. It is true that we now have many organisations and virtual platforms where students can work in a group and try to understand the practical situation. However, it requires a proper framework or quality core textbooks. These textbooks can help the young generation to get introduced to relevant and new concepts. Therefore, another role of economists is to be mentors to lead a new generation of society towards the right track. There are many doable jobs for economists in order to develop the society here.
However, we cannot ignore the question of professionalism in the pursuit of the discipline itself when we are discussing the social role of economists. When the 'development' narrative becomes overly subject to partisan political or group interests, the social role of economist may lie actually in being a good economist i.e. bring out the ground realities through credible facts and analysis. Dominant groups within society increasingly want not just to monopolize economic benefits but also the 'narrative' and statistics of development or progress. In such situations, economists can play an important social role by focusing on data integrity and bringing into focus issues more pertinent to general welfare such as market distortions, inequality, quality of life and access to human capital opportunities etc. Economists can also expose the dominant orientation of the market economy as operating at the moment. Is it competitive capitalism or a case of 'crony capitalism'? Societies such as South Korea have progressed using the 'chaebol' model but in today's Bangladesh are the 'cronies' the beneficiaries of inefficient rather than efficient favouritism? Do we see a hidden return of the 'license raj' in economic sectors such as power generation that deliver super-normal profits to the licensees?
One of the key differences between the first conversation in 1998 and this conversation 23 years later is the diminishing space for open conversations coupled with diminishing demand for evidence driven policy making. How does such a political climate influence the role economists play? With a less hospitable critical discourse environment, some economists retreat into their private agendas towards safer grounds in which to play their roles. In that sense, compared to earlier generations, economists have become risk-averse. Some would argue that despite lack of demand from political power centres for the economists' knowledge, economists have a duty to work towards creating this demand, especially when society requires it. This reality should be seen as a challenge that contemporary economists need to combat, instead of simply viewing it as a space that is closed off. Hossain Zillur Rahman says, "I think there are smaller but potential entry points through which the knowledge can be provided and used for the betterment of society." Another point is that organised social sectors are also weak. It could be an easier option to team up with them and work for certain agendas for society, even if the political power centres were not so receptive to critical advice. In his opinion, Bangladesh is more an initiative-driven society than a policy-driven one. If this is true, then our duty is to link up with this initiative-driven space.
Nowadays linkages are different from the past in nature. The students' or workers' movements are not active like the ones from the eighties or nineties. If there is no such active movement, there will be no linkage as a consequence. But there are new social forces to improve the situation. For example, all of the NGOs may not be relevant to link up, but there are many youth platforms and organisations at a local government level that may be important discourse partners. It means we need to observe where the new social forces are emerging in the current time and where there are possibilities of successfully enhancing the social role of economists. I think our main focus of the discussion should be on what we have and what we can do with those, not just lament on the absent factors.
At the end of the day, the economists should play their role to try to make the society advanced or in a way they feel that it should be. According to Dr Rahman, with low political demand for good economic analysis, analysis that is geared towards social justice, economists in 2021 are swimming against the tide. There are many issues regarding political power centres, but we have the space for initiatives too. The role of the economists remains very important and will always be in propagating these initiatives, even in the presence of inhospitable political environment. In the fight for creating a more progressive and just societal system, economists need to prioritise bringing in newer generations and engaging and mentoring them to take part in discourse that critiques the system and is vocal against the challenges.
Dr Hossain Zillur Rahman is Executive Chairman, Power and Participation Research Centre.