The social face of 'graduation'
Are we misinterpreting the U.N. General Assembly's November 2021 decision? Entitled U.N. Resolution A/RES/76/8, it placed Bangladesh on the 'graduation' list towards a 'developing' country by the end of 2026. Economic-tainted tinges have since rippled down our spine. Getting on that list, to be sure, was quite an accomplishment for a country boasting one of the world's highest annual economic growth rates for over a generation. But did that eliminate a prior 'bottomless pit' identity? Typical wait-time to 'graduate' is 3 years, but Bangladesh must go through 5 years, meaning the house it must fix is messier. Yet, could that be only the tip of an iceberg of constraints no one wishes to talk about? Non-economic requirements of that resolution might speak louder on the issue than the economic.
Another popular cliché today ('Bangladesh a developed country by the 2040s'), may be more popular than understanding what becoming a 'developing country' (DC) requires. It necessitates dropping many tariff-lines and protective walls as well as seeing several concessions snatched away, even diversifying both our RMG-anchored economy and launch the search for new export markets. These alone are themselves a full-time job, necessitating countless sleepless nights. Given our gross national income (GNI) of 2,364 USD in 2020, which almost doubles the first 'graduation' requirement (of having at least a 1,222 USD GNI), necessary catch-up steps may remain on the back-burner for a while. More crippling would be the two other requirements to 'graduate': human assets and economic vulnerability indices. Bangladesh might find itself in the coronary ward for countries since rules of sorts underpin these two requirements, and rules represent the weakest point in the country's armory.
The DC respect for laws is legendary. It begins as a trickle-down (top-down) initiative, which gains maximum strength when it acquires bottom-up force (from being a Main Street practice to becoming an instinct), as through a democratic election. Though the most sought after community today, the emergent civil society could become a prison for the unrefined.
Perhaps the best examples of why we are blue-moons, not two decades, from a DC future behold us on Dhaka streets: traffic-lights. We boast fewer traffic-lights than the millions of people who inhabit the city, but one stands out: at Gulshan 2 crossroads. From just after 7am when police arrive, to late evening when they go, we blindly repeat the motions of learning traffic laws. When the cops go, bedlam dangles like a sword, though generally even Gulshan 2 bedlam is nothing compared to what ensues at other crossroads and traffic-light zones of Dhaka. Heaven helps the law-abiding nocturnal Gulshan car-driver who stops for a 'red' light: honks, glares, and anger await that person from other drivers, as motorcycles show new ways to chop laws into bits and pieces. Civility pay the price, until it withers away for good.
That same traffic-light says more of who Bangladeshis are: posh neighbourhoods symbolise civility, other (say, the Gulistan intersection), do not. It also conveys to foreign residents, a larger proportion of whom dwell in Gulshan than elsewhere, that Bangladeshis are not at all ignorant of being law-abiding. In a larger picture of urban life, the fewer the police posted at crossroads, the more civil the neighbourhood. The lower the gap between that ideal and Dhaka's crossroads realities, the better our credentials to 'graduate', all the way to a DC finale.
Climbing the 'graduation' tree involves far too many other rules. Will 20-odd years be enough to learn them to claim DC identity? This is the other reality Bangladeshis have been locked in: a DC notion sinking in far more rapidly than obeying DC rules and laws.
Returning to Dhaka streets, how do we control traffic congestion? Or institutionalised rickshaws, especially against the human rights violations occurring constantly to rickshaw-pullers before our very eyes: isn't a DC claim a commitment in itself to prevent that very trade? If so, do we have a rickshaw phase-out plan? If not for a host of rickshaw-pullers, then for a collection of other street shack-dwellers: those who live upon alms, pour into the cities because of rural displacement, household staff who have the physical power to earn, but not the intellectual power to climb the social ladder? Should we not be carving plans to absorb them into a DC future? Or is a DC future neighbourhood-specific? Only Gulshan, for example?
Still on the streets (since these constitute a laboratory par excellence of learning social dynamics and culture): have we started to control vehicle emissions, monitor traffic violations through closed-circuit cameras (if only to overcome graft), and indeed automate every transaction just to steer clear of grafts.
Broadening the picture, when will we start collecting taxes for every purchase, since many new DC infrastructures, even functions, must be installed; or penalise non-performing bank loans as vigorously as needed to make the crime less inviting; begin classes on time in education institutions, with not just students but also teachers arriving punctually; or indeed outlaw plastic to show we mean business with environmental protection. Our UNECOSOC application would shine if minutiae behavioral changes such as these get dealt with.
With over 35,000 billionaires in the country, we should not have a problem satisfying the economic condition to 'graduate', but it is in the non-material domains where the 'quality' of DC life is nurtured that we find our most intransigent obstacles. When environmental, educational, health, social, and other requirements exert more pressure than material cookies, Bangladeshis can be sure of pulling the rug from beneath their LDC feet to qualify for DC membership.
On a DC election day, for instance, Dhaka's children should be able to play on the streets rather than join or witness protests; women should be free to walk and talk down any street without escort or fear at any day-time; wrongly-parked automobiles, even motor-bikes be heftily ticketed if any law gets violated; and ultimately we citizens paying a not-too-meager proportion of our salary (note, not wages), as taxes, since transparently-monitored taxes are our investments in both the life-comfort we ourselves constantly seek and the even better and healthier atmosphere we wish to bequeath our children.
The 'road to these outcomes begins with lessons from the streets we just discussed, through civilising 'jungle' lifestyles. Gulshan 2-type of traffic-controls illustrate that point. It represents a small step in the right direction for a goal too far away, but the journey must begin, no matter how cumbersome, and proceed even if no light invites us to the tunnel's end, perhaps for a very long time. This might be the only route to 'graduating' into a 'developing' identity, but that can only put many more variables into play to soften the subsequent trek to a 'developed country'.
Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor, Department of Global Studies & Governance. Independent University, Bangladesh