Sunday, June 26, 2011

Failed States: Is China and Iran Failing?

Daily Sun
Sunday, 26th June, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

Most newspapers reported in their recent editions that Bangladesh has improved by one position in the list of countries likely to become failed states. Last year, Bangladesh had figured 24th and this year it is 25th. Some of the reports have tried to give a spin that Bangladesh is making a move in the right direction.

What these reports have not described is that countries have been rated on the index into critical, in danger, borderline, stable and most stable where Bangladesh is in the list of those countries considered in danger of failing. Almost all the critical countries are in Africa except Pakistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan in South Asia; Iraq in ME and Haiti in the Caribbean.

The African countries are in critical danger of failing primarily because of tribal conflict. Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen are in the same category because of terrorism. In fact, Pakistan and Yemen are in the critical list because “state ideology and state institutions abet terrorism.”

The group of countries in danger of failing in which Bangladesh finds itself is a large one. Again, Africa makes up the majority of the countries in this group. Among South Asia countries, Nepal has been placed at 27th and Sri Lanka at 29th, with Bangladesh where 2 out of 5 people live below the poverty line, at the top of the list. Surprisingly, China and Iran have also been named as countries in danger of failing!

There is a complicated criterion for assessment for placing countries in the various categories. These are called “pressures on the state” and include demographic pressures, refugees, group grievances; human flight; uneven development; economic decline; de-legitimization of the state; public grievances; human rights; security apparatus; fractionalized elites; and external interference.

Nepal and Sri Lanka have problem with many of the issues that are considered for judging whether a nation is failing and if so how close it is to ailing. Bangladesh has little or no pressure from many of these issues. The issues of economic decline, refugees, external interference, are not there while the other criterions are not present in any serious proportion to make Bangladesh so close to becoming a failed state as concluded in the failed States list.

Nevertheless Bangladesh is close to failing as a state as the Failed States Index has predicted but for entirely different reasons. It is in the nature of its politics where the two mainstream parties cannot agree even to a minimum level of consensus on issues of national development that the seeds of Bangladesh becoming a failed state are embedded. Of course issue of pressure of population, fractionalized elites and uneven development creates that extra pressure for pushing Bangladesh into the category of countries in danger of failing but these are not issues that are insurmountable as in case of countries fighting to remain afloat from failing.

Bangladesh’s case for a place in the Failed List Index in the category of those in danger of failing is due to the failure of its politics and politicians. In Sri Lanka ethnic differences and more than 25 years of civil war has turned the country on its head. In Nepal an often oppressive monarchy encouraged large section of the people, the Maoists, to rebellion with external assistance and destroyed its fragile fundamentals of statehood. Bangladesh has not had any of these massive problems for successful statehood. In fact, in 1971 its 75 million people came together under one banner responding to the call of Bangabandhu, something unique in the annals of history.

In addition, Bangladesh is an egalitarian society where the rich poor divide has not yet become provocative or dangerous; something that quality politics can easily handle. Feudalism has not been a strong factor to set the people of Bangladesh against each other The people of Bangladesh have twice in 25 years gotten together to overthrow colonialism, once in 1947 against the British and again in 1971 against the oppressive neo-colonialism imposed by the Pakistani regime and have developed common bonds to fight forces of oppression

Bangladesh has also not been subjected to dangerous and divisive forces that have brought the African national critically and dangerously close to failing. The Europeans have been very bad colonizers and what is happening today in Africa, the civil turmoil, are largely due to the way the European colonizers have cut across tribal and ethnic fabric of Africa to create independent states.

It is the conflicting nature of politics of Bangladesh as it evolved after 1971 and silly issues over which the two mainstream political parties have been fighting that are reasons why today stand Bangladesh faces the prospects of failing as a state. Most of the criterion that have been used to categorize states as going the way to become failed ones could easily be overcome in the two mainstream parties could agree on a minimum agenda of national development that does not seem to be the case. The only other danger that could push Bangladesh towards failing is the effect of climate change.

The most surprising revelation of the Failed State index is to see Iran at 35 dangerously close to failing. China at 81 is also dangerously close to failing as a state. It is not possible here to go into analysis of the criterion on which these two countries have been placed as ones dangerously close to failing. It would nevertheless be useful worth noting that both Iran and China have survived as independent states as long as one can remember. These countries are in fact the cradles of civilization.

Why these two countries would now be dangerously close to failing is difficult to contemplate. True they may have certain problems of internal nature but that such problems, like political democratization in China, would destroy thousands of years of statehood is difficult to contemplate. Incidentally, Iraq is also in the critical list for becoming a failed state that contradicts the claim of US success there; that Iraq would see the beginning of a new era of multi-ethnic, multicultural society living in peace.

The Failed State list is the produce of two US based organizations, Foreign Policy and The Fund for Peace. The 2011 annual collaboration is the 7th the two organizations have jointly brought out. President Bush had said in 2002 that the US is threatened less by conquering states than by failed ones in reference to Al Qaeda growing out of Afghanistan that was by all accounts a failed state by 9/11. US Defense Secretary Bill Gates has said over the next 20 years, the gravest threats for US would come from failed states. The attempt of the two organizations to bring out the list of Failed States is to address this concern

The fear of international threat posed by failed states is overstated. Majority of the states that are failing in Africa are a threat to themselves and those dying are their own in their own hands. Even the co-relation of failed states syndrome with so-called Islamic terrorism is also overstated. Somalia and Chad, perilously close to failing as a state, with predominantly Muslim poses no threat internationally whereas Pakistan and Yemen that poses the gravest international terrorist threat have functional governments suggesting that only those states can pose threat internationally that have functional systems working, albeit weak ones.

There is enough issues in the way the Failed State Index is finalized for taking a critical look at the motive of the authors. They seem to be providing the US foreign policy makers a platform for its theory of pre-emptive strike that it invented by going into Afghanistan.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.

On hartal, demoracy and common sense

The Independent
As I See It
June 25th Saturday
M. Serajul Islam

Columnists are writing good number of articles these days on hartal, particularly after the 36 hours called by the BNP and Jamat with promise of more to come. The Prime Minister condemned the call while the Leader of the Opposition called it a democratic right against an un-democratic government.

The columnists have backed the Prime Minister describing hartals as bad for the country and the economy. One columnist supported hartals of the past years when they were held against military dictatorships. This columnist also supported the AL hartals during the closing stages of the last BNP Government but rejected the last hartal called by the BNP. Generally these columnists seemed to have concluded that people are now against hartal.

My own view of people’s perception of hartal was the same as the columnists; that people are now generally against hartals. I have of course my own view on hartal to which I will come later. I was therefore somewhat surprised that the 36 hours hartal called by the opposition was successful despite the attempts by the Government to keep business open as usual.

In my years as a diplomat abroad, where representing Bangladesh is not easy, one issue that made it even harder to represent Bangladesh was hartal. As an Ambassador in Japan while the BNP was in office last time, my biggest hurdle in arguing Bangladesh’s case as an investment destination was political instability caused by hartal. That was the time when hartals were regular feature of our politics aimed to overthrow an elected government.

My own views made it even more difficult to defend hartal. In a democracy, the opposition has every right to protest the actions of the Government. They can call strikes and even general strikes depending on the gravity of the issue. They can even ask for a general shut down of the government. However, the people are sovereign in democracy and they have the ultimate right either to accept or reject the opposition’s call of a general strike or a shutdown of government.

A hartal takes away from the people that sovereign right and leaves them at the mercy of those who call hartal. The party that calls hartal burns vehicles; attacks businesses, closes educational institutions to tell the people in no uncertain terms that they must close down their lives and livelihood to make a hartal successful! In the process hartal enters into the dangerous arena of fascism.

With the new term of the AL, the opposition seemed to finally accept that hartal is no longer a strategy that people are willing to accept, no matter whether they are good in their perception or otherwise. Thus in two and a half years of this government, the BNP has been cautions with hartal and so far they have called only 4 hartals. However, it takes two to tango and here the AL instead of building on the opposition’s positive stance on hartal has surprisingly done the reverse.

The AL has not exactly helped the cause of making hartal history by announcing that future elections would be held under the elected government and not under the CG. Suppose the BNP was in power today and had announced elections under it and not the CG, would the AL accept it? The question does not require an answer for knowing AL’s style of politics it would have by now brought the government to a standstill with “lagatar” hartal.

Despite the clearly un-democratic nature of a hartal, it is the product of the negative style of politics in the country. Unless this negative politics becomes history, hartal will continue to plague us and our lives. In a recent discussion with a senior politically appointed official of the government, I was simply amazed to hear his views on hartal. At first, he sarcastically commented that hartal is welcome because it is environment friendly. In the next instance, he said that the hartal will have no affect on the government as the ruling party will use its “brute” majority to deal with the issue! He did not care to consider that with 48% of the votes cast in favour of the ruling coalition, it does not even have a simple majority!

It is this stance of the ruling party that has surprised many. The summary trial of hartal activists by invoking one of the blackest laws of the Pakistan era, the ruling party has given the public enough to worry about its intentions. At a time when it has crossed the first half of its term with most of its election promises still promises and where political stability is a fundamental pre-requisite to govern, it has decided to provoke the opposition. It is simply absurd to believe that the BNP would accept elections under the AL and it will go to any length for its demand for the CG. It has made that intention quite clear.

The Prime Minister’s contradictory statements on the CG system
indicate that the ruling party is in two minds about future course of politics in the country. At first, she and her party leaders made statements about holding at least two more elections under the CG. Then when the Supreme Court decision exactly what the ruling party was seeking but only after declaring the CG system illegal, the Prime Minister accepted the illegality but not the option of holding two more elections under the CG system. Now in another twist, the ruling party leaders are suggesting that the door for negotiating future election under CG is still open.

Now ruling party leaders are openly hinting at finding a way to retain the CG with some saying that the decision on the CG and constitutional amendments is exclusively a matter for the parliament and not the court. One hopes that sense would prevail upon the policy makers of the ruling party for if the AL decides to go ahead to hold next elections under it and deal with opposition hartals by “brute” force and summary trials of hartal activists, then it would be pushing the country to the brinks of civil disturbance that could put the country’s future in serious jeopardy. Let us not forget that only recently we have been listed as a country in danger of failing.

There is really no good or bad hartal; nor “rational” or “irrational ones” as the AL Secretary Genera has suggested. Hartal is bad for the economy and the country and fascist by its very nature. There is however an explanation why hartals take place and that too just in Bangladesh. It will be there as long as politics is the way it is; negative and provocative. To end hartal, it is the duty of the ruling party to stop provocating the opposition.

The Prime Minister who has shown great respect for the Court should follow its offer to the parliament to hold the next two elections under the CG. That would take the wind away out of the sail of any opposition desire for hartal and save the country from sliding into an abyss. The ruling party leaders who dismiss BNP led hartals sarcastically should keep in mind that they have championed this strategy and the opposition parties have been poor followers. And it is also not true that all its hartals it called when in opposition were “rational”; majority of them were forced on the people for no reason at all. For example, it called innumerable hartals for the CG system in BNP’s 1991-96 term and now rejecting it as undemocratic!

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Ambassadors embarass the nation

Daily Sun
June 19th., Sunday
M. Serajul Islam

Disturbing news has appeared in the newspapers about conduct of the Ambassadors in three of Bangladesh Embassies abroad. Two are extremely serious cases of sexual misconduct and impinge upon the character of the Ambassadors concerned. The third Ambassador has offended his hosts so seriously with his etiquette and manners that they have refused to deal with him, not even to discuss our Foreign Minister’s visit to that country.

The news concerning these three Ambassadors has appeared in the media over some length of time. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has however not contradicted the news. There have been media reports that MOFA has conducted investigations and one of the Ambassadors has been recalled. The silence of the Foreign Ministry has led many to conclude that the Ambassadors are guilty as charged.

The way the AL led Government has conducted foreign affairs thus far is unbelievable. At least 5 or six Ministers and Advisers with the Foreign Minister one of them are conducting the country’s foreign relations. In fact, from time to time, more Ministers speak on foreign affairs without caring for MOFA as if it is a common subject for all of them.

This government has shown equally unbelievable laid back approach in appointment of Ambassadors. For the first time ever, all major Bangladesh missions abroad have been given to non-career Ambassadors. In a number of these stations, those named have foreign nationality in addition to their Bangladeshi nationality. Those responsible for the appointments have not even considered serious legal issues. Under oaths that these foreign nationals have taken for their adopted countries, they are obliged to support their country of adoption when required even when it is Bangladesh’s interests at stake.

Prior to the AL’s current term, Ambassadors were appointed after a consultation between the Prime Minister and the Foreign Ministry. After receiving the PM’s approval informally, it was a summary from the Foreign Ministry to the Prime Minister that formalized Ambassadorial appointments. In majority of the cases not involving major posts, the Prime Minister went by MOFA’s recommendations. Even in case of major appointments, the views of MOFA were always an important input in selection of Ambassadors.

That system is now seemingly in disarray. In fact, the announcement of Ambassadorial assignments is no longer the prerogative of MOFA. That function is now with the Cabinet Division. Thus, those who are now advising or influencing the Prime Minister on appointment of career Ambassadors have little knowledge of the Foreign Ministry and its officers. In case of recommending non-career Ambassadors also, they do so with little knowledge of the needs, demands and environment in which the Ambassadors work.

The serious predicament in which the country now finds itself with the three Ambassadors is the consequence of breakdown of the system that worked well in the past by an ad-hoc way of dealing with an extremely important national matter. The case of the career Ambassador among the 3 under scrutiny is revealing.

His appointment was recommended by the PMO with MOFA not consulted. He was sent from a minor station to a major one; a lift from division three to division one! The reaction of those who knew the affairs of MOFA well was one of utter surprise and disbelief who questioned whether Bangladesh had decided to wind up its Embassy in that country. He had not even a remote claim to the post except his ability to reach the PMO over the Foreign Ministry!

There is a serious mismatch in the existing distribution of career Ambassadors to our Embassies. Some bright career Ambassadors are being wasted in less important Embassies. A few not so competent career Ambassadors have been sent to some important Embassies as is the case of the career Ambassador now in the news. The mismatch is due to politics involved these days in appointment of career Ambassadors where MOFA is often powerless to do anything.

If MOFA had decided appointment of the career Ambassador in question, such a mismatch would not have occurred. The reason is a simple one. By the time a career diplomat is considered for an Ambassadorial assignment, his/her ability and credibility or the lack of these qualities is an established fact in the Ministry because the Foreign Service cadre is a small one. Everyone at MOFA knew a disaster was coming when the Government appointed the career Ambassador to the important post!

The case of the two non-career Ambassadors should leave no one in doubt that the poor chaps had no clue about the role of an Ambassador. One has been accused of frequenting night clubs by going there on a motor cycle of a staff of the Embassy! Quite clearly those who recommended their names to the Prime minister did not care to check out their credentials.

The alleged conduct of the 3 Ambassadors has dented the fragile image of Bangladesh that is so vital for our economic future. Such conduct could also affect adversely our bilateral relations with the countries concerned, of which two are crucial for our economic future. It is good that the career Ambassador has been recalled although after a long delay that must surely have offended the hosts. The non-career Ambassadors should now also be recalled without wasting any more time.

Simultaneously, it is also of the utmost importance to put into place a system for appointment of both career and non-career Ambassadors for the ad-hoc system now in place is dangerous for the country. The old system was a good and could be improved by streamlining it further. In any case, in the new system, the primary role for appointment of Ambassadors should be entrusted to MOFA that of course will work under the guidance of the Prime Minister.

It is indeed sad that the AL Government should weaken MOFA the way it has. In its last term, MOFA was given a major role in conduct of foreign affairs. In the final stages of that term, the Prime Minister even gave the Foreign Secretary the charge to conduct negotiations with India when the two countries came close to a serious border conflict, a job that involved many ministries and agencies that he performed successfully. In many instances in that term, MOFA was able to change names recommended by the PMO for appointment as Ambassadors after discussion with the Prime Minister. In return for the confidence placed, MOFA earned for the country credit such as membership in the UN Security Council, Chairmanship of NAM, etc to name a few.

While it may take time to restore MOFA to its rightful place if the Government has a desire to conduct foreign affairs professionally, the procedure of appointing Ambassadors should be straightened without delay for the sake of the country’s image and interests. Career Ambassadors should be chosen not on basis of sycophancy but on merit because there is a terrible mix of bright and below average career diplomats due to all sorts of quotas for appointment in public service. At least one other career Ambassador was recalled under the present Government on issue of character.

Non-career Ambassadors should not be appointed from party activists. They should be given training in the basics of diplomatic conduct and etiquette before they are allowed to go to their posts.

The writer is a former career Ambassador.

The OSD cadre in civil bureaucracy

The Independent, Saturday 18th June, 2011
AS I SEE IT column
M. Serajul Islam

Recently I had an interesting conversation with an OSD of the Government. I knew what is happening in the civil bureaucracy but I was not aware that it was anything like he described. We all know that one of the election issues that the ruling party put before the voter was the extent of politicization of the civil bureaucracy under the BNP Government. But the extent of politicization under the present government that this officer described is unbelievable.

I have also been reading the post-budget comments of leading citizens. They have all given us reasons to worry about our future. In fact, the Finance Minister himself has said that the over-ambitious budget the Government has announced will bear the desired results based on its ability to deliver at the micro level. He has also said that political stability will be a crucial factor in determining the desired results outlined in the budget.

The institution whose role is critical to the way the budget shapes is the civil bureaucracy. In any knowledgeable discussion these days, the civil bureaucracy is described as a sinking institution. By the start of this term of the ruling party, the officers who were recruited in the Pakistan era had all retired. As a consequence, leadership of the civil bureaucracy was weakened considerably.

The explanation for this is a simple one. The best university graduates who entered the civil bureaucracy in Pakistan times avoided it after our independence. A few bright graduates nevertheless entered the civil bureaucracy. However, as an institution, the difference in quality and ability between officers of the earlier era and those leading now is palpably evident. When this was the state of affairs with the bureaucracy, the ruling party decided to leave out from the cabinet political leaders who were in the AL cabinet in 1996-2001 and in their place, brought in new and inexperienced faces.

Key Ministries of Home and Foreign Affairs have been given to women, both first timers in the cabinet. Thus the second administration of Sheikh Hasina started with a very bad mix for successful governance; an inexperienced cabinet and a very weak bureaucracy. The Prime Minister herself expressed her frustration with her cabinet colleagues and publicly questioned their ability.

In these contexts, what this OSD revealed to me is nerve wracking indeed. He said that after this government came to power, it has systematically sorted out the officers on the basis of loyalty to the ruling party. Accordingly, the officers have been categorized into those whose loyalty is unquestioned. Then there are those who have been branded as disloyal or loyal to the opposition. There is a third group who are in between; who are not considered disloyal but whose loyalty to the ruling party is also not established beyond doubt.

The pro-AL loyalists are of course ruling the roost. They are eating the cake and the icing too! Those whose loyalty was in doubt have either been sent on retirement or have been sorted out in various other ways. The OSD who led me to write this piece is in a group who could not prove their loyalty or those on witch hunt to seek out opposition elements in the bureaucracy could not link them to the opposition. His group consists of over 200 officers of level of Deputy Secretary, 70 Joint Secretaries, and a good Additional Secretaries and Secretaries! If this figure of officers made OSD is not startling enough, I am not sure what would be. These officers have no office or responsibility and under are required to go daily to the Establishment Division to sign a register. Out of pity for this unfortunate group, the Establishment Division has allowed them to sign the register at interval of 10 days.

Thus an already weak bureaucracy has been divided and a very large number of officers are paid salaries but not allowed to work. It does not need common sense to suggest that such a move has weakened the bureaucracy further. This is not even politicization of the bureaucracy; this is worse. What is going to happen if the opposition were to return to power? Can a bureaucracy politicized in such a manner and working half strength deliver the high objectives of the budget and government where the political leadership is weak?

With all respect to the Prime Minister whose wisdom is hardly in doubt, it does not need a crystal ball to predict that the Government will find it difficult if not impossible to deliver. The CPD that has attained credibility in the country and aboard has predicted that the Government will not be able to achieve the growth rate it has predicted in the budget. Leading economists of the country have also likewise made pessimistic predictions. The FM’s rather inexplicable outbursts against the CPD are one of nervousness about the Government’s ability to deliver.

Our bureaucracy has been based on political neutrality on traditions of the British bureaucracy. Next door India has benefitted immensely from a politically neutral bureaucracy by following the same British traditions as we have. In fact, Pandit Nehru turned to the ICS officers who served the British raj to build an independent India. They returned that trust by helping build the India Pandit Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and others had visualized for an independent India.

We can destroy that fundamental basis of our bureaucracy, namely its political neutrality, only at our peril. A democratic government simply cannot have its civil bureaucracy totally subservient to the political party where that party as the ruling one does not even have a simple majority on votes cast in its favour or be manned by its political activists. This Government must focus seriously to bring the civil bureaucracy back on rails. Otherwise it will derail the Government. In fact, the derailment process is very visible and it is unbelievable that the Government is silent about it.

The OSD predicted that hell would be let loose in the civil bureaucracy when a change of government takes place for that is the direction in which the present government is pushing the once respected and vaunted bureaucracy. It is not even helping the cause of the ruling party because the bureaucrats are serving their own interests in the name of the party and depriving the benefits of governance to those who they believe do not support the ruling party.

Thus instead of building an efficient civil service based on ability and merit, the present government it is helping build a bureaucracy based on sycophancy. More importantly, it is pushing a significant part of the members of the bureaucracy into a corner as members of the OSD cadre! All aside, can any country afford it , least of all an impoverished country like Bangladesh that at full strength still is still well short of the desired number of bureaucrats to implement the responsibilities and objectives of the government?

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan