Friday, January 25, 2013

Time to focus on political development

The Independent
19th January, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The Finance Minister recently, in his by now well known manner of reaction to critics, expressed his utter exasperation at a particular think tank that we frequently see in the media making predictions on the country’s economy. His frustration was that this think tank did not reflect the successes of the government in economic development; spending most of its time finding faults with it and its policies.

The Finance Minister had a good reason for his exasperation and frustration. With issues of the Padma Bridge debacle, the Hallmark and Destiny frauds and the share market scam, he has been under pressure like no other Finance Minister  in the past. Yet, in the last four years, the government has earned socio-economic growth that as a Finance Minister, he should be given credit for and the Government commended. Unfortunately, with this think tank, there is no such grace for it is more interested in criticizing the government and very little in highlighting the areas where the government has succeeded. In fact in his disgust, the Finance Minister dismissed this think tank as an organization bereft of intellectual competence.

The Finance Minister is not alone in his frustration with this think tank. His predecessor in the last BNP Government felt the same way when this think tank had put him and the BNP Government under similar pressure. In fact, at that time, this think tank had taken an overtly anti-BNP stance and according to economists with pro-BNP leanings, also distorted facts and figures to show that the economy of the country was at peril at the hands of the BNP. It had indirectly sent a political message to the voters that the BNP needed to be defeated in the elections and the Awami League voted to power.

Unfortunately, a majority of our think tanks, like this particular one on which the Finance Minister expressed his anger use facts  and figures of socio-economic development as ammunition to embarrass the government to attract public attention. They do a great job in playing politics and also gaining public attention and popularity. Unfortunately for giving a few individuals at the helm of these organizations a public platform and public exposure, these think tanks do very little for furthering the objectives for which they are established. I must admit that I have not seen the charters of these think tanks but based on common sense, I am sure their objectives must be study the issues related to socio-economic development of the country and make recommendations on how to achieve goals in these sectors for the growth and development of the country.

Think tanks of course are not executing agencies.  Their studies/recommendations thus meant for the government. Their work can become meaningful only when the government acts on their studies and recommendations.  Therefore, the best way for these organizations to live up to their charters is to work with the government not against it. Unfortunately, instead of working with the government that is the rational way, most of the think tanks in our country, at least the leading ones, prefer   the media to reveal their research findings and that too in a manner critical of the government. More often than not, their findings and recommendations end embarrassing the government. Thus instead of building a partnership with the government, the important think tanks place themselves in a role against the government and behave like an opposition political party  leading  at times to public show of anger against them as the Finance Minister did recently.

As Ambassador to Japan from 2002 to 2006, I found many think tanks in Tokyo working in different areas of socio-economic and political development, including foreign affairs. They do extensive research work and in many instances, upon request or commissioning by the government. The system works two ways. The think tanks, like think tanks all over the world, do research on their own and reveal these through publications/ seminars/ conferences where there is participation by the government that uses these materials for their policy work in a pro-active and cooperative manner. In fact, these think tanks in Tokyo are a great help to the respective government ministries because these ministries do not have the necessary manpower or time to carry out extensive research and depend on the think tanks for their research needs to help them in making policies of the government.  Often, the ministries commission these think tanks to carry out research on specific issues.

The pattern of relationship between the government and the think tanks in Japan is also the pattern that exists at other world capitals in more or less the same manner. It is in Dhaka and in particular with this think tank that drew the Finance Minister’s wrath that the relationship is an antagonistic one. When the BNP was in office, its opponents were looking up to this organization for helping its anti-government role. This time with the AL in power, it is the BNP and its supporters who are looking up to this organization to further their cause against the government. In a country where non-partisan people often are anti-establishment, this think tank also has significant following among those who do not support either the two mainstream parties. In between all these, the research/recommendations of the think tanks are wasted and the government is unable to benefit for their work. Both in their respective ways fail to serve the cause of the country where cooperation and partnership would have been beneficial to both and the country.

The criticisms of the think tanks of the present government and the last BNP government on issues of social and economic development notwithstanding, Bangladesh has done very well in these areas of development. No less an authority on these issues than Noble Laureate Amarta Sen has given Bangladesh very high marks in these areas of development and has placed Bangladesh ahead of India. Of course, there is need to mention that there are no two opinions about the points that the think tanks make, in particular the one that incurred the Finance Minister’s anger, that in many areas, the government would do better to take their suggestions to achieve higher rates of socio-economic growth to transform Bangladesh from an LDC to a middle income country

Nevertheless, the undeniable fact is that socio-economic development of Bangladesh is on track despite what think tanks think. It is not the wrong policies of the government generally that is impeding the country from growing faster. Our private sector and the NGOs are quite capable of working with the government or outside it to help Bangladesh grow and they are doing it.  Unfortunately, their efforts and those of the government notwithstanding, Bangladesh is not growing at the rate needed for socio-economic transformation not because of not following the right policy options but because of matters of politics; political culture and political psychology. The politics of conflict between the two mainstream parties is just not impeding the efforts of the government to achieve Bangladesh’s fullest potentials in socio-economic growth; it is now threatening to take away all our modest achievements in these sectors. If the next elections are not held in a fair manner where all parties would be able to participate, it is not socio-economic growth that would be our concern. The very future of the country would be at stake.

It is time therefore for our think tanks and economists worrying themselves with socio-economic issues of growth to take rest for a while. It is time for think tanks and individuals with knowledge of political science; political culture and political psychology to take the centre stage and give the country the benefit of their knowledge and expertise. Let them take the centre stage not as opponents of the government but as partners, and carry out their work not in the media but in rational ways through networking with the government and the political parties.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and Secretary to the government

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