Saving a Southern promise | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 05, 2013 / LAST MODIFIED: 09:02 PM, December 04, 2013

Saving a Southern promise

BANGLADESH has been one of the star performers of the global economy in the past one decade. Its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth averaged 6.2% during 2003-2012. The economy has surpassed $100 billion in real exchange rate terms. It is now a $320 billion economy in terms of purchasing power parity. With this rate of growth an economy could double its GDP size every 11.6 years. Owing to a larger base, Bangladesh's economic growth since 2003 has created one Sri Lanka, one and a half Uzbekistan and three and a half Nepal. It creates a Bhutan every 14 weeks and a Maldives in 16 weeks.
Bangladesh's stride in social sector is equally impressive. Life expectancy of its population has increased from 39 years in 1972 to 69 years in 2011, surpassing both India and Pakistan. Gender gap in Bangladesh is fast closing. Its home grown social sector entities such as Grameen and Brac are highly acclaimed global brands.
Bangladesh's contribution to human civilisation deserves a special mention. Scientific breakthroughs in the development of non-rival goods (Oral Rehydration Therapy, for instance), not rival goods (such as mobile phone) determine the survival of human civilisation. Oral Rehydration Therapy (ORT), a simple treatment for diarrhoea invented in Bangladesh, saved over 50 million lives around the world. Diarrhoea was once as pandemic as the plague in Europe in the 14th century. According to an American economist, the dollars-and-cents value of ORT is a few times higher than Singapore's GDP!

economic possibilities
Bangladesh's economic possibilities are immense. While East Asia, Europe, among other regions, are aging, Bangladesh's demographic window (once in a life time opportunity to grow fast) opens in this decade and could sustain until the middle of this century. Moreover, the country's economic and social developments are happening in the backdrop of the change in global centre of economic gravity, a theoretical measure of the focal point of global economic activity based on GDP, which has been fast shifting from west to east centering China and India. Thanks to Myanmar's opening up there is a heightened possibility of restoring the ancient physical connectivity with Bangladesh becoming the gateway of South and Southeast Asia. Thus, the country stands a chance to emulate the dynamic growth of East Asia.
However, Bangladesh's stride in political (democratic) transition does not match with its success in economic and social sectors. The State of Governance (SoG) in Bangladesh 2010-11 report of the Institute of Governance Studies (IGS) argued that Bangladesh's democratic transition is incomplete and its democracy is far from being consolidated.
In fact, Bangladesh is not alone in this league. According to the Freedom House, a US-based non-governmental organisation that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights, 117 countries currently practice electoral democracy. However, very few have consolidated democracy by establishing rule of law, civil rights, press freedom, public accountability, among others.
The latest report of the Freedom House indicates that Bangladesh (and 59 other countries) is Partly Free and suffers from corruption, weak rule of law, religious strife and a political landscape in which a single party enjoys dominance despite a certain degree of pluralism.
It is hardly surprising that Bangladesh's democracy now faces a transitional crisis. Its state institutions and political apparatus, including the constitution, have failed to reach consensus on key political issues. The SoG observed that transition to democracy requires a social contract with a country's constitution, providing that contract in the form of fundamental rules. However, the successive governments amended the constitution (including the 15th Amendment), ignoring political consensus.
Owing to institutional constraints to facilitate political transition, Bangladesh has been witnessing a growing role of external actors in its internal affairs. In fact, the major political parties of the country themselves demand external influence. Political observers believe that external actors played a critical role in 2007 (the 1/11 outcome) which, according to the SoG report, was a democratic failure engendered by contending parties that brought the external forces onto the scene. Some political analysts even felt that the event was a necessary 'circuit breaker' to restore political equilibrium.
This time as well, one observes heightened role of external actors given the country's impending political crisis concerning the transfer of power through a credible election. However, taking advantage of political (democratic) deficits and weak bargaining power of Bangladesh, some external players have undermined the country's vital national interests, channeling outcomes in their favour.
This is not to say that external players should not play any role in resolving Bangladesh's political, or any other, crisis. The fact is there had been hardly any time in history that this part of the world was immune from external influence, at least not until 1947. Historically, there was persistent political disunity in this region, and some of the successful unifiers were foreign forces or invaders.
Given the economy's increasing engagement in the global trade, labour market and peace-keeping efforts, as well as investment of global companies in Bangladesh, any adverse development here affects both local and external stakeholders. Bangladeshi garment products are now part and parcel of the global supply chain. Bangladesh is also the largest contributor to the United Nations' Peace-keeping Operations.
Nevertheless, the dilemma for the nation is that there is hardly any homegrown solution to solve the ongoing political impasse. Because the country's politicians are failing to resolve the crisis, the nation's future is now at stake. Unless there is an inclusive election and a peaceful transfer of power, Bangladesh could enter into a cycle of protracted violence that could further weaken the country's institutions, compromise national security and jeopardise economic possibilities.
Pundits see an inevitable involvement of external players to overcome the deadlock. This, however, should not understate the responsibilities of local actors such as politicians, civil society, the media, national security agencies, inter alia. The role of local actors is of importance to check any undue intervention of external actors or to resist the rise of a de facto authoritarian state.
To sum-up, global growth has shifted to the Southeast in the past few decades. Bangladesh is emerging as an important economic player of Global South. It has every potential to play an even greater role in the years to come. However, the nation's economic fortune largely depends on how the country overcomes its current political crisis. Both local and global actors have responsibilities to save this Southern promise.

The writer is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Governance Studies (IGS), Brac University. E-mail: imonsg@gmail.com

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