Elites are capturing the country’s democratic institutions for their own business interests, reducing space for the poor and the marginalised to speak up for themselves.
“The problem of countries like Bangladesh is that we are witnessing not just inequalities in income and social disparity, but we are basically seeing how elites are really appropriating political power. This is manifested in the composition of parliament,” Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) Chairman Prof Rehman Sobhan said at a programme yesterday.
He also said the main source of income of the majorities of the parliamentarians was business.
Prof Rehman was speaking at a dialogue on “What type of democratic practices are suitable for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)”. The programme was organised by the CPD at Gardenia Hall in the capital’s Gulshan.
Democratic institutions have become “subject to elite capture”, he said, adding, “Not just here, it is [happening] in many countries in other regions, including Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa”.
The problem is people with resources get elected and then they use the public mandate as an instrument for their businesses, instead of using the political power for implementing the SDGs.
Their primary mission tends to be private accumulation, or in fact, building up resources in support of particular parties, he added.
His comments came during the dialogue between participants.
The participants said Bangladesh suffers from democracy deficits and that SDGs could not be achieved without ensuring peoples’ participation, civil, and political rights and rule of law.
They said issues of public interests are now least discussed and debated in parliament, which should not be the case.
Lawmaker Rashed Khan Menon said the main theme of the SDGs is nobody should be left behind.
“But if we look at the [proposed] budget placed in parliament and the discussions on it, we will find that many of the people are left behind,” he said.
“The parliament that we have, I would like to say, does not discuss real issues. The issues about the poor people,” said Menon, president of Workers Party of Bangladesh.
He cited a Dhaka University research that said parliament, on an average, spends only three minutes every day to discuss issues relating to the poor.
Menon, also a former minister, said wealth was concentrated in very few number of people. By contrast, the wealth of the poor was depreciating every year, he added.
He said there was a debate in the country about development and democracy and added that those two should go hand in hand.
Inequality is growing and wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few. The decision-making power is in the hands of a very small group of people and this is dangerous,” he said.
Saber Hossain Chowdhury, chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, said democracy should be participatory.
He said SDG-16, which focuses on promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies, was an enabler to achieve other SDGs. “If we do not achieve SDG-16, we are not going to achieve other goals,” he said.
René Holenstein, ambassador of Switzerland to Bangladesh, said people were interested in participating in the management of public affairs.
“What we need to do is to shape this democratic aspiration into rules and regulation and implement them,” he said, adding, “Accountable, inclusive, transparent, and effective institutions are key to achieving the SDGs.”
CPD Distinguished Fellow Prof Rounaq Jahan said Bangladesh suffers from democracy deficit and that there has been erosion of the rule of law, and fundamental freedom over the years.
She said five things -- civil and political rights, rule of law, inclusion, participation of people, transparency and accountability -- need to be ensured for achieving the SDGs.
Rounaq also recommended decentralisation and creation of an atmosphere of free discussions and debates.
Tofail Ahmed, vice-chancellor of Britannia University, Cumilla, said SDG-16 is the key to achieving all other SDGs.
“It is a transformative agenda,” he said.
Gonoshasthaya Kendra (GK) Trustee Zafrullah Chowdhury, said the real benefits of the SDGs will not come unless there is accountability and democracy.
“The constitution says all powers of the republic are vested on the people. But in reality, all powers lie with the executive and bureaucrats. There is centralisation and all powers are concentrated in one place,” he said.
“In real democracy, the main thing is freedom of speech, accountability, and we have to do that freely, openly. Otherwise, SDGs are all paperwork,” he said.
Peter Niggli, Swiss author, journalist and development policy expert, also spoke at the event moderated by CPD Executive Director Fahmida Khatun.