BIDS and "fast-research" | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 04, 2007 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, December 04, 2007

Beneath The Surface

BIDS and "fast-research"

The Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) is observing 50 years as the pioneer institution of research in Bangladesh. The then Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE) -- a precursor -- was established in 1957. On behalf of the countrymen, I take the privilege of congratulating my colleagues at Bids on this jubilant occasion. Enpassant, my acquaintance with Bids dates back to the 1970s, when I was a Masters student of Dhaka University and a regular visitor to its rich library.
The country had just gained independence then, and there was need for a lot of research for the rehabilitation of the war-ravaged economy and pathways out of poverty. At that time, the institute was located at Adamjee Court, Motijheel.
This citadel of research used to attract a lot of brilliant students of our time. Dr. A. Ghafur, Abu Abdullah, S.R. Osmani, Mahabub Hossain, Q.K. Ahmed, Asaduzzaman, Omar Haider Chowdhury, Zaid Bakht -- to mention a few -- are still in my memory for their laudable research outputs.
More importantly, the institute had been headed by eminent economists like Nurul Islam, Rehman Sobhan, Swadesh Bose, Mahabub Hossain, Abu Abdullah, whose name and fame crossed the frontiers of Bangladesh.
Allow me to present my position on Bids. I was the Chairman of the Department of Economics at Jahangirnagar University when one of my most favourite and brilliant students approached me for the position of a lecturer in my department. He had stood first all along and duly deserved to be so. But I refused and asked him to join Bids. Apparently he was unhappy -- and perhaps cursed me -- lest I recruit a less qualified person, letting him to languish at Agargaon.
The reason for rejecting him was that, I thought, universities were no more breeding grounds for brilliant students. Painfully, they have become places for partisan politics where one can "publish and perish" unless one knows the pathways of pampering the powers.
That was not the case with Bids, I thought at that time. Finally the fellow joined Bids, and I am told that he has already excelled in research, published articles in reputed journals and his merit has also managed for him handsome money! I am happy to note that my impression about Bids, by and large, continues to hold so even now.
In the few years after liberation, the successive governments of Bangladesh used to draw a lot of inputs for policy-making purposes from Bids. As I recall, the findings from Bids research used to carry a lot of credibility at that time.
Unfortunately, the trend was broken when the economy became hostage to policy dictates from outside. That is, the role of donors in the policy-making processes increased manifold. Of course, that is not to argue that donors needed no research. In fact, for optimising resources and time, they looked for "fast research," like food supplied in "fast food" shops.
The demand so created led to the growth of private consultancy firms to supply the "fast research" in a very cost-effective fashion -- the quality question notwithstanding. That is, perhaps, the beginning of this premier organisation's losing importance in the policy making process and taking a back seat.
Another reason should also be cited: The protectionist and anti-reform stances of some of the researchers there also gave the impression to the public that the institute was a breeding ground of "mercantilist" economics.
To add insult to the injury, some of the famous economists also joined the consultancy market and left Bids for establishing shops for "fast research." Most of the funding of their organisations comes from donors (although they denounce the donors).
Nevertheless, a group of eminent economists led by Quazi Shabuddin (now DG) is working there and contributing to original research. Meantime, Bids also got involved in consultancy services as a source of its economic survival, and sauce for its researchers. Needless to mention, the shift has heavily cost Bids in terms of original research outputs.
Bangladesh needs to keep Bids as a front runner in the realm of social science research in the country. In other countries also, such organisations are "protected" by governments to derive inputs for policy-making purposes.
Bids should also survive as a centre of excellence in research by providing its scholars due opportunity to stay there. The organisation has to grow as an indigenous supplier of basic socio-economic information to the government, and help policy makers with suitable alternatives available in a regime of scarce resources.
As I reckon, "fast research" has its utility in the domain of short-run project preparation, but could be counter productive in a state of medium and long-run policy choices for the country.
Needless to mention here, perhaps, that the country has already suffered several setbacks from the research obtained from private firms. In a globalised world, where the dividends depend more on negotiating capacity, one could hardly ignore the importance of such an institution.
In this context, we can possibly suggest that the government create a special fund for this institution and provide full-autonomy so that it can regain its lost heritage in the realm of social sciences research in the country. As Mr. Sayeduzzaman (former minister for finance) opined, Bangladesh Bank could also divert a small drop of its annual profit towards Bids so that it can serve as a catalyst in its own right.
Abdul Bayes is a Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University.

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