Priorities at hand
The governance of a country requires setting priorities and implementing a plan to advance the prioritised goals. The purpose of this commentary is to explore key dimensions of this process.
Priorities matter since they are to guide the operational dispositions of or governance by the government, in legislations, policies, development plans, budgets, and various projects, initiatives and campaigns during the current and expected future mandates. They should simultaneously reflect the ruling party's comprehensive vision and its deliverables to the people.
The defining characteristic of a set of priorities is its rank ordering of the issues, from the highest to the lowest.
As a matter of practice, however, only a short list of key priorities is often identified by a government, without any ordering. Once the key government priorities are determined, they should then be reflected as such in the actual workings of the government. Without this essential consistency, the country could very well wander into precipitous circumstances.
Bangladesh examples of grave inconsistency or lack of priority include the Padma Bridge financing, the banking scandals and the RMG factory fires.
Of course, the priorities themselves need to be consistent with each other. Absurd disregard for this consistency is illustrated by the recent government's approval of a host of new private banks while forcibly acquiring greater control of the member-borrower owned Grameen Bank.
Similarly, the government continues to rely heavily on the state owned commercial banks for its own finances and then defy greater regulatory power of the central bank over these banks; despite their chronic poor performance and massive banking scandals.
Setting key priorities and acting upon them involves tradeoffs that can be costly and unpalatable. An important area of priority tradeoff in Bangladesh is clean governance, the lack of which has been a constant enigma and a severe impediment towards harnessing the development potential of the country.
As influence peddling by the members of the ruling regime is the most dominant and prominent source of governance failures, a ruling party may find it extremely unpalatable and even unacceptable for the long-term survival of the party to seriously arrest and punish influence peddling by its own members.
Instead, strategically, it dawns as an attractive tactic to ceaselessly persecute the current opposition for their alleged misdeeds when in power previously. One potential way of resolving this dilemma has been discussed elsewhere [M. Chaudhury, How to establish clean governance, Financial Express, September 08, 2012].
A very challenging aspect of prioritisation is that the priorities may vary over time depending on the needs and aspirations of citizens, evolution of the philosophies of political parties, and the ever shifting global developments.
For Bangladesh, political self-determination and cultural liberty followed by economic fairness in the spirit of socialism were the overarching priorities during and immediately after the liberation war in 1971. But in 2013, the prioritisation process needs to start with the priorities of the post-liberation generations of Bangladeshis in the new millennium.
The need for this crucial transition is best understood by noting that the remarkable economic and socio-cultural achievements of Bangladesh since liberation are at odds with and at risk due to chronic and severe political turbulence, governance failures coupled with rampant corruption, alarming deterioration in the sanctity and security of life for ordinary citizens especially in the urban areas, fatally compromised consumer food chain, daily life and businesses paralysed by sharply reduced mobility and vastly inadequate power supply, and an ever shrinking stock of cultivable land and other non-renewable resources including below and above ground waters.
Lastly, the key priorities need to be designated as immediate, medium-term (five to ten years) and long-term. Some priority issues such as transportation, health and education infrastructures can be addressed over a medium-term while others, such as power and water supply, can only be satisfactorily addressed over an extended period of time.
Nonetheless it is important that the work starts today as the first phase of a planned capacity that should prove to be excess capacity for a long time since adding or reconstructing such capacities is usually expensive and time consuming, and may even be nearly impossible (e.g., reconstructing Dhaka city with high rises and wide boulevards). The London tube and the New York City bridges and subway system are worth noting examples in this regard.
Arguably the greatest risks to the well-being of future generations of Bangladeshis are the lack of adequate power supply and physical mobility network.
Almost surely, the immediate priorities need to include:
Redeployment of the law enforcement forces (and possibly the BGB and the armed forces) from managing political activities and protecting corrupt ministers and government officials to improve the sanctity of life and security for ordinary citizens and safety of the food chain;
Ensuring compliance with the governance demands of the international financiers so that the Padma Bridge and numerous other development initiatives may progress;
Improving safety measures at the all-important RMG factories; and
Privatisation of the state owned commercial banks or failing that allowing the Bangladesh Bank to exercise stringent regulatory oversight over them.
Additionally, the prosecution of the war criminals of 1971 should be fast tracked to serve the long-awaited justice once for all so that the country can stop fighting the old battles and instead engage, without distraction, in the challenges of the new millennium.
To conclude, it is time that the political and governance dialogue in Bangladesh shift from litigation of the record of prior regimes and constant mud slinging to articulating visions of managing the present and the future, preferably through a set of mutually consistent key priorities (immediate, medium and long-term) and action plans.
Eyes glued to the rear view mirror may not be a smart way to drive a nation forward.
The writer is a Professor of Practice in Finance at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.
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