On March 22–24, a three-day conference on visualising Bangladesh in the next 30 years was organised at Yale University by Bangladesh Development Initiative (BDI), an organisation of academics of Bangladeshi origin in North America. It was an occasion to share and debate progress and challenges of development in Bangladesh. More interesting, however, were the sub-texts voiced, often on the sidelines, about the contrary narratives and whether these could be reconciled to forge a middle ground.
With Yale University's South Asia Studies Council providing the venue, the biennial BDI conference attracted some 200 overseas Bangladeshi academics in North America and a sprinkling of academics, scholars and finance-sector leaders from Bangladesh and other countries. Senior bankers were prominent in the contingent from home.
Keynote speeches highlighted economic growth performance, development indicators that surpassed South Asian neighbours, climate change policy and planning, the young population's demographic dividend potential, and the humanitarian stand of Bangladesh in sheltering a million Rohingyas, victims of ethnic cleansing. An upbeat message was expected and appropriate.
Some 75 conference papers on diverse topics, but related to some aspect of Bangladesh development, presented a more nuanced picture of the gaps between ambition and expression of intention on the one hand, and the deficits in commitment, good faith efforts and human capital resources on the other. Some direct references and more allusions pointed to how political culture and social values strayed far from the ideals and principles that had inspired the Liberation War and the birth of the nation.
Dr Nazrul Islam of the UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs argued for focus on the efficiency of public investment and stemming capital flight, inclusiveness and social cohesion, taking advantage of the demographic dividend, environment and climate change action, and overcoming institutional weaknesses at the local level. He advocates for proportional representation in the national parliament, unified services of acceptable quality in education and health for all, and gram parishad with authority and resources for each village.
Dr Mustafizur Rahman, distinguished fellow of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, taking SDG 2030 as the frame of reference, also emphasised governance and institutions as challenges. These obstacles stand in the way of producing skills and jobs, promoting equitable growth and taking advantage of the emerging global trading scenario.
In a panel with Harry Blair of Yale, Naomi Hossain of University of Sussex and Geof Wood of University of Bath, it was observed that “the political structure of Bangladesh has deteriorated to the point of dysfunctionality, while the country has achieved truly impressive socio-economic progress” giving rise to a “Bangladesh Paradox.” Do the acute governance challenges—as state institutions, such as the banking sector, are abused by an elite with impunity and the national agenda determined by vested interests—make future progress unsustainable? Even if GDP growth continues, can progress be measured by a narrow economic metric ignoring the high costs in disparity, unrest, insecurity, loss of trust in institutions, and undermining human rights and human dignity, they ask.
The Rohingya refugee conundrum attracted attention. To the credit of Bangladesh, a humane position has been taken, unlike most of the richer and powerful countries of the world. But are we headed for a Palestianisation of the Rohingya refugees, with no end in sight? Is enough being done to push through international diplomacy and by all other means to uphold the only viable solution—a safe zone under international supervision for the Rohingyas in the Rakhine province of Myanmar with full citizenship rights?
Meanwhile, the refugee camps cannot be just human warehouses; basic human rights and dignity have to be maintained. There are distinct protocols about children's right to education and care, even if they are refugees, under the Convention of the Rights of the Child, which has been committed to by Bangladesh and has to be observed.
A panel comprising Sajeda Amin of the Population Council, Barrister Sara Hossain of Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust and Zaki Wahhaj of University of Kent, spoke about Bangladesh's persistent high child marriage rate despite progress in education and increased women's economic participation. Some in the audience wondered if the political culture of accommodating the conservative forces remained a barrier to progress.
The panel of the Bangladesh Environment Network underscored that economic growth plans and strategy must prevent continuing environmental degradation and promote energy sources without further damage to a fragile ecosystem. It comes out against the USD 1.5 billion Rampal coal-fired power plant being built near the Sundarbans, which “risks significant damage to the world's largest mangrove forest—a UNESCO world heritage site.”
It also observed that the Rooppur nuclear power plant being set up “in one of the most densely populated areas of the world poses significant radiation, health, safety and contamination risks.” It was also noted that the initial cost estimate of 3–4 billion dollars for the project has already escalated to 20 billion dollars, thus turning the project into a potential economic risk for the country.
Given the rapid progress in renewable sources including solar and artificial photosynthesis technology, Bangladesh could be a global role model of commitment to and investment in renewable energy, it was suggested.
With the discussion dominated by economic and infrastructure topics, this writer spoke on a contrarian theme of ethics and values and how these are nurtured among the next generation. The challenge clearly is how, with a general erosion of values in society, schools can help young people to create a moral compass to guide themselves. Can teachers be the role model, which they are not at present? We need to re-imagine the teaching profession and engage in out-of-box thinking.
Korvi Rakshand Dhrubo, founder of the Jaago Foundation, spoke in the same vein about how the youth's idealism and energy has turned into a movement of volunteerism and empathy. It provided a moral direction to the youth—those who helped and who were helped.
Iqbal Z Quadir, senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, had helped bring mobile phone to rural Bangladesh through Grameen. He explained how the economic paradigm of the dependence on foreign capital to create employment and growth may be turned on its head by mobilising the population to create value and capital for investment as has been done by the massive penetration of mobile phones in Bangladesh.
On the sidelines and away from the meeting rooms, the conversation turned to how the contrasting narratives reflected a partial truth and how a partisan view hindered real solutions. It is incumbent upon the political leadership to work with the academia, civil society and the communications media to reconcile the opposing narratives and find the middle ground.
Prof Jamilur Reza Choudhury, National Professor and Vice Chancellor of Asia Pacific University, was honoured by BDI with an award for lifetime contribution and achievement. He spoke through Skype from Dhaka about the importance of sustainable infrastructure development. Prof Choudhury represents best the middle ground finding workable solutions, taking all into account with fairness and honesty.
Dr Manzoor Ahmed is professor emeritus at BRAC University.