Manifesto implementation main challenge”. Thus read the headline on the online edition of The Daily Star on January 7. It quoted the General Secretary of Awami League (AL) talking to reporters at Bangabhaban after the oath-taking ceremony of cabinet ministers. The party leader, who is also the Road Transport and Bridges Minister, surely was not engaging in a pre-election empty talk in an effort to rouse up his loyal supporters. His audience, consisting mostly of journalists, cannot be dismissed as uncritical members of the ruling party's fan club. Therefore, it is a fair hypothesis that the minister is aware of the difficulties ahead as the new, as well as more seasoned, ministers take a closer look at the list of promises that the victorious AL party made.
The 21-point AL Manifesto not only pledged to strengthen the rule of law and democracy, but also sets very detailed and substantive targets to keep us on the “Road to Prosperity”. In fact, the manifesto sets some economic goals, notable among them an increase in the GDP growth rate to 10 percent by 2023-24, rapid growth in per capita income, and a significant jump in the rate of investment in the country. The manifesto offered to increase our capita income by almost 50 percent to USD 2750 by 2024 and three-fold to USD 5479 by 2041. The rate of investment is will increase to 40 percent by 2041, according to the manifesto.
In the manifesto, the most important and tangible target aimed by the government is the commitment to push the growth of GDP to double digits by the end of its term in 2023-24. In fact, in an interview with Yuji Kuronuma and Gwen Robinson of Nikkei Asian Review, the PM expressed her confidence that Bangladesh will attain a 10 percent annual growth rate over the next three years. “If elected, I can assure you that the programme we have undertaken will get us up to 10 percent by 2021,” she said.
Achievement of social, economic, and political goals underlying the manifesto are major tasks and the question on everyone's mind has to be, does the government have any clear plans, or does the manifesto provide any guidance on how these targets will be reached? The purpose of these questions is not to cast doubts on official claims but to raise awareness of the many challenges the new regime faces.
Some Bangladeshi experts have voiced their misgivings about the feasibility of many of the listed goals. “There is nothing called impossible but at the same time it is not easy to achieve ambitions. The slip is between the cup and lip,” Dr Ahsan H Mansur, Executive Director of Policy Research Institute (PRI) told a local newspaper. “In the election manifesto, both parties have shown there are significant expectation gaps.”
To take an example, only a few days ago, many local newspapers ran a story to the effect that the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), a London-based think tank, published a report entitled “The World Economic League Table, 2019” which forecast that our GDP growth rate would be robust in the coming years but would still stay in the 7 percent range. To quote from its “Country Forecast” section on Bangladesh, it says, “We expect annual rates of GDP growth to average 7.0 percent between 2018 and 2033. This will see the country climb 19 places in the World Economic League Table to become the world's 24th largest economy by 2033.” Not bad, and should the GDP growth rate jump to 10 percent, we will definitely be ranked much higher, which certainly will be a phenomenal achievement.
A new government must be given a little bit of breathing space, or what is called the “honeymoon period” in the western media, before we hold its foot to the fire. Some of the ministers are new and might take a few weeks before they can fully initiate an action plan to deliver on the various goals. However, each minister took an oath to discharge his/her responsibilities “with honour and dignity and achieve excellence in performance.” The PM has also put the incoming cabinet on notice that the ministers would be judged on the basis of his or her performance. The PM, who will be adorning her chair for an epoch-making fourth time will undoubtedly be shouldering a heavier responsibility given the heightened expectations from her followers as she promised to set new records which will catapult her into our history books.
An item by item analysis of the 2018 election manifesto of AL would be a major undertaking for a weekly column. Nevertheless, it may not be too audacious to take on two of these, corruption and megaprojects, and the nexus of these phenomena. In the 2014 election manifesto, the ruling party promised to control corruption by enforcing the laws on the books, creating social sanctions, and using strong political pressures. Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that corruption is continuing at an unabated scale. It still remains a serious malady, almost like cancer, in our society and during the last five years there has hardly been any movement in mitigating the scourge of corruption. The outgoing finance minister echoed the sentiment expressed by many when he said that we have corruption entrenched in every pore of our society.
While unveiling the AL Manifesto, the PM said, “For the first time in the country, 10 megaprojects are being implemented at a time. We are committed to implementing these megaprojects,” she said while unveiling her party's election manifesto. In fact, a careful examination shows that five (7, 15, 18, 20, and 21) of the 21 points in the manifesto are linked to completion of megaprojects, including the Padma Bridge, highway projects, and improvement of myriad of transportation connecting Dhaka and Chittagong. However, many of these projects have experienced delays, cost overruns, and other forms of problems.
Dr Badiul Alam Majumdar, a columnist of The Daily Star and Secretary, SHUJAN, Citizens for Good Government, offers the following perspective. “Many megaprojects, undertaken in the name of development, have witnessed a repeated escalation in their budgetary allocation. A big chunk of the resources spent on these projects has lined the pockets of the self-seekers. The circle of corruption has expanded considerably” (translated from a Bengali press report).
Against this backdrop, one can only imagine the heavy responsibility that the Road Transport and Bridges Minister bears in his twin roles, as he oversees the implementation of the manifesto and completion of the megaprojects in time and within the budget.
Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist, and Senior Research Fellow, International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think-tank in Boston, USA. His new memoir, “Fairy Tales: Stories from My Life” will be published by Jonantik soon.