No two countries that share borders are more different from each other than Mexico and the United States. The contrast between the quality of life in these two countries could not be starker. A Mexican diplomat once said to his American counterpart, “You see, in America you exploit nature. But in our country we exploit our fellow humans.”
But in Bangladesh, we exploit both like there is no tomorrow. We have created a culture where every group exploits the other for personal gains. Newspapers are full of reports of factory owners not paying their workers on time, and abusing their employees without compunction. In a bizarre twist, the commonly oppressed workers become the oppressors in the transport sector—bus drivers paralyse the country with strikes, if the public condemns and protests against the death of passengers and pedestrians due to negligent bus driving.
Corruption, embezzlement and fraud exist in every country, however. It is regrettably the way human nature functions. A successful society can thus be achieved by minimising all such negative aspects of mankind. But Bangladesh is far from that; our social problems have gotten out of hand. Where else can you find diagnostic centres deliberately misleading dying patients with erroneous reports, law enforcement agencies harassing victims who come to report rape and kitchens in upscale restaurants dirtier than public toilets? Everything that is decent in the human spirit is in decline.
Food is one of the basic things that a society has to get right. Our neighbouring nation India is well known for its quality of food, and continues to attract food-lovers and chefs from around the world for culinary adventures. Famous American chef, Anthony Bourdain remained amused by India’s extraordinary culinary landscape till his last breath. Pakistani gastronomy is no less exciting. Celebrated Canadian “food ranger,” Trevor James, travelled to Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad and Rawalpindi to explore the Pakistani cuisine, and has praised the wildly varying textures, huge selections, thrilling blend of spices, and delicious flavours of the dishes. And before that, American food vlogger (video blogger) Mark Wiens complimented the roadside dhabas across Pakistan, that serve delicacies cooked from fresh ingredients, and sold at reasonable prices.
There are countries that are poorer than Bangladesh. There are societies that are reeling from wars, where the mere existence of its institutions and enterprises is chronically threatened. But nowhere in the world can one witness businesses engaging in the most unethical practices, such as putting toxic chemicals in food. The infamous credo “Greed, for the lack of a better term, is good” espoused by fictional character Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film Wall Street seems to be our new motto.
In the 18th century, the father of economics Adam Smith hypothesised that if everyone in a free and open competition seeks economic self-interest, he or she will, unknowingly or unintentionally, also be serving the larger interest of the society as whole, as if prodded by an invisible hand. But this theory cannot describe Bangladesh. Instead, US sociologist Russell Hardin’s statement that “All too often we are helped less by the benevolent invisible hand than we are injured by the malevolent back of that hand,” perfectly aligns with the prudent, socioeconomic state of this nation.
Much of the debate over how to address this crisis has been focused on a single word: regulation, and for good reasons. Bad behaviour by unscrupulous businesses landed us in this mess—so it seems rather obvious that the way to curb it is to create and vigorously enforce new rules proscribing such behaviour. Unfortunately, the problem is a bit more complicated than that. The food sector consists of millions of transactions every day. In an overpopulated country like ours, there can never be enough inspectors and police to ensure that every food producing company and retail outlet abides by all ethical and legal standards.
Besides, those tasked with enforcing laws are themselves not immune to corruption, and hence, they too must be supervised and held accountable, and so on. Only regulation, therefore, cannot solve this multilayered problem. A far more extensive approach is necessary to make businesses internalise an ethical mindset by truly understanding that moral behaviour is not only required by the law but is also the right thing to do.
The only way to instill this sense in business leaders is through education. The function of education is to create human beings who are inclusive and intelligent. Our current education system focuses on only one dimension of the human intelligence, memory, and thereby forgets other important traits. But it’s time to broaden our outlook, and include all dimensions of the human mind. The good news is that these dimensions already exist in ourselves. The key is to retrieve them like we access Wi-Fi, but the challenge is that we need a password. Education gives us this password. It is unsurprising that top business schools in the world such as Harvard, INSEAD and MIT are now learning spiritual traditions and exploring how to develop well-rounded human beings, instead of money making machines.
There was a time when religious leadership was the most powerful. Then with the build-up of military industrial complexes, it was the turn of the generals. Slowly, nations pledged their allegiance to leaders who gave them democracy from the iron hand of communism. And now, it is the business leaders who are influencing policies around the world. For example, Americans have elected a businessman to serve as their president. In India, the Ambanis and the Tatas arguably have more power than most politicians. In Bangladesh, as many as 182 businessmen have been elected as members of parliament in the 11th general election. This amounts to more than 60 percent of the total number of lawmakers.
Thus, the world is moving towards a direction where business will become the dominant force. Countries are using business models to address social problems. And it makes sense why. Business, by its own virtue, is transparent, democratic and fluid—willing to go anywhere. These values have to be reintroduced and drilled into the business consciousness.
It is imperative that the business sector becomes a sensitive force, not a destructive one. Right now, business owners are only concerned about maximising their own profits, and are ignominiously heedless to the society around them. This has to change. Business leaders need to start caring about the well-being of people. Where will such leaders come from? The task is for the education system to start ensuring future business leaders are aware of their own social responsibilities, and understand the importance of moral sense in the corporate industry.
Amitava Kar is a mechanical engineer.