I am sitting at my desk, with a hot cup of tea, peering out at the foggy winter morning enveloping the placid Gulshan Lake. As I reminisce about the events of the past year, I am overwhelmed by the deep realisation that soon the curtain will come down on 2019. The reflective mood, tinted with nostalgia, is engendered by thoughts about the hopes and expectations for 2020. It’s a momentous year, as it marks the beginning of a whole new decade.
2019 has been a mixed bag, both domestically and at the global level. Bangladesh accelerated its upward trajectory of economic growth outshining the performance of all other South Asian countries. Poverty levels have declined, but social equity still dodges us. Talking about social equity, my thoughts immediately revert to the man who strived to change the lives of the nation’s disempowered and disadvantaged. On December 22, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, more fondly known as Abed Bhai, the founder and mentor of the largest NGO, BRAC, passed away, leaving the country bereft of an elder statesman, social reformer, and above all a strong voice for the poor and underprivileged. Abed Bhai’s work at BRAC resonated with global leaders, development practitioners, and social activists. He not only transformed the lives of millions of Bangladeshi women and children, but also put Bangladesh on the world’s socio-economic map. Abed Bhai, you will be missed, especially now when the world needs agents of social change.
Analysing the past is easier than predicting the future, even for the most prescient. However, if recent events are predictors of future trends, the portents for 2020 seem disturbing, to say the least. 2019 has been, as one scholar described it, the year of “democratic recession”. In the US, President Trump continued to shock us with his unconstitutional acts. His blatant abuse of power compelled Congress to impeach him in December. People around the world may consider Donald Trump’s impeachment as a US domestic issue. But this is certainly not the case if one looks at his errant behaviour with a wider lens. His monarchical actions and total disregard for democratic norms have encouraged leaders in several countries to trample on the Constitution, attack the judiciary, and railroad discriminatory legislation. Close to home, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi passed an unprecedented Citizenship Amendment Bill that provides a path to Indian citizenship to all minorities fleeing persecution, except Muslims. His ruling party also set up a National Citizenship Register that seems to specifically disenfranchise the Muslim minority. Prime Minister Orban of Hungary went against the judicial system to pass drastic laws to weaken opposition after their success at the local level. China has interned three million Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps, claiming that the action is, in effect, a “re-education programme”. Myanmar’s Ang San Su Kyi, the “Nobel Peace Prize” winner, staunchly defended her government’s mass killing, torture and rape against a Muslim minority group, the Rohingyas, who were forced to flee to Bangladesh. All these transgressions were undertaken with impunity. At least that is what seems to be the case.
The question for us looking forward into 2020 is: Will there be an open resistance to thwart these political excesses? The trends do not bode well, but there has been some ray of hope in the form of protests against the ruling elite and the prevailing status quo by ordinary people. What is encouraging is that these have been spearheaded by students and young people, and not by political parties. Also, they centre on issues that affect the common folk. This means that there is an increased awareness among the youth about problems that negatively impact the future of their world and not that of special interest groups. It is encouraging to note that these actions are global and devoid of political, ethnic, or racial overtones. In India, for example, the mass movement against the unconstitutional citizenship bill is led by students, intelligentsia and local communities. The recent civil disobedience movements in Chile, Beirut, Sudan and Algeria have a common thread—the young are raising their voices to counter corruption and unfairness of the ruling class. Hong Kong is again an example of mass protests resisting China’s attempt to curb its autonomy.
A reason why youth has become more active in bringing about change is because technology has enabled information sharing and it is easier to mobilise opposition. The widespread and instant interchange of ideas has also made today’s young people more tolerant, and knowledgeable about the changes needed for the welfare of the masses. For example, 16-year-old activist, Greta Thunberg, spearheaded the world youth climate movement and issued a stern rebuke to world leaders about its threat to our future. Again, the #MeToo movement has acted as a catalyst for many young women to participate in politics, especially at the grassroots level. They now make up a good chunk of elected lawmakers and members of parliament the world over. This has translated in more awareness and positive actions to fight discrimination and sexual assault, and demand equal rights for women. When I look at these developments my spirits are buoyed, for they have transcended the boundaries of nation, race and class to champion a common cause for the benefit of the majority.
Despite the general despondency, the outlook for the future may not be that grim. Quoting Steven Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now, Bill Gates points out that the global average IQ score of children is rising by about 3 IQ points every decade, probably due to improved nutrition and greater exposure. Gates also writes: “Our world today encourages abstract thought from a young age, and it’s making us smarter.” If this is true, we have reason to be optimistic—after all these smart kids, with high IQs will be positioned to bring about increased sharing of ideas, tolerance and innovative thinking.
On a personal note, I have decided to look at the glass half full. With time, I have realised that most external problems aren’t really a big deal. The only thing that matters is inner peace, which is mostly determined by successful relationships and a sense of contentment. Recently, I heard someone say that the three most important words for achieving a state of equilibrium are: “Let it go”. For, when we let things go, we begin to look at our world with a different perspective. And, we realise that “with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world”.
Happy New Year!!
Milia Ali is a Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.