Issues that demand inclusion in the development debate
The reason behind the creation of the concept of Least Developed Countries (LDC) by the UN in the 1960s was to identify a set of nations whose development struggles were not solely based on their own shortcomings, but due to other structural constraints. Therefore, it was decided that the global trading system had to be adjusted in a way that would grant LDC's preferential market access for them to catch-up in terms of development.
Bangladesh is now on the cusp of graduating from an LDC to a developing nation. What that essentially means, as explained by Debapriya Bhattacharya, a member of the United Nations Committee for Development Policy (UN-CDP)—which determines the conditions that a country needs to meet to graduate from LDC status—is that the country has acquired "a seal of global approval regarding its development achievements".
During the second triennial review by the UN-CDP between February 22-26, 2021, Bangladesh received the final endorsement to graduate. Its per capita income, which had to be above USD 1,220, stands at over USD 2,000 today. It also managed to satisfy the UN threshold levels for the human asset index and the economic vulnerability index. Thus, in terms of development, there is no denying that Bangladesh has made remarkable progress. But at the same time, the country very unfortunately seems to be regressing in other ways.
The rights to freedom of speech and expression are being routinely violated either directly or indirectly. Space for dissent has been shrinking. Laws like the Digital Security Act, which are largely unpopular with the people, civil society, media, etc. have become popular among politicians and top government officials, who ignore the people's call to scrap such laws and, instead, regularly defend their repressive use. That itself is a clear indication of how government officials have forgotten the all-important fact that they are just public "servants", who have no legitimacy to act like rulers in a country that is supposed to have a government of the people, by the people, for the people.
The fact that public servants can carry on like this demonstrates another sad reality, which is that despite Bangladesh's progress over the years, it has not managed to develop effective democratic governance institutions, nor managed to establish, in reality, the concept of separation of powers between the different branches of government that are supposed to hold each other accountable. In the absence of effective institutions, no nation can function for a sustained time-period without sliding into despotism, that is one of the great lessons that history teaches us. So, is there any reason for us to believe that we would be an exception to that rule?
What also commonly happens in the absence of effective institutions is that corruption becomes widespread—like what we are currently witnessing—and political power gets out of control and becomes overbearing and, eventually, dictates the accrual of economic power. This obviously raises the stakes of coming to power, and competition for office becomes an existential necessity, as all parties are aware of the fact that the winner will take all, and the loser will have no institutional protection and will be at the absolute mercy of the winner—this, too, we have seen happening since the so-called restoration of democracy back in 1991.
Even if the current party in office is filled with benevolent leaders, the lack of effective institutions should terrify us all. After all, is there any guarantee that the next party to assume office will be just as beneficent? Even if the current government does not allow for the DSA to be misused—a law that lawyers and other experts themselves have repeatedly said is vague and can be easily abused—is there any guarantee that future governments will be just as merciful and upright? Finally, why should the people be dependent on the charity of any government to begin with? The purpose of a constitution and of a parliamentary form of government is to ensure that even the most incompetent and immoral government cannot do harm to the nation and its people. But for that we need independent and effective governance institutions, that will safeguard the constitutional rights of its citizens, especially from the overreaches of the government itself.
This brings us to the absence of democratic ideals in government and in society in general. There is a reason why great minds and moral individuals throughout history have studied and promoted ideas on statecraft, that continues to be discussed all around the world today. There is a reason why they shared similar ideals on how a peaceful and prosperous state should function—at least at the core of it. Unfortunately, these ideals are inadequately understood, promoted and even valued in our nation today. But without these guiding principles being at the centre around which our nation functions, can we truly claim to have "developed" a nation full of independent individuals, who share a common belief in the rule of law and are guaranteed justice?
Most certainly not. And hence, even though Bangladesh has moved forward in terms of development—and in other spheres such as economic growth—there are a number of areas where it has yet to develop to the extent that is necessary for this development to be meaningful, or even sustainable. Today, as Bangladesh graduates from an LDC, the (external) structural constraints that once held it back can no longer be used as an excuse for us to justify our failures as we move forward. That is why, it is now more important than ever for these issues to be brought into our development debates. And for us to try and develop these basic frameworks that are necessary for any successful and sustainable nation, that we have so far ignored.
Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.
His Twitter handle is: @EreshOmarJamal