By Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan (Retd)
In what resembled a now-familiar Trumpian outburst, the finance minister binned a report of the Independent Review of Bangladesh's Development (IRBD), a review of the country's development produced by the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD). The IRBD is an empirical study that the renowned think tank has been publishing periodically since 1995. He was not alone—being joined by the commerce minister—in heaping criticism and ascribing motives, including the timing of the publication of the report.
It is difficult to reason the reaction of the two very senior ministers of the government to the CPD report on the state of the economy in the first half of fiscal 2018, and the prognosis for the second half of the current fiscal year, based on the strengths and weaknesses determined on the basis of data obtained from, primarily, national and international sources.
To us, such reactions are very familiar. The response, at best a knee-jerk one, given the comments of the two ministers, is characteristic of the usual diatribes thrown against anyone, or anything, like this report, that is not considered to be in consonance with the views and (mis)perceptions of the government, or does not heap plaudits only for what the government has achieved. The same fate befalls the Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) whenever it comes out with its reports that have to do, particularly, with good governance, opacity in the functioning of the administration and corruption.
Regrettably, such outbursts seldom carry logic and are never backed by counter-facts, as outbursts like this, compelled by the heart and not counselled by the head, are wont to be. In all honesty, the ministers should have complimented the report instead of excoriating it and binning an objective exercise out of hand. Even a cursory look at the report would have elicited a different, and perhaps a more balanced, response.
Regrettably too, the government has reconfirmed what the common public conjures up in their minds after every reaction from ministers—the total lack of tolerance of criticism, unwillingness to accept critiques of any kind, and political branding of an organisation. All three phenomena are alarming and not very conducive to the spread of the kind of political culture that we all wish to see in this country, but which continues to elude us.
The well-reputed research organisation has been virtually equated with a one-eyed jack—it being unable, according to them, to see the achievements of the economy. But that is not what the report informs us. In fact the very initial part of the operative sections enumerates the attainments and the successes of the economy like the GDP growth as well as the per capita rise in income. It also highlights positively the export growth rate.
But the CPD would have failed in its responsibility if it had not pointed out a glaring anomaly—that despite the growth and income rise, the rate of decline in poverty has reduced. For example, during the period of 2010-16, national poverty rate declined by 1.2 percentage points per annum, contrasted with the decline by 1.8 and 1.7 percentage points per annum respectively for the 2000-05 and 2005-10 periods. Worse still, the rate of decline in urban poverty being only one-fourth of decline in rural poverty per annum during the period 2010-16. And that is something the government should take note of.
That is exactly what the job of a think tank worth its salt is. The CPD has rightly cautioned the government of the likely impediments to achieving the aims of the budget and the SDGs; it also gives pointers and suggestions that would help the government to mitigate some of the centrifugal pressures. For example, can anyone in his or her proper frame of mind fault the Centre's report on the banking sector? This is the most ill-disciplined sector that has wrought havoc on the country's economy. This is a fact that has been acknowledged by the finance minister himself. Thus, one is surprised when the minister says that the country needs more private banks, when he is on record saying that it is because of the sponsors that most of the private banks have suffered the fate that the badly performing private banks have.
Not only has a scholarly exercise been rubbished and discarded out of hand by the government without really appreciating the real purpose of any such exercise of a research organisation like the CPD, it has also been politically labelled. We are told, by the ministers, that the said report echoes BNP's position. If that be the case really, it will be perhaps in order to remind the ministers that the BNP commands the support and the vote of 30-33 percent of the voters. That amounts to a very good portion of the adult, intelligent populace of the country. And that should not escape the attention of the ruling party.
We would like to see a scholarly and well-informed work repudiated, if at all, by scholarly and well-informed arguments. The ministers' comments resemble nothing of the kind. And that is what is so very worrisome.
The Daily Star, January 20, 2018