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What do we really want in a finance minister?

  • Published at 12:00 am February 20th, 2018
What do we really want in a finance minister?
With the elections coming up and the incumbent Finance Minister Abul Muhith having expressed his intention to retire, there have been lots of hallway discussions along these lines: Who is going to be our next finance minister? And if, by chance, the opposition manages to form a functional party again, who is going to be their candidate for finance minister? Are we going to see a fitting replacement for Tajuddin Ahmad or Saifur Rahman -- the defining figures of the Bangladeshi finance ministry? The other day a friend asked me: “What qualification does one require to become a minister in Bangladesh?” I was very intrigued as I’d never come across a job description for a cabinet minister in Bangladesh or, more precisely, the finance minister of our republic where private sector, private equity, and start-ups are increasingly taking centre stage. I replied: “Possibly, he or she must be a member of the parliament. If not elected, the person must be an expert on something or a retired senior civil servant with good command over ministry activities.” The gentleman smiled and cited a few examples where the cabinet minister was not even a graduate or, for almost all his life, was nowhere near involved with the activities of the ministry he was running.
We have hitherto never tried to actually develop or empower political leaders to do a good ministerial job
Though my friend was pushing me hard, he knew that in Bangladesh, cabinet posts were cherry-picked by the prime minister. If you are a party loyalist or an elected MP from a politically important constituency or region, you have every chance to be picked today or tomorrow as a minister. Even if the newspapers publish cartoons of you, don’t worry. As long as the prime minister is happy with you and you can make the journalist out to be someone who is against the political party you belong to, your life is safe and you can have fun. You can even joke about the miseries of the common people at their expense. The other day, I was on a television talk-show discussing our country’s economic challenges and possible ways out. The host was referring to various newspaper discussions and hallways debates holding the finance minister responsible for all the tensions within and the pressures on our economy and the apparent failure of the ruling party to tackle the economic challenges in Bangladesh. In reply, I said it was perhaps unfair to pass the buck entirely to the finance minister or even his ministry. We are certain that the level of support and leadership from the “top office” of the republic could have been much better. This issue is difficult to ignore when we see many in the regulatory bodies, businesses, and political hierarchy often bypass the finance ministry and undesirably crowd into the top office. But the host continued with the discussion, even after the show had ended, she insisted that we desperately needed a finance minister who could drive our economy to its next possible trajectory, to that of a middle income country, keeping private sectors at the “centre of the plate” without losing sight of the under-privileged. I was thinking out loud: “If we ever put up a job posting for ‘Finance Minister of Bangladesh,’ what should the credentials of the aspirants be? Should s/he be a chartered accountant? A retired civil servant? Should s/he be from a multilateral agency background? Should s/he be an economist or an MBA having served with a global corporation? Should s/he be from the private sector? Should the person be elected through voting or would anyone from any background do?” Preparing a job watch for the finance minister in a transition economy like Bangladesh is easier said than done. In the past, we’ve put economists on this job and they goofed up; we also put up retired civil servants, they were okay but achieved nothing great. We put up people from a multi-lateral agency background, and they did a good “business as usual” job. Two of our previous finance ministers were blamed by their own party MPs for not looking after party interests since they themselves were not elected by the people. We often get to hear, or tend to believe, that the finance minister of a republic like Bangladesh can’t also have his own business interests. Therefore, we may conclude that the finance minister, in a transition economy like ours, should be a ruling party stalwart, commanding respect from the rank and file, with clear understanding about “where the shoe pinches” and visibility about the “destination.” He or she should ideally be an elected public representative with greater acceptability among development partners and stakeholders. His or her integrity should be beyond any doubt; s/he should also be very articulate in negotiations with development partners, and always champion the interests of the people and the nation as a whole. One can rest assured that if we now put up an advertisement in the leading Bangladeshi and international newspapers, the number of interested candidates would be few, and eligible ones even fewer. What do we do then? Run this “possibly the most forward-looking” ministry without a minister? With a public representative of a corrupt and doubtful background? With a “half-hearted” retired civil servant? Or with an “always-shifting-stance” economist? We have hitherto never tried to actually develop or empower political leaders to do a good ministerial job. They have usually been spoon-fed by bureaucrats and allowed little independence. But gone are the days when a “short-sighted” or “populist” individual could manage, somewhat, to run a fast-growing economy like Bangladesh. Now we are facing a more sophisticated beast, so to speak, in the shape of multiple challenges emerging out of rapid globalization, technological innovation, massive urbanization, agricultural land erosion, energy and food security issues, an appallingly under-skilled workforce, and frequent policy paralysis.   Mamun Rashid is a leading economic analyst.