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Measuring a nation’s maturity

  • Published at 10:47 pm October 11th, 2018
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A novel approach to assessing our development

I was sitting near Dhanmondi Lake with a friend of mine. 

As we were waiting for our tea, a small girl came up to us, and started asking for money. We agreed to help her, on the condition that she had to sing the national anthem for us. But she couldn’t. 

We weren’t surprised at all. After a while, our tea came hot, but in plastic cups. Definitely not an environment-friendly way of drinking tea. I looked around, and observed that the lake was far filthier than I remembered. I tried to ask my all-of-a-sudden woken conscience -- how much have we matured as a nation, and how far are we from evolving further in doing so? 

At nearly 47 years old, we are no longer a young country. But before hitting our next birthday, we should be able to figure out where we stand in terms of maturity. That way, we could make a list of the things we need to work on as our next birthday resolution. 

But wait a second; what is maturity after all? The Cambridge Dictionary defines maturity as, “the quality of behaving mentally and emotionally like an adult.” Now, if there is a scale of maturity, how much have we matured as a country collectively, given that our age is just a number? 

The American economist Walt Whitman Rostow, in his modernization theory, proposed the “drive to maturity” as the fourth stage of economic development, right after the take-off stage. For a country to be at this stage, there should be widespread economic growth, diversified industries, and proliferated use of technology to achieve shared prosperity. 

Holding this thought, I tried to brainstorm ways to define and rate Bangladesh in terms of its maturity. I went blank. Then I thought about our LDC graduation. An interesting discussion at the office reminded me of how we had removed the crowned title of being a “bottomless basket” coined by the infamous former US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, right after our birth in 1971. 

We did great in gender equality, but Dhaka couldn’t beat Damascus as the least liveable city. We won against Afghanistan in the 10th ODI of Asia Cup 2018, but they are the only ones we couldn’t beat in South Asia in the Corruption Perception Index reported by Transparency International. 

The World Ultra Wealth Report 2018 acknowledges that we are the fastest growing UNHW (ultra high net worth) country in the world. I am guessing that is because of our RMG industry. So what? The heads of these companies cannot provide their employees with “the minimum wage to meet the minimum requirement of living” whereas they can earn a garment worker’s entire lifetime pay in just four days. 

In terms of a maturity scale, the evaluation should be done based on two basic variables of the state: Government and citizens. Let’s rate our score on the aforementioned variables.

Government and evaluation of its policies

Maturity Points: 60/100

Abraham Lincoln, former president of the United States, has rightly said: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.” So, an evaluation of the government, and its policies, will be fair if and only if we weigh those based on their advantage for its people. 

As a democratic country, we can proudly say that most of our policies are people-centric, but very few of us can claim that the implementation of those policies are the same; mostly because of the corrupt bureaucratic forces. How many of us can agree that the majority of our public services and institutions are not of sub-par quality?  

The huge rich-poor divide is causing people in power to have utmost authority in decision-making, without the presence of an inclusive decision-making process -- in big events such as “budgets” and “elections,” the number of impartial and unbiased officials taking part in state affairs is at a minimum. Does this mean that the other name of politics is corruption in our country? If that is the case, then are we aware that corruption and development cannot go hand in hand?    

Is our government living up to its name?

Are they making the best use of our human resources aka our biggest asset? Are the people benefitting from the multifarious services provided by the government institutions? How at risk is the youth, given that our education system isn’t being able to produce an efficient workforce, even with their brilliant academic standing and prolific creative capacities? 

Can we really say that the instances of violence and extremism have nothing to do with political instability? Is the “selling of ideologies” taking a toll on us? We have yet to find these answers. But then, is there a valid system of getting our answers, through transparency and accountability? 

How strong is the law and order system in dealing with such crises? Are we adept in addressing immediate priorities such as the Rohingya refugee crisis, or are we also using this humane issue as an inhumane avenue for exercising power? 

Governance 

Maturity Points: 60/100

In the normative sense, where we analyze how an economy ought to be run, I think, a clear demarcation between politicized institutions and de-politicized institutions is needed. There is need for leadership without power, and politicians in love with humanity. 

The rule of law regarding public safety needs to be clarified. To prevent bias, the law enforcement agencies should be comprised of people with no apparent involvement in politics. The digitization of the country should always be focused towards the greater good, and not towards the good of the greater. The speed of industrialization needs to synchronize with the structures of production in order to prevent scarcity of capital (or as American historian Alexander Gerschenkron put -- economic backwardness)

The plan of action of the government should be such that minimum-cost medical and transportation services are provided to the general masses. Law and order systems should be such that justice is ensured for all. 

Reforms and tax policies should not favour the already favoured. Is it too much to ask for, considering that the fruits of development will only be able to reach the masses when there is no corruption?

Now, I am going to the next basic variable of my maturity scale -- the citizens of our state. 

People and their participation in state affairs

Maturity Points: 70/100

Let’s conduct a sensitivity analysis before going to details -- what if the people of our country weren’t fighting for power, but rather for justice; what if every citizen understood that united we stand and divided we fall; what if each prioritized collective happiness over individual relative poverty? 

Of course, historical events such as the Liberation War and the Language Movement keep reminding us of our shared identity. But the question remains -- have we really achieved freedom in its truest form? Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen strongly propounds that development can also be defined as freedom. If that is the case, then are the approaches to development (read freedom) following a top-down or a bottom-up sequence? 

It is important to understand that the maturity of the state is dependent upon the peaceful separation of concentrated power between the government and the citizens. Simply put: 

1. If the power of the people > the power of the government, then democracy wins.

2. If the power of the government > the power of the people, then democracy loses. 

With both the scenarios at play in different times in our country, I would still say that people are more powerful than a government.   

So then, what do people have to do to make the government more effective?

Population

Maturity points: 70/100

The people of the state need to actively participate in solving a problem when they are faced with one, instead of putting all the blame on the government. The quota reform protests, and student-led mass road safety protests of this year definitely remind us of our current status. Right after the elections, we will be given the evaluating machine through which we have to weigh how many of the promises made after these protests are kept. 

Undoubtedly, there will be the question of trust within the bureaucracy after the division of state responsibilities. What can the people do about it then? 

Lead with responsibility, not with authority

The power imbalance may create a hierarchy in the social system, but it should never cloud the perception of leadership. Why isn’t a Mahatma Gandhi or a Che Guevara born here? It is not because we are not capable, it’s just because we still are not that responsible. 

Disputes and disagreements are bound to happen. Whatever be the problem, the efficiency of the state depends on the peaceful resolution of it. The true way to mature throughout the vicious cycle of problems and their solutions is being tolerant and united even during the worst of times -- the government being tolerant of the people, and the people being the same of the government. 

Overall Maturity Score: 65/100 

There you go, 15 more points to get a GPA 5! 

How can we score those points? Perhaps we could take some tutoring from Ejaj Ahmad and his team at BYLC. Perhaps some of the ultra-wealthy CEOs could spend a little more on garment worker safety and remuneration by cutting down on harmful red meat. 

Or perhaps, some of us should plan on settling here in the country, instead of flying abroad. After all, as a country, we are greater than our elections, and definitely greater than what we estimate ourselves to be. Maybe in the country’s late-40s, we are hitting a mid-life crisis, one that we are not aware of yet. 

Who am I to do this rating? Just an ordinary person concerned about my country’s future. 

Maisha Mehzabeen works at the Dhaka Tribune, and is a graduate in economics.