Is it still progress when it does not feel like it?
“What do you hope to see every time someone new gets elected to serve you?”
Escaping the metropolitan rush hour on an ordinary Thursday, I parked my car in the hospitable shade of trees by a cluster of busy tea shops somewhere familiar in Banani, Dhaka.
Unsurprisingly, it did not take me very much time to ask three distinct groups of pedestrians the above question. They were the young, the middle-aged, and the old. Although my sample size was only a humble ten for each group, the overwhelming commonality of their kind responses suggested it to be adequate.
“Safer roads,” said the young.
“Development of infrastructure,” said the middle-aged.
“Less corruption in the system,” said the old.
There was nothing shocking about their responses. I expected them. An absence of optimism dried their words in a way that only roadside tea could wash them down. They were evidently not content with what they had and wanted change. They were also hoping not to explore uncharted territories in the future but rather only to catch up to the others to whom they felt inferior.
Progress is tricky. Akin to slowly driving in grueling bumper-to-bumper traffic -- when one sits long enough staring at the back of the car ahead, waiting indefinitely to move any meaningful distance, one eventually starts to forget where one was even headed. It all starts to become fuzzy. Development feels static; effort wasted and morale diminished.
Is it still progress when it does not feel like it?
The United Nations published the 2019 Happiness Index in March last year. Finland is once again at the top, which is surprising to nobody. More curious is a pattern found in the correlation to global news headlines of the past couple of decades. Rarely does any country in the first ten ever trend on social media or news publications.
Despite having reached a position every country since the beginning of human civilization aspired to reach, rarely is any country in this bracket ever at the center of global attention.
Rarely does their development get advertised. Rarely do their public officials make it to gossip columns. Rarely do their political campaigns become their own movements instead of only materializing to operate the government. Rarely do they complain about, well, anything.
None of this can be said about many countries in the next twenty whose names, whose leaders and their flavour-of-the-month quotes, and whose plans of development are well within our peripheral vision. Is it still progress when nobody talks about it?
I heard of a family that lived in the apartment below ours when I was a child. A man lived there with his wife and their one-year-old. He was always neglectful, or so I have heard. He never took his wife out on vacations even though he himself hung out with his friends frequently. He was never there for their child as he imperfectly crawled into his teens and stumbled into adulthood.
He was not a bad man. He was never abusive, for instance. He did buy his wife new clothes and jewelry every once in a while. Expensive bottles of perfume were not an uncommon sight following business trips. He also never backed down from paying for their child’s necessities. What he lacked in love, he made up for with, well, money. Is it still neglect if a credit card is on the table?
Spectacles are necessary. They speak in a language the children in us understand. They are loud and there to make an announcement.
“Yes, I love you and will be by your side until my last breath.”
“Yes, we will build a new bridge to connect City A to City B if you support us.”
“Yes, effective immediately, we will stop all imports of Product A, because our local producers of Product A are loyal and deserve our support.”
“Yes, we will crack down hard on substance abuse -- from next week, police checkpoints will be installed all over the city to ensure a safer society.”
“Yes, we care deeply about our children’s future -- therefore, we are blocking Website A and Website B within our country.”
But that is all spectacles can ever be: Loud announcements.
A loving relationship only sustains when laboriously carried on our shoulders, with countless simple and mundane steps from one happy photo album to the next. Therefore, you may feel safe in your assumption that no country in the history of human civilization ever moved up in the ladder of Human Development Index by banning a film or renaming an establishment.
So, yes, it is still progress even when it does not feel like it. The destination is still reached when patient, even if unceremoniously and slowly.
Yes, it is still progress when nobody talks about it. A case does not need to be made for this. Statistics are enough. And yes, it is still neglect even if a credit card is on the table.
That child also needed his father, not only his financial security. That woman needed the man with whom she fell in love, not his credit card.
A country needs a continuous stream of simple and mundane improvements, not extreme and ultimately detrimental measures out of desperation to compensate for stagnation. It has never worked in the past, and has no reason to ever do so in the future.
Progress is about consistency, not spectacles. A country is but a collection of homes and is governed best in no different a fashion. A consistently flowing stream of simple and mundane improvements in elements, living standards, and freedoms is the only reliable path to progress.
Better a fuller pillow than a satin blouse. Better a partner in darkness than an ATM. Better quiet and moving than loud and stalling.
We, Bangladeshis, have this capacity. I believe in us. Therefore, my optimism requires no roadside tea.
Jihan Jasper Al-rashid is an artist who studies computer science and engineering and works in the ready-made garments industry.