Younger Bangladeshis want accountability from the state, and they are vocal about it
The principles of inclusive governance and political voice are interconnected concepts -- collectively fundamental in aligning each tenet of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with one another.
In defining a sustainable post-pandemic policy narrative for the nation, the creation of a renewed policy mechanism with altered macroeconomic and social priorities is extremely crucial. Whether it be the reality of a declining democracy that we live in or the increasing number of sexual violence-related cases, there is one critical stakeholder group which binds the existing problems with finding the prospective solutions -- the youth. Policy innovation through the mobilization of youth-based stakeholders is the way forward for Bangladesh.
Canadian academic Gabrielle Bardall defines inclusive governance from two specific lenses -- namely, supply-side governance and demand-side governance. While supply-side governance echoes accountability measures within the state system itself, such as the institutional separations of power, electoral frameworks, etc, demand-side apparatuses focus on enhancing the voice and capacity of citizens to directly demand greater accountability and responsiveness from the state architecture.
With respect to demand-side governance, the idea of political voice is pivotal -- political voice enables people to pursue the goals and aspirations that they value, and to seek redress when an injustice is perceived (Overseas Development Institute, 2014). More specifically, civic engagement in elections, interest in policy-making, or the reciprocity showcased by the state in addressing the wills and wishes of the public defines the breadth of demand-side governance.
With a sense of apprehension, I leave it up to readers to determine where Bangladesh stands when it comes to this -- in my opinion, the answer, if explored, is dangerously daunting, at least for the majority of citizens and political actors outside the purview of the ruling party.
Today, particularly with reference to what should ideally be perceived as non-partisan issues such as child security, violence against women, road safety measures, and education reforms, the youth of Bangladesh have taken the limited political space present in avenues such as social media or university forums to indicate that they are frustrated and dissatisfied with the present system of governance.
Representing nearly 30% of the total national population (47.6 million people between the ages of 10-24), younger Bangladeshis demand accountability from the state, and they try and do so vocally -- whilst emphasizing that their political voices be respected, heard, and represented in the construction of national policies.
In addition to the social need for integrating youth perspectives, there is a key economic aspect with relation to inclusive governance which we often forget to highlight -- the youth unemployment rate sat at 11.9% in 2019, and according to a recent report published jointly by the Asian Development Bank and the International Labour Organization, this figure is expected to double and exceed 20% in 2020.
In constructing a high-growth based governance model, with GDP rates exceeding 7% over the past five years, the current administration has made democracy and, by definition, the integration of civic perspectives in governance, a secondary concern. This has created a system of top-down governance, whereby the ruling party has taken exclusive control in determining what is best for the country -- without consulting the future generation.
A generational divide
The result of this has been the enhancement of a deep-seated generational divide between members of the political establishment and the youth -- to cite an example, feminist activists and youth leaders in particular have called for specific changes within our constitutional and legal systems, in reaction to the blatant acts of violence on women in Bangladesh recently.
Demanding accountability and action from the government, protests in front of parliament and other important institutions in the country have taken place in the past couple of weeks, amidst anger and frustration over the state of women’s safety in the country -- yet, without consulting activists, and in particular, women who have faced acts of sexual violence, the Cabinet approved the death penalty for convicted rapists.
Most have suggested that this is merely a cop-out rather than a long-term solution -- but more importantly, it represents the state’s unwillingness to consult, listen, learn, and then act. More broadly speaking, it indicates the government’s policy of independently deeming what is best for the country -- the youth do not buy this notion anymore. The politics of implementation without consultation is thus neither warranted nor expected by younger citizens.
Given the government’s global commitment and state-led narrative of focusing on the SDGs, it becomes imperative, both from a social and economic sense, to integrate and synthesize youth perspectives across governance structures and decision-making processes. If economic growth and policy-making are failing to account for the perceptions, needs, and wills of future professionals and, in truth, the next generation of political leadership, then the fast-paced nominal growth we see today will dwindle towards an unsustainable trap benefitting a handful of the establishment. The million-dollar question we ask then is -- what do we do?
In my understanding, there are a couple of immediate measures via which governance can be made more inclusive through the avenue of youth mobilization -- the first being external civic pressure on the government, and the second being state-led institutional reforms. With respect to the first, the Youth Policy Forum (YPF), an organization which has made headlines on social media for its efforts to enhance the room for policy dialogue between the current political leadership and today’s youth, launched its flagship YPF Governance Apprenticeship program in September 2020.
The platform will allow young researchers from the YPF network to shadow and work under politicians from across the aisle -- current and former ministers, members of parliament, and other policy-makers will get research support from young policy enthusiasts, and such will provide an excellent segue for the participating youth to build, develop, and, ultimately, formulate innovative policies from a non-partisan perspective.
Platforms like the YPF or activists demanding a safer Bangladesh for women are external pressure groups which will bring much needed energy, vibrancy, and vitality to policy designs -- and given the demise of the political opposition for reasons known very clearly to the public, the alternative voice of reason and dissent will come from younger citizens demanding accountability, and not from politicians side-lining issues that are of concern to the younger generation.
One hopes that the government responds to such initiatives from youth-led platforms in the coming days, with interest and respect -- and reciprocates by encouraging these platforms to voice their political opinions, rather than shutting them down through draconian measures such as the Digital Security Act.
State-led institutional reforms are trickier in Bangladesh, especially when considering the archaic and bureaucratic nature of the public sector. However, a good reform mechanism which has worked well in developing societies has been the introduction of ministerial or national internship programs -- in other words, providing university students with the opportunity to gain experience across ministries and state-led institutions.
The idea is to allow younger citizens to learn about the intricacies of projects being undertaken by national platforms -- and in the long run, transition them towards permanently joining government agencies to construct innovative policy designs and enhance the possibility of knowledge diffusion, that too in recognition of the problems the youth sees from their independent perspectives. Such a program would ensure that Bangladesh Civil Service (BCS) candidates are better prepped as well to join the public administration system.
By empowering political voices through institutional reforms and civic engagement, the state has an obligation to its people, to bridge the gap between the political leadership and those who speak up and demand accountability from the government. And the primary pressure group in this regard are youth-led platforms -- and one hopes they continue their fight to achieve the dreams of 21st century Bangladesh.
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a graduate of economics and international relations.