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OP-ED: Fifty years of Bangladesh: So much achieved, yet so much more to change

  • Published at 05:19 am March 22nd, 2021
metropolitan areas
Despite infrastructural improvements in metropolitan areas, other parts of the country lag behind RAJIB DHAR

We have come far in economic development but the work is just beginning

The entire nation is eagerly waiting for March 26. 2021 is the year of Bangladesh’s golden jubilee as an independent nation and this garners intense pride and joy in the hearts of all Bangladeshi citizens. 

The country has come far, not just in timeline but also in terms of economic growth, social progress, technological advancement, infrastructure development, poverty alleviation, and global recognition as an example of endurance and constant improvement. There is absolutely no doubt that Bangladesh deserves great praise and adulation for all that it has achieved in such a short span of time. 

It is a true testament to the hard working and resilient people of this country. Based on how far it has come and how much it has accomplished so fast, it is even more assured that there is so much more Bangladesh can do and achieve. The potential for additional growth and progress is unlimited and should be unquestionably uninhibited. 

Hundreds of pages can be written on all the outstanding achievements of Bangladesh; however, the primary focus of this discussion will be more towards where the nation is at the present and what else needs to get done so that it may keep on continuing upon this journey of progress and not become too complacent since there is still a lot more to fix and a lot more to change. 

The purpose of this discussion will be to openly bring into light some of those issues which deserve attention if this nation is to truly ever become a “Sonar Bangla” as was envisioned by those who sacrificed their lives for its freedom. 

Why do so many Bangladeshis still want to leave?

This is a true story, but the name has been changed in order to protect the individual’s privacy. A highly educated accounting and finance professional named Mizan (not his real name) was working for the Dhaka office of a prestigious US-based global consulting firm. Mizan was a rising star and was one of the most highly regarded employees of the firm. He was certainly on a quick career path towards becoming one of the top leaders of the organization. 

Thus, it could be said that Mizan was doing really well in Bangladesh and was on track to do even greater things for the country and for himself. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Mizan’s wife became pregnant with their first child and within three months, Mizan and his expecting wife moved to Canada. The firm tried its best to retain Mizan in many ways but there simply wasn’t any scope for changing his mind. 

So, why did this happen? Why did Mizan decide to leave Bangladesh as soon as they were expecting a baby? First of all, it’s because they had the opportunity to do so but they had delayed their move because they were very happy here in Bangladesh as all their families and closest friends were here. 

However, the moment a baby came into the picture, their entire perspective changed. After that, Mizan and his wife were primarily concerned with the safety, security, and future of their child more than anything else and in their minds, Bangladesh simply wasn’t a place where they could envision raising their child, especially when they had another “better option.” 

Mizan is just one example of too many other brilliant and talented Bangladeshis who also have the same mindset and goal -- that they will move out of the country the moment a better opportunity presents itself. So, by constantly losing such talented professionals who would have definitely contributed a great deal towards the advancement of the country, Bangladesh is constantly losing out.

Despite Bangladesh’s massive achievement in growth and development, why isn’t it still a nation that can offer its citizens the same level of safety, security, and the “better life” these talented migrating individuals are seeking so desperately? 

The simple and short answer is that, despite its successes, Bangladesh is still lagging far behind many countries in terms of the perception of safety and security. Hence, this is something to seriously ponder upon. Bangladesh needs to become a place that will one day bring Mizan, his wife, and their child back to Bangladesh for good and their child will never think of leaving.  

Do women truly feel safe, free, and empowered in Bangladesh?

In Malaysia or Singapore or Thailand, the family of a young woman will most likely not have to worry too much if she is out by herself late at night or if she has to use public transportation to come home from the airport. In these countries, which are in close proximity to Bangladesh, most women feel safe and secure in terms of living their lives independently without much worry. 

There is no argument that Bangladesh’s enacted laws and regulations allow full freedom and independence for women as much as men in almost all meaningful facets of life. In fact, the laws often go out of their way to protect and ensure the security, safety, and empowerment of women. However, the reality is quite a different matter. 

The reality in Bangladesh is that most women still fear venturing out alone after dark in the urban areas; too many women feel vulnerable when they use public transportation; too many women feel like they have no power to speak up when they are harassed by men at their workplace; too many women feel like they have to get married as quickly as possible in order to obtain the social protection which seems to come from having a husband; too many women are stigmatized for not being married after a certain age; too many women still perceive that being too educated and too qualified will make them less attractive to potential husbands; too many women’s families won’t allow them the necessary freedoms to reach their full potential; and the list can go on and on. 

There are too many of these cultural, social, and practical restrictions and barriers which impede women from enjoying the liberties and opportunities which men in Bangladesh enjoy. By drastically limiting half the population of the country, Bangladesh is again losing out in terms of the immense untapped contributions women could make.

It is certain that Bangladesh will eventually overcome this great hurdle and women will be the major driving force and the greatest contributors to the continued success of Bangladesh. 

However, it is important that greater emphasis be placed on this straightaway through changes in outdated educational methods and social customs such that they are geared towards respecting and valuing women along with getting rid of obsolete cultural norms and replacing them with more modern and inclusive ways of thinking, with the goal of changing perceptions, and providing more encouragement and motivation to women from a very young age so that they feel confident. It is crucial that Bangladeshi women start to truly believe they can accomplish anything and everything and they never feel less powerful or less capable than men. 

Elitism is still alive and well in Bangladesh

It is very doubtful that people like Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Steve Jobs were regularly scrutinized as to what kind of family they came from, who their fathers were, and who their grandparents were. In fact, their family background and social status probably didn’t play much of a role if any to their massive success. This is because the societies in which they were raised, birth status and family pedigree has little or no influence over how successful they would be. 

However, that is not the case in Bangladesh because over here, being from a so called “elite” family will get one the highest and most unfair advantages throughout their lives no matter how utterly undeserving and untalented they may be. Simply by the virtue of being from an elite wealthy family, a person can rise up to the highest level of business and even government. 

On the other hand, being from a poor or even a middle-class family will immediately put a talented and brilliant individual at a great disadvantage from the very beginning. 

The sad truth is that Bangladeshi society and culture still places great emphasis on what kind of family a person is from when deciding on how to treat them and how to reward or punish them. As a result, the country is once again losing out on benefiting from the best of the best simply because they are not from the right background and therefore, they might just get dismissed from consideration.

It is high time that leadership positions in Bangladesh are attained and awarded primarily due to merit and talent rather than birth and family rights. Google is not run by the children of its founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, but is managed very successfully by Sundar Pichai. Microsoft isn’t run by Bill Gates’ daughter or son but rather, its chief executive officer is Satya Nadella. A significant majority of the world’s most successful companies are run by individuals who obtained their leadership positions purely based on proven success and merit. 

Let’s try to be a meritocracy instead of a bureaucracy

Bangladesh is well known for its extremely powerful and influential bureaucracy which is vast and very complex. Despite so many progressive accomplishments since its birth, Bangladesh still appears to be under a chokehold, administered by its ancient, traditional-minded, and incredibly hierarchical bureaucracy, where seniority is much more valued and respected rather than merit and innovative creativity. It almost seems like creativity and innovation are simply not encouraged in the public sector and therefore adherence to archaic and outdated traditions and practices are the preferred modus operandi. 

This kind of ineffectual and unfair system of governance was initially inherited by Bangladesh from Pakistan upon the former’s independence. 

The older generation may recall how immensely valued and supremely respected the cadres of the Civil Service of Pakistan (aka “CSPs”) were for decades, even after Bangladesh achieved independence.

 The CSPs basically ran Bangladesh for many years despite the country no longer having any governance related links or ties to Pakistan. Bangladesh Civil Service (BCS) replaced CSP but the traditions and principles of governing through a strict and unrelenting bureaucracy and hierarchy based on seniority still remains and is considered a major obstruction to creativity and progress because it severely limits any sort of advancement unless it meets those old antiquated norms and values.

As the nation ventures into the future, serious thought and focus must be given in regard to either abolishing or at least scaling back on the entire framework of governance through strict bureaucracy. 

Value must be given to aptitude and ability rather than seniority. The uptight “sir” and “madam” culture has to go away and be replaced by a more casual and free-thinking society which only rewards creativity and innovation. 

A culture of customer service in the public sector

When dealing with government officials, the common citizens of Bangladesh are often made to feel intimidated and inferior. There appears to be a natural disapproval and pessimism towards government officials among many citizens of Bangladesh and a typical belief is that it is best to avoid any kind of interaction or communication with the government because such interactions would only invite undue harassment and dishonest behaviour. 

This absolutely must change and there is no room for acceptance or tolerance of such damaging perceptions of the government or its officials by the general public. 

A positive culture of “customer service” must be encouraged and developed within the public sector in Bangladesh, whereby the citizens are deemed to be the customers and the government officials are the service agents. 

No one should fear or be intimidated by the government but instead, they must be able to freely embrace the services rendered by the government which should be designed purely to aid and serve its citizens. Government officials should never forget that they serve the people and not the other way around. In the immaculate words of Abraham Lincoln, the government is of the people, by the people and for the people and this should be the fundamental principle by which all government officials and institutions operate and exist.

Let technology be the light that guides us into the future

Throughout recent history, the world has been dominated by those nations which have the best and most innovative technology because it would immediately give them the upper hand in terms of efficiency and modernization. A nation that is lagging behind in technology will have to spend extra time and resources on simply catching up and then keeping up. 

Even though Bangladesh has made immense strides in technology in a number of sectors such as telecommunication, internet connectivity and speed, digitization, and media, it is still far behind in too many other areas, mainly due to not implementing already-available technologies which would immediately give the country a massive boost in efficiency as well as reduce the wastage of resources. 

This is especially true with the public sector, which is the farthest behind, and massive upgrades are desperately needed just to bring them up to the same standard to other nations similar to Bangladesh. This technological gap not only wastes valuable time, money, and resources within the public sector, but most importantly, it causes great frustration to citizens and the private sector because they all have to regularly interact with the public sector in order to carry on their own personal and business activities. 

A simple task which takes only a few minutes to complete in other nations with the applicable standard technology and available automation, could take weeks to get done in Bangladesh because so many steps are manual, needing physical visits to public sector offices. The concept of automated data recording and storage is almost nonexistent in many critical sectors of the country. Paper documents and files always have to be kept and constantly updated with the latest versions and then carried whenever they need to be presented to the relevant authorities or personnel. 

It is vital that the required technology upgrades are immediately implemented; otherwise this will only slow down the growth of multiple inter-connected sectors which may already be fully ready to jump into the next phase of progress. 

We raise ourselves when we help others rise up

Schadenfreude is a German term that implies getting pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction from the troubles, failures, or humiliation of others. Alternatively, “envy” occurs when a person realizes that they don’t possess another’s superior quality, achievement, or possession and as a result, the person either desires it for themselves or wishes that the other person didn’t have it. 

Many Bangladeshis may not be aware of these exact terms but they are certainly aware of the innate expressions and emotions related to them. They also understand what they imply because these complex emotions and desires appear to be common within the Bangladeshi culture. 

The reason why Bangladeshis are so aware of the existence of schadenfreude and envy is because such emotions play an integral role and it often drives motives and actions. This is not the right mindset and it is definitely not the correct way to react, but such emotions have been passed on from past generations and somehow became an integral trait in people’s personalities.  

These harmful traits lead to the erosion of values and promote a culture of bragging, lies, and deceit. Trust and faith in human decency are diminished and overshadowed by the desire to always prove one’s superiority over others. Dishonesty and mistrust become an automatic and natural assumption and the dominant way of interacting with one another. 

People who feel that they are inferior to someone, rather than improving themselves, would much rather bring down the other person. Thus, no one really succeeds. Hostilities are created in all segments of society and more time is wasted on futile actions rather than growing and evolving as an overall community. 

Such damaging ways of thinking must be changed and Bangladeshis must learn to appreciate that the only way to transform, evolve, and grow is by doing it together, otherwise it is temporary and short-lived as someone will always be out there trying to bring them down. There are some cultures where the negative emotions derived from schadenfreude and envy are not as prevalent and they have been very successful by following the motto of raising each other up. 

Let the next 50 years of Bangladesh be a universal example to all others on how an entire nation united together and became a dominating global powerhouse that attracts and retains talent, values women and makes them feel safe and secure, disapproves of elitism, rewards merit, gets rid of stringent bureaucracies, promotes a culture of customer service within the public sector, and embraces technology.

Mamun Rashid is an Economic Analyst and Syed Yamen Jahangeer is an Accountant.

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