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Dhaka Tribune

How to grow soft power

And can a country such as Bangladesh ever be relevant?

Update : 03 Apr 2024, 01:09 AM

Outside the QEII conference centre in Westminster, a loudspeaker is blaring out David Byrne singing “we’re on the road to nowhere.”

The song is being played by a few protesters amid central London’s ever-present crowds of tourists. It scarcely matters that their protest was about Brexit, the chorus could apply to almost any aspect of the current state of the United Kingdom.

Inside the conference hall, John Major, the former Conservative prime minister famously defeated by Tony Blair in 1997, is elaborating on how Brexit changed perceptions of the UK from an “agenda setting Great Britain to an insular little England.”

Whilst doing so, the softly spoken Major notes his government improved economic growth during his tenure for his successor, unlike the current run of five consecutive Conservative prime ministers since 2010, who are on course to leave a far bleaker inheritance for Labour if, as polls predict, it wins this year’s general election.

More interestingly, if less noticed, he also gently trolls Blair for introducing university tuition fees by remarking how 30 years ago whenever he met senior university leaders, they spoke eloquently of their commitment to public service, but nowadays he gets the impression some of them seem to be “wanting to work for Goldman Sachs.”

Despite all this, Major speaking at the launch of the latest Global Soft Power Index produced by Brand Finance, hailed the fact that the UK was ranked second behind the United States out of 193 nations and is still widely seen as a “soft power superpower.”

Definitions vary, but these types of indices tend to be based on large scale surveys, with this one measuring 170,000 responses from 100 countries to questions on topics such as cultural impact, business and scientific influence, and international reputation.

An Anglophone bias among respondents is perhaps inevitable with English being so widely used in global business and science. Like France (ranked sixth) the UK’s soft power rating benefits from the hard military power of its colonizing past giving it a historically large cultural and linguistic footprint.

The fact an economically declining UK ranks second is enough to make soft power a mostly meaningless phrase. If people around the world are more familiar with Hollywood films and Premier League teams than with equivalents from other countries, so what? Countries and corporations alike usually take economic and political decisions in their own self-interest. 

Even so, the concept is much talked about with enough traction to make it worth considering how a country like Bangladesh can grow its own soft power. 

For the most part, soft power is a byproduct of the economy. The top 30 has plenty of countries with small populations like Belgium, Ireland, and Singapore which are practiced at projecting their nation’s identities and have high per capita incomes. 

In recent years, they have been joined by the likes of Saudi Arabia and UAE. Human rights concerns about poorly paid labourers from the Global South being exploited are, it seems, no match for popular airlines and sportswashing. 

Ultimately though, sheer population size and GDP count the most. China, Japan, and Germany are ranked third, fourth, and fifth and it’s quite possible India and South Korea could join them in the top 10. 

As Bangladesh is home to more people than Russia, Lebanon, Norway, and New Zealand put together, there are plenty of reasons to assume it can do better. Presently it is rated by the IMF as having the world’s 33rd largest GDP in PPP terms but clearly its economy is sorely held back by low investment in education and skills. 

Bangladesh needs to change this to diversify its overreliance on RMG and remittances, raise labour productivity (currently 139th according to ILO) and improve its woeful ease of doing business ranking (168th) to increase per capita income (currently 126th in the world.)

The good news is that Bangladesh’s soft power ranking (96th) is already higher than its pitiful per capita rankings; the economy’s growing size is being noticed. 

The bad news is the scale of the transformation the country really needs. 

While there are positive signals about Bangladesh joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP,) it needs to be asked why has this taken so long (and counting)?  

Why have policymakers been so inward looking as to be so late for this treaty, not to mention ASEAN? As the Tangail sari case shows, insularity has made them fail to be pro-active even when it comes to the most elementary of tasks like asserting claims for geographical indication (GI) tags. 

Part of the reason seems to be elites whose thinking prefers to look towards the global North rather than across the global South to the types of policy which have benefited other countries. 

It’s hardly a coincidence that many of the wealthiest in the land seem to congregate in the so-called tri-state area close to the airport. Another factor is complacency. If this did not run so deep, Bangladesh would have got far better by now at preventing fires and road accidents.

Short term thinking is commonplace among those with the money or power to make life better. Greed is a given in every nation, but in a densely-populated country built around rivers, only fools fail to see that far more value -- environmental, social, and financial -- can be added by creating attractive waterside developments and green open spaces, rather than filling in canals and concreting scarce recreation areas. 

The same applies in spades for protecting and adapting, rather than neglecting or vandalizing, heritage buildings and erasing the nation’s rich history.

In a country where people are the biggest resource, it is simply stupid not to invest in human capital. Investment in education has run at around 4% of GDP in Malaysia and Vietnam, but under 2% in Bangladesh.  Without improving education, the economy cannot grow to the extent it will need to sustainably support 220 million people by 2050. 

 All the benefits of soft power that people wish to see, like a bigger footprint for the nation’s culture and improved global perceptions, can be a by-product of focusing more on making everyday life better for ordinary people. 

Bangladesh needs to move away from the cheap labour paradigm. Bangladesh must improve its own expectations of itself and properly invest in people, before it can hope to improve the perceptions of people from other nations. 

 

Niaz Alam is London Bureau Chief of the Dhaka Tribune.

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