Why are we a least developed country?

Abdul Hannan

Who will fix the deep seated malaise? Some pin their hopes on the civil society-- a new but proliferating breed of development actors consisting of intellectuals and academics, journalists and retired civil servants, working under different centres, dialogues, institutes and NGOs. They hold tireless brainstorming debates and discussions in seminars and symposia on a regular basis more often than not at posh hotels...

I must confess, I am not much of an economist. Economics to me has remained a dreaded subject. Nevertheless, short of sophistry and sophistication of knowledge of economics, I shall attempt a layman's understanding of why we are a least developed country.

The government claims that our economy has turned around with all the positive signs of macro-economic indicators. The GDP growth rate is over 6 per cent, the inflation is below 3 per cent, the export is rising at 14 per cent, the domestic and foreign investment is modest, the foreign exchange reserve is not unsatisfactory and although there is declining foreign aid, the mobilization of internal revenue is picking up. Besides, there is self sufficiency in food with bumper harvests. Population growth is in decline and there is women's empowerment.

But then why is it that we are a least developed country? It is because this economic growth is not enough and more so because it is not evenly distributed in the society. It has benefited a privileged few at the expense of many left increasingly marginalised and excluded in the poverty trap. The vast majority of our people, nearly half of our population live below the poverty line or in absolute poverty with no or inadequate access to nutrition, food, shelter, education and health facilities, sanitation and water. The self sufficiency in food has not ensured them food security without food for work or VGF cards for the vulnerable.

But why do the least developed countries earn less than 2 dollars per capita income a day? They blame the rich industrialised countries for their economic plight and miseries and fault them for declining foreign aid and not providing access to trade, foreign direct investment and waiver of crippling debt burden. The rich countries while recognizing their moral obligation to come to the aid of the least developed countries (EU countries have already announced duty and quota free access to their market of all goods except arms; G 7 countries earlier cancelled debts of some of the heavily indebted least developed countries of Africa) point out that internal civil strife and political instability, governance problem characterised by corruption, waste, lack of accountability, transparency and rule of law in the least developed countries are responsible for their economic and social maladies. The World Bank president Wolfensohn does not treat corruption as an internal matter but an integral issue of aid agenda. But the tragedy is that when the donors, the World Bank and the UNDP point at our governance problem as impediment to the success of development efforts and stress proper utilization of aid money, we reprimand them for interfering in our internal affairs and hurting our sovereign feelings. Yet, the charges are not without substance. They are palpable and writ large in the faces of least developed countries. You don't need to hire the service of Price Water House or Arthur Anderson to audit the reckless spending, waste and irregularities.

Bangladesh has the dubious distinction of leadership of the least developed countries from Asia, Africa, the Pacific and the Caribbean as their coordinator and spokesman for last 25 years. President Ershad led an inordinately large delegation of some 50 members from the ministries of Commerce, Finance, ERD, Foreign Affairs and our UN Mission in New York and Geneva to the second UN conference on the least developed countries in Paris just over a decade ago. He also held a meeting in London with Bangladesh envoys posted in Europe. What was the outcome? The programme of action adopted at the end of the meeting largely remained unrealised. Meanwhile, the size of the group has swelled to 49 now from 25 in 1971. What was the gain for Bangladesh excepting the delegation's opportunity of sitting beside the rich and powerful donors and international organizations and financial institutions and get photographed? The foreign visits of VVIP with a large entourage cost a hell of a lot of money in scarce foreign exchange for TA, DA, hotel and car rentals, telephone bills and satellite bookings for sending messages. Prime Minister Hasina returned home recently after performing similar rituals at the Brussels conference and meeting in London. But a government which professes democracy and accountability can ill-afford such spent-thrift luxury of the past without depleting further the dwindling foreign exchange reserve which has dipped all time low to 1.2 billion dollar perhaps for payment of installments for the purchase of MIGs and the Frigate and import of luxury items, prompting another bout of devaluation of the currency.

Bangladesh has carried the burden of the leadership of LDC's far too long. There is nothing to bask or feel good about it. It is time we passed on the buck and some one else was anointed with the ignoble honour of the mantle of LDCs and we made serious efforts to lift ourselves to the status of a developing country by attaining a little more than one thousand dollars per capita income. With determined political will it is not impossible.

Bangladesh has so far received more than one thousand billion dollars of external assistance as aids and grants. Where has all the money gone? Where is the development? The administration is clogged by crippling colonial inaction; roads, ports, electricity, telecommunication are deplorable; water supply and sanitation is primitive; Education and health facilities are restrictive. There is pollution and poison in air, earth and water. At least half the money has been plundered by politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen through under the table deals in contracts and purchases of aid funded projects and wasted and frittered by development experts in foreign travels, consultancy fee and holding of seminars and dialogues. Fund-aided foreign trainings are, in fact, paid holidays for government officials who on return home, more often than not, are transferred to other ministries and departments with no relevance to their training. Bangladesh provides a typical example of waste and corruption of LDCs.

The UNDP has provided funds for reform and revitalization of the Parliament, the local government and the Election Commission. The Parliament remains dysfunctional without participation of the Opposition ever since the restoration of democracy. But the budget expenditure of the Jatiya Sangsad has increased manifold from Tk 8 crore in the eighties to 34 crore now. The increase was of course needed reportedly to foot the bill of Tk 45 lakh for the medical treatment of the Speaker abroad and to pay for his 20 foreign visits and 21 foreign visits of the Secretary of the Jatiyo Sangsad in one year. Thirty-five foreign visits of the Assistant Private Secretary to the Speaker alone reportedly costing one crore taka together with huge electricity cost of the centrally air conditioned Parliament building round the year without any break and reportedly Tk 2 crore 67 lakh arrear telephone bills of 214 MPs of the current Jatiyo Sangsad do not strengthen any more the image of parliamentary democracy in the country. As for the reform in the Election Commission, who has not read newspaper reports about internecine fights between the Chief Election Commissioner and the Commissioners over the appointment of an IT expert on a monthly salary of over three lakh taka and a newsmagazine coverstory about its alleged waste of 190 crore taka? Election to Thana Parishad has remained a non-starter. WASA and DESA, supported by donor funds, suffer from 30 to 40 per cent system loss, an euphemism for corruption. The streets of Dhaka city are veritable sinks for overflowing sewage. Whither development?

The only tangible result of the Administrative Service Reorganization Committee is the collection of air travel tax by the travel agents and selective facilities for payment of utility bills in banks, not an insignificant achievement in view of preoccupation of the chairman. Despite claims by the Board of Investment about good response, the foreign investment, excepting in the gas sector, has been shy due to bureaucratic tangles, inadequate infrastructure facilities and inhospitable investment climate caused by political unrest, corruption and declining law and order. However, the chairmen of both these organizations enjoy the status, perks and privileges of a cabinet minister to make them effective to perform and deliver. The work of Television and Radio Autonomy Commission completed after extensive foreign travels and never implemented is an example of misgovernance.

The government recently spent Tk 15 crore to observe the birth centenary of poet Nazrul Islam and has approved a proposal to construct a mausoleum over the grave of the poet in the Dhaka University Campus at a cost of several crores of taka more. This is unheard of anywhere in the world. Nazrul Islam was a great poet and so was Tagore, Shelley and Whitman. No mausoleums and monuments were ever erected over their graves. But then, India, Britain and United States are not least developed countries. Poet Nazrul Islam was a poet for the oppressed, the poor and the downtrodden. His soul will rest in peace if the money is spent in establishing charitable hospitals and schools in his name for the poor.

The reform by privatization of state owned enterprises running at an accumulated loss of 31 billion taka has been stymied by Trade Union resistance. The government has approved the construction of Rooppur Nuclear Reactor at a cost of one billion dollar regardless of safety and radioactive waste disposal concerns. The nuclear reactor accidents in Chernobyl and 3-mile island in Pennsylvania and the recent violent demonstration over transportation of radioactive waste from France to Germany are reminders of the hazard. The preference for the reactor for nuclear energy to the potential of value added gas based power may be attributed to vested interests in contracts and purchases of enrichment plant and nuclear fuel. This is a mad enterprise with portents of dark danger of nuclear radiation fall our for a high density population.

The Comptroller and Auditor General has submitted a report on financial irregularities of Tk 600 crores by embezzlement, theft, waste and non compliance of rules and regulations, but to what avail? Such reports in the past were flouted with impunity. Did not our Ambassador in New York live in the posh Sutton Place apartments in Manhattan on a monthly rent of 7000 dollars? Did not foreign minister Doha hop from one OIC capital to another at huge government cost campaigning for his candidature for the post of secretary general of 54-nation Organization of Islamic Conference? It cost the government a fortune to pay rents for a suit in UN Plaza hotel for three months for the Bangladesh Presidency of the UN General Assembly. The argument by some that it was worth the cost for the sake of image of the country does not hold good. The international community is not a fool. How else do we explain Bangladesh's defeat in election to the Security Council & FAO soon after? The image is built not by external trappings but by solid performance report on democracy, good governance, human rights, rule of law, environment and development record. I am not pointing finger to anybody personally. It is the system which is at fault. Ours has been three lost decades of missed opportunities, appalling abuse of authority and wasteful expenditure. This is an LDC syndrome and is endemic of its culture. So why shift the responsibility and blame on the rich countries?

But who will fix this deep seated malaise? Some pin their hopes on the civil society a new but proliferating breed of development actors consisting of intellectuals and academics, journalists and retired civil servants, working under different centres, dialogues, institutes and NGOs. They hold tireless brainstorming debates and discussion in seminars and symposia on a regular basis more often than not at posh hotels. The only agenda of the civil society is development and their only passion is alleviation of poverty. Mind you, their goal is alleviation of poverty and not eradication. This civil society essentially belongs to the elite class of politicians and professionals, bureaucrats and businessmen. They have identical life styles and are common stake holders. Watching the number of cars in the streets of Dhaka, the South Korean Chief of ESCAP in course of a recent interview with The Daily Star hinted at this inherent contradiction in our society when he said, "You have opened the bottle of champagne too soon before you have achieved the sweet success." This elite is directly and indirectly responsible for the growing inequality and injustice in the society. This elite class is the problem and solution of a least developed country. Unless they change their mind set, we will remain a least developed country for eternity.

Never mind, I am not a communist preaching a classless society. I too belong to the lunatic fringe of the hypocritical and shameless lot. I own a small house, drive a small car, and my children are lost for ever, lured by charm of success and comfort in America. The only difference is that I feel guilty that I don't have surplus wealth of the rich to share with the poor.

Abdul Hannan is a former Press Counsellor, Bangladesh Mission to UN, New York.

Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, June 19, 2001


Previous Page