Strengthening Bureaucracy for Public Policy

BY MH Kawsar, Alimuzzaman Milon and Mosharaf Hossain Bhuiyan

policyMagistrate All Airport Bangladesh, a Facebook page where members of public write their complaints seeking attention from airport magistrates regarding any hassle or corruption they face at the airport, has grabbed attention of different national media.  The simple Facebook page virtually connected people with civil servants; and the impact is huge as the harassment of service seeker and irregularity at the airport has declined, thanks to the improvement in the connectivity through the social media. These small initiatives, which may seem insignificant initially, are indeed taking this country to great changes.

Due to the government’s effort for digitalisation, information availability and connectivity has improved citizen services significantly.

Websites for all Deputy Commissioners’ (DC) Office and even Upazila Parishad has its own website where anyone can find important information and online citizen services. Even many of the government offices are using the power of social media to connect with people. This connectivity has an overall positive impact on governance and public administration.

Agricultural extension officers are now providing instant diagnosis and treatment for plant diseases based on information from social media. Many government offices introduced ‘grievance redress system’ following the instruction of National Integrity Strategy of Bangladesh – these are all examples of positive changes which are taking civil service and public administration to another level.

However, bureaucracy is still struggling to play the expected role in public policy making in Bangladesh. Bureaucracy can be seen as the most influential actor that determines the shape of most of the public policies since they are directly and indirectly involved with entire public policy process from drafting of policy to implementation and monitoring. Typically, as per the instruction from the Cabinet, relevant ministry is asked to form a taskforce headed by a senior bureaucrat to prepare draft policy that goes through a process involving different ministries and other stakeholders before getting approved. Similarly, the approved policies are also implemented by the street level bureaucrats of the field administration. Parliament is not vibrant as it is supposed to be while most of the elected politicians who serve in the ministries usually lack relevant specialised and technical knowledge. On the other hand, civil servants have an edge on the policy arena due to their experience and technical knowledge. So, it is evident that bureaucracy enjoys an unparalleled influence on the entire public policy process.

As responsibly comes with power, the bureaucracy is also the one that faces the music if the policies fail to give expected outcome. Questions are often raised whether bureaucracy is utilising this influence to shape better policy outcome. Many argue that bureaucracy is not playing the expected role in policy making due to politicisation, elitist mentality, inefficiency in implementation and lack of professionalism.

The elitist mentality often credited to the colonial legacy of the entire public administrative system that formed its foundation during the British rule for almost 200 years. The then institutions shaped bureaucracy intended to be the key instrument for governance and the mechanism for exercising the power by any means, even to suppress any protest or unwanted situation that may go against the British rule.

After the partition of the sub-content, Pakistani rulers also used this important state apparatus to take side of the powerful instead of being pro-people. Although the objectives and expectations from the bureaucracy have changed, some governing practices and structures still exist in the operational level. Studies claim that this ‘colonial imprint’ has kept the bureaucracy away from the mass public. Moreover, Bangladesh also went through a long periods of military and semi-military regimes which also negatively attributed the fundamental characteristics and role of the bureaucracy.

Recent studies identified political interference in bureaucratic functions as one of the alarming factor that disconnect bureaucracy from public. Although there is need for better alignment between the executive and the legislature, a certain level of independence is required for executives so that it can protect public interest and keep a balance among the state organs. Additionally, politicisation weakens the unity of the bureaucracy; consequently, different interest groups may influence bureaucracy towards certain policy prescription.

For effective policy making, it is important that bureaucracy has close liaison with the research institutions and civil society but Bangladeshi context tells a different story where lack of collaboration among the policy stakeholders is noticeable. It is to be noted that work of think tanks and NGOs are often glorified by the media and donors while many good initiatives of bureaucracy often go unnoticed. This creates an unwritten rivalry between bureaucracy and think tanks and media; and this unwanted sense of animosity may be avoided if the stakeholders understand that they are not competitor but collaborator.

It deserves appreciation that Bangladesh is trying to address the problems and promote evidence based policy making supported feedback from the relevant stakeholders.

Capacity building initiatives through opportunities for higher study and training are taken by the government in limited scale; this need to be strengthened as the training centre and specialised institutions for training and skills development suffer from numerous inadequacies which should be addressed with due importance; otherwise, the quality of policy inputs by bureaucracy in Bangladesh might be adversely affected.
Ironically, public policies are often formulated without involving and consulting public as feedback from general public rarely feeds into the policy processes due to ‘bureaucratic reluctance’ to engage with public, think tank, civil society organisations, and media. Needless to say, to understand social dynamics and the recipe for effective policy planning and implementation, the new public management approaches suggests that civil service should consistently stay connected with the public. Insights gained from better interaction with public and other stakeholders will empower public administration to shape public policy in a better way. The policy process can gain significantly if the relevant stakeholders are involved in the framing, implementation and evaluation of policies.

Policymakers and implementing agencies require thorough knowledge of various aspects of state affairs and the specific issues they deal with. Unfortunately, the collective technical and organisational capacity of public administration has eroded gradually that seriously hampered its potential to play proactive role in policymaking in Bangladesh.

It is a matter of hope that many of the young civil service officers are taking innovative approaches to make public administration people-friendly. They are injecting fresh blood in the system and thus challenging the conventional ways and approaches. Over the last few decades, the role of the government is changing from regular intervener to a referee; instead of playing the game, government sometimes need to ensure that a fair game is being played. Given the changing role and emerging challenges, it is vital that role of bureaucracy is well aligned with the present need.

 

* The article was first published in the Daily Sun on 18th June, 2017; available at http://www.daily-sun.com/printversion/details/234779/Strengthening-bureaucracy-for-public-policy

* The Writers are Masters’ level student at the Department of Development Studies, University of Dhaka

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Linking Rural Development with SDGs

Research 25 (1)

Dr. Cecep Effendi and MH Kawsar Rudro

The 2030 agenda for sustainable development undoubtedly proposes an exciting vision, and promises a future of peace and prosperity; but these goals will not be easy to achieve unless we develop effective global partnerships and learn from the outcomes of Millennium Development Goals (MDG). We need to investigate both the successes and failures of MDGs, set our focus on result-oriented development, and encourage government and their development partners to think about the linkages between plan, policy, delivery and monitoring in resource mobilisation and management.

Globally, extreme poverty was reduced by half as the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day decreased from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 2015; some 2.6 billion people have gained access to pure drinking water since 1990, achieving the target of halving the proportion of people without access to pure sources of water five years ahead of schedule. The Asia-Pacific region has also made significant progress in achieving MDGs, particularly in reducing levels of poverty. As per the latest Asia-Pacific Regional MDG Report, the proportion of the region’s population living on less than $1.25 per day fell from 53 to 14 percent between 1990 and 2012. However, the region is still struggling on some targets, particularly those related to health and global partnership.

If we have a close look beyond aggregate results, considerable disparities can be seen both across countries and within them in terms of accomplishment against the targets. The region’s least developed countries had struggled with several of the MDGs. Some sub regions and countries have made faster progress than others; Bangladesh, for example, has achieved most of the targets, including poverty eradication, reduction of child mortality and communicable diseases. Vietnam has achieved most of the MDGs ahead of schedule; similarly, Indonesia, which exceeded the goal of halving the percentage of population living in poverty, are on track regarding the targets related to the reduction of child morality and enrolment for primary education; Nepal has halved its maternal mortality by doubling health spending. However, in the case of Afghanistan, the country was late in concentrating on MDGs due to security and political instability issues.

The unfinished MDG agendas in the poorest countries need careful attention of the international community as billions of people still live in extreme poverty. Hunger, epidemics, social injustice, environmental degradation, climate change, conflicts and crisis, and socio-political instability in different parts of the interconnected world can be serious threats to our common goal of sustainable development.

Chart_of_UN_Sustainable_Development_GoalsThe 17 cross-cutting sustainable development goals and the 169 associated targets envisage a development-centric pathway based on three dimensions of sustainable development: social justice, environmental protection and economic well-being.

The good news is that some of the countries have already started to integrate SDGs in their national programme. Indonesia, for example, increased budget allocation for social development programmes introducing health card and smart card to give poor households better access to healthcare and education; Iran has introduced environmental education in school curriculums to increase environmental awareness. Thailand has been promoting sufficiency economic philosophy that promotes development from within, suggests moderation in consumption, and calls for the sustainable use of resources through analysing the environmental trade-offs due to economic decisions.

We need to evaluate the risks and criticism surrounding the agenda as some argue that goals and indicators of targets are not clearly specified while others point out that financing this expensive endeavour will be a major challenge. The World Investment Report 2014 by UNCTAD estimates that every year $5 to $7 trillion investment is needed to achieve SDGs at the global level, of which investment in developing countries in key SDG sectors are estimated at $3.3 to $4.5 trillion per year over the proposed SDG delivery period while the current investment in these sectors is around $1.4 trillion, implying an annual investment gap of between $1.9 and $3.1 trillion.

Another key challenge for us would be localising SDGS as per the need and context of different regions and countries. Some may argue that rural development has lost value as a development agenda in the age of urbanisation and industrialisation, but in the broader sense, the new agenda clearly recognises the centrality of rural development as it binds 8 out of 17 goals together. 

It would be ironic if we all talk about food security and zero hunger but undermine agriculture, and if we talk about ending poverty and inequality without prioritising development of rural areas that houses 3.3 billion people leaving in extreme poverty around the world – which counts for 70 percent of the global poverty. Similarly, reaching SDG targets will be impossible without a strong and sustainable agriculture because it is related with health, malnutrition, protection of territorial eco-system and livelihood.

Moreover, the goal of cutting poverty cannot be seen separately as it is rooted in a whole system of inequality and injustice. Inequalities and disparities within countries resulted from various contributing factors like marginalisation and discrimination on the basis of class, gender, location and ethnicity must be addressed. Global and regional partnerships require our sincere attention as it is important that international community extend their support to less-developed countries particularly through capacity building, technology transfer, trade facilitation and resources sharing.

The goals will lead us towards the equilibrium of social and economic development and environmental protection only if we envision the SDGs as long-term people-centred endeavours by localising the SDGs, considering different conditions and characteristics of each nation.Moreover, we need to look beyond crude measurements like GDP per capita, and concentrate on equality, social justice, and empowerment of communities so that the intrinsic value of each and every human being is properly recognised leaving no one behind.

Dr. Cecep Effendi is the Director General of Centre on Integrated Rural Development for Asia and the Pacific (CIRDAP).

MH Kawsar Rudro is working as Asst. Information and Communication Officer at CIRDAP. He can be reached at mhakwsar@gmail.com

The story has been published in The Daily Star on 6th March, 2016. Link: http://www.thedailystar.net/op-ed/linking-rural-development-sdgs-786703

It was republished in several other international news agency and news platform including the following:

Book Review : The New Digital Age

The New Digital Age
Reshaping the future of people, nations and business
Author: Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen
John Murray, 338 Euston Road, London NWI 3BH
Year: 2013, Pp. 312
Price: INR. 650

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In the next decade, the world’s virtual population will outnumber the population of earth. Information technology is taking us closer to a new world; a new age is unfolding; it is the new digital age. The Executive Chairman of Google, one of Silicon Valley’s brilliant innovators Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, the Director of Google Ideas, have portrays this new age in such a way that their vivid imagination will indeed fascinate any reader. Tracking the current advancement in ever-changing information technology, the writers sketch the future world – a world with enormous opportunity and volatile peril.

The unprecedented advancement of connectivity will have an impact far beyond the personal level that will change the ways the physical and virtual world coexist, conflict and complement each other influencing the way citizens and states would behave in the future.

In the first few chapters, the writers elucidate the staggering impact of technology in peoples’ lives and explain how everyone – individuals, companies, NGOs, government and others – will handle this new reality of existing in duel worlds, virtual and physical world; and how they will leverage the best and worst of what each world would offer in the future. In later chapters, they explain that individual, organisations and state will have to find out their own formula; and those who can best navigate this multidimensional world will find themselves ahead in the new digital age.

Mobile technology and connectivity will significantly improve the situation for citizens in virtual institutions building; a fewer jobs will require a physical presence and talented individuals will have more options available to them as a skilled young adult in Africa can compete for a job against their counterparts from a much developed country. Although there will be significant dissimilarity between us even in the virtual world, more opportunities to interact and better policy can help blur the edges; and this expansion of the virtual world will bring new ways of getting information and moving resources to solve the problems that we are facing in the physical world.

The online community we see today will be more vibrant and active as most of the people will be represented in multiple ways online creating communities of interlocking interests. Citizens will have more power than at any other time in history with knowledge and information as these connections will create a data revolution. However, this power will come with costs, particularly to both privacy and security as the citizens will lose much of their control over their personal information in virtual space; technology keeps tracks of our personal information – past, present and future – and this will have significant influence over people’s lives in the physical world.

The writers presented some interesting case studies to explain how technology will influence government services to citizens. India’s Unique identification (UID) programme, which is the largest bio-metric identification undertaking in the world that started in 2009,will provide every Indian citizen with a smart card known as Aadhaar meaning foundation or support which will comprise of a unique twelve-digit identity and an embedded computer chip containing person’s biometric data including fingerprints and iris scans. This programme is expected to improve efficiency and curb corruption endemic in the existing systems; and also to provide state aid like public housing and food rations, particularly to the marginalised.

In fact, identity, which will exist mostly online, will be the most valuable asset for citizen and this identity construction will start with birth, or even earlier and continue forever; information regarding different phases of people’s lives will be traced and kept online. This online identity will become such a valuable currency that this may attract rise of a new black market where people can buy real or invented identities, and citizens and criminals alike can take shelter under such false identity. Hence, managing and safeguarding the data will be a major challenge; and sensitive data like large bio-metric database need to be secured the way countries guard nuclear weapon nowadays. Imagine what might happen if a terrorist group steal national bio-metric database of a country!

A concise and convincing description of technology’s impact on citizen’s freedom, sate affairs and diplomacy can be found in the third chapter of the book – the future of states. Unlike today’s simple profile at social networking sites, one’s online identity in the future will be a complex batch of profiles from every online activity which will be verified and perhaps even regulated by the government as some government will consider it too risky to have thousands of anonymous, untraceable and unverified citizens.

The authors wonderfully explored the possibilities and danger that might arise in the future and what full connectivity will mean for citizens in the future, how they will react to it and what consequences it will have for dictators and democrats alike. Many governments will come with sophisticated and far reaching censorship and attempt to regulate the internet shaping its own image excluding the elements they dislike or considers as potential threats. Internet, which is often described as a lawless space, ungoverned and ungovernable by design, will go through a fundamental change. The global nature of internet is likely to fade away as ‘balkanisation’ of the internet take place; in other words, national filtering and other restriction would transform the global internet into a connected series of nation-state networks as the World Wide Web would fracture and fragment into different parts; and each state’s internet would reflect its national characteristics and policies. Soon there would be a ‘Russian Internet’, ‘American Internet’ or ‘Halal Internet’ and so on; all synchronised and sometimes overlapping but significantly separate and distinctive. Due to filtering, language, user preference and other factors, information would largely flow within countries but not across them as we can see some countries are going for aggressive and distinctive filtering; this can be considered as a sign of balkanisation of the internet. The authors also shed light on the future of Mass media as reporting duties will become more widely distributed than they are today and mainstream media will primarily become one of an verifier and a credibility filter telling people what is worth reading and what is not.

The fourth chapter of the book will provoke the readers with an interesting question – who will be more empowered by internet – state or citizen? It is clear that, with such endless connectivity, the future will see the most active, outspoken and globalised citizen and civil society the world has ever seen. We can see such incident of ‘crowd sourced justice’ in people-led movement in Middle East and other countries; and consider how internet can fuel revolution.

However, the writers pointed a very important distinction mentioning that, ‘states and citizens both gain power from connectivity but not in the same manner…Crowds of virtually courageous people might be sufficient to start a revolution, but the state can still use brutal tactics in crackdowns on the street’. States have a significant amount of power over the machines and the physical infrastructure of internet and connectivity; and they can control content or hardware people are allowed to use and even create spate Internets. It is noteworthy that people’s power of connectivity comes from what they have access to, while states can gain power from their position as gatekeeper.

The proper role of gatekeeper wouldn’t be an easy job since any government or leaders – whether legitimate, revolutionary, autocratic or tyrannical – will need elaborate strategical planning and technological skills than they ever had before. The impact of this digital age will not be same as some states will emerge stronger and more secure due to smart uses of digital power, while other will struggle just to keep up with the rapid technological changes both domestically and globally.

An interesting part of the book is the discussion of ‘the New Code War’, where the Google Executives envisage how technology is going to change international politics and power-play. World superpowers have already started investing heavily on technological capacity building as cyber-warfare capabilities is now considered as extension of their intelligence agencies. This code war will carry some classic attributes of cold war; countries may develop virtual armies together to produce computer worm viruses and other types of online espionage for economic and political gain. Such state supported hacking and cyber-attacks can be popular weapons which would be anonymous yet very powerful.

Schmidt and Cohen draw a conclusion in the final chapter of the book saying that ‘technology alone is no panacea for the world ills, yet smart users of technology can make a world of differences’; for example, government can become incredibly people-friendly taking the wisdom of crowds through technology while the autocratic leader can also use the same technology to tighten their grip on citizens’ lives.

While sketching the future world, the writer duo mention about a ‘digital caste system’ saying people’s experience with technology will be greatly determined by where they fall in the structure and the connectivity experience will not be uniform as there will be technological elite and proletariat, privileged and marginalised – which some reader may relate with digital divide taking place in developing countries.

The authors argued that attempts to contain the spread of connectivity and technology will not succeed as information, like water, will always find a ways through. States, NGOs, organisations, media and citizen – all have to adapt to this change but none will be able to control or resist it from happening.

This book will indeed test the limits of reader’s imagination as they unfold the chapters exploring the good, bad and ugly side of the new digital age. This thought provoking yet convincing description of our future world make this book a must-read for anyone who believes in the power of technology.

Reviewed by
MH Kawsar Rudro
Assistant Information and Communication Officer
Centre on Integrated Rural Development for Asia and the Pacific (CIRDAP)

*The book review was published in Asia-Pacific Journal of Rural Development (APJORD) Volume XXV (2) Issue in December 2015. A PDF copy of the book review can be found  here Book Review – The New Digital Age

Corporate Love & The Forgotten History

– M.H Kawsar

Every year, on February 14, the youth of Bangladesh ceremoniously celebrate the Valentines’ Day. Sale of cards and gift adorned with cupid signs and heart shapes reach their sales peak on the day as people wish ‘happy Valentine’s Day’ to their special ones. But, unfortunately most of the youth are unaware that a glorious history of February 14, 1983, is willingly buried behind the corporate love business.

 ***

HM Ershad took power in March, 1982 establishing military rule in the country following the military drama after the killing of Ziaur Rahman. During his regime, many civilians and students died while protesting the autocratic rule. However, the day of February 14, 1983 was different from other days as it witnessed how peoples’ collective voice can break the shackles of guns and military muscle. 

Students’ voice against Ershad soared in the end of 1982, when Dr Abdul Majid Khan, the then-minister for education during the time, announced a notorious education policy, popularly known as ‘Majid Khan’s education policy’, for the period of 1982-1987. The policy would allow education only to the students capable of bearing 50 per cent of expenses. The policy also suggested making the Arabic language compulsory from the primary level which was completely conflicting the basics of 1952’s language movement. 

Following police attack on a students’ rally on November 1982, the Kendrio chattra songram parishad was formed on November 9, 1982 at the Madhur canteen of Dhaka University, initiating the first few steps to the long movement that finally brought down the Ershad regime in 1990. 

*** 

It was February 14, 1983, the first day of Falgun of the Bengali year. On that morning, people came out, clad in festive dresses to celebrate pahela falgun that welcomes the spring season. At the same time, even in the festive mood, a procession of students was formed at the foot of Aparajeya Bangla in front of the Arts building, protesting Ershad’s repressive rule. The procession was scheduled to be brought to Doel Chattar. 

In the meantime, police and security forces took position too at several spot of the university area. At about 2:00am, the procession began moving toward education Bhaban after passing the Bangla Academy and Atomic Energy Commission. Reaching Doel Chattar, the procession turned towards the east to proceed further keeping the Doel Chattar behind. 

But the armed police opened fire on the procession following order from high ups. The unarmed students ran haphazardly as the police fired. Several students fell down on the ground and several other bullet-injured students were rushed to Dhaka medical hospital. 

University students Joynal and Zafar soon succumbed to injuries. Angry students brought their dead bodies to Bot tala at the foot of Aparajeya Bangla in front of Arts building in order to perform funeral prayers in the afternoon. 

This time, army, the then-Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) along with police attacked the students’ assembly. Students were beaten mercilessly as they ran away in different directions. The lifeless bodies of Zafar and Zainul were carried to Surya Sen Hall but soon the joint forces broke the gates of residential halls and seized the dead bodies. 

Then the joint forces entered the rooms and houses of the students, teachers and Dhaka University staff to harass them.  

As per the government press note, approximately 1,313 students were arrested and taken to army and police custody following the joint force operation on February 14. Police filed cases against them in Ramna Thana on the same day and the case was indexed as ‘47’.  

The next day, protests spread across the country as people from different classes joined the movement. The government attacked protestors leading to the deaths of many. 

Three days later, 1,021 students were freed while 310 students were kept in the custody. On February 18, the Ershad government was compelled to postpone its education policy amid continuous protests.

As per the media reports, Ershad governments brutality in the mid February of 1983, claimed at least 10 lives that includes Zafar, Jainal, Kanchan, Dipali Saha and Mozammel Ayub. 

*** 

February 14, 1983, was the day that witnessed the first movement against Ershad’s military rule leading to his downfall and putting the country on the track of democracy. 

Unfortunately, due to the failure of political leadership, Ershad enjoyed power even after the sacrifice of so many young lives. However, the day was soon recognised and has been observed as the day for protest against autocracy. 

February came again, the next year. Remembering the sacrifice of Zafar and Zainal, students again protested against the Ershad government.  

Several processions were brought throughout the month of February. On February 28, 1984, a procession began from Dhaka University and proceeded towards Fulbaria bus stand via Chankharpool. 

A group of armed riot police was following the rally all the while. As it reached the Fulbaria bus stand, two police trucks, which were following the procession, ran over the students. Within seconds, students Delwar and Selim and two more students were smashed under the wheels of the police trucks. 

The following year of 1985, February saw the death of Rofun Bosunia, a final year student of sociology at the University of Dhaka, when he protested against the dictator Ershad on the streets. 

The day February 14 had been observed as the day for protest against autocracy until 1990. Then the ‘open economy’ of 90’s washed away the blood of martyrs and swapped the historic struggle with the corporate love and so called Valentine’s Day.

 After so many years, situations have changed. Ershad, the military dictator, is now sharing power with the student leaders who once protested against him shouting ‘soirachar nipat jaak (Get rid of the dictator)’. 

People forgot the sacrifices of Zafar and Zainal, who tried to buy democracy with their lives. No one bothered to tell the youth about the history of the struggle, the moments of revolution that testified the detail that peoples’ collective voice can be stronger than guns.  

February 14, 1983 - police took position in front of Duel chottor

February 14, 1983 – police took position in front of Duel chottor

 

A poster in February 1983,

A poster in February 1983

 

February 14, 1983 – Procession at Dhaka university

 

February 14, 1983 - police on action

February 14, 1983 – police on action

 

February 14, 1983 - students mourn in front of the dead body of a protestor

February 14, 1983 – students mourn in front of the dead body of a protester

Roufun Bosunia Memorial at Dhaka university

Roufun Bosunia Memorial at Dhaka university

 

February 14, 1983 - student-police clash at Dhaka university

February 14, 1983 – student-police clash at Dhaka university

    

 

**Photo credit: Progotir Poribrajok Dol (Propod)

**This is a revised version of the write-up first published in New Age in February, 2012 and later 
published in Daily Sun in February, 2015

Don’t tread on our dreams, please!

By Korvi Rakshand and M.H. Kawsar

When bad men combine,

the good must associate;

else they will fall one by one,

an unpitied sacrifice

in a contemptible struggle.

                                           – Edmund Burke

In political campaigns and discussions, our politicians often brag about the power of youth – youth can change the world; youth are the power and whatnot. The political parties run special campaigns to impress the young voters before an election as the youth is the major vote bank that determines who will come to power.

They talk about how they will give the youth jobs, a better place to live in, endless promises. Listening to their fairytale, the youth start dreaming – this time, Bangladesh will change, people will find a country where everyone will have equal rights to education, no one will die starving, every child’s face will be lit up with a smile, and we will live happily ever after. But their dreams never come true as the unemployed and frustrated youth walk the lonely road waiting for the happy days to come.

In Bangladesh, there are an estimated 30 million adolescent boys and girls, between the ages of 10-19, who represent 20% of the population, while 40% of the population comprises of children alone. In a country where nearly half the population is aged below 18, the existence of promising youth goes uncounted, and their stories remain unheard.

Yet, the youth of Bangladesh struggle every day, they wake up every morning with dreams of a better country to live in. As the sun rises and starts spreading light, the darkness of corruption and systematic discrimination engulf their dreams. Our history of winning the title of world cup of corruption for several times, testifies how corruption and misuse of political power eat up the fruits of peoples’ hard work.

Not an anomaly

Despite the odds we face every day in Bangladesh, many youth-led initiatives are raising hope to bring changes to the system that nurtures poverty and social injustice, and caters to the need of the powerful.

Jaago Foundation started its journey in 2007 with a vision of breaking the cycle of poverty through education for the disadvantaged children who would be deprived of quality education otherwise. Having Started with a small room, with only 17 children from slums in Rayerbazar, Jaago Foundation currently runs a total of eight free of cost English Medium Schools, educating approximately 1,400 underprivileged children from disadvantaged families in different districts of Bangladesh.

With the partnership of Grameenphone, Jaago also introduced online schooling in Bangladesh in five of the schools where students in the remotest areas are offered quality education through video-conferencing technology. We are also opening five more schools this year with a vision of establishing schools in all 64 districts of Bangladesh.

Madaripur School is one of the online schools that enabled disadvantaged students of the area get free of cost education with the support of our sponsors and well wishers. About 30 disadvantaged children were enrolled in the play – group of our Madaripur School, and the students were attending classes regularly until “mighty” politics entered their classroom.

In May 2014, Shobuj, the nephew of Rehana Parveen Lipa, Secretary of women’s affairs of the Awami League in Madaripur District, applied for the role of project officer at the Jaago Madaripur School. Not having met the criteria, his application had been rejected in favour of another local candidate.

On June 15, Rehana Parveen Lipa threatened Jaago officials over the phone as her nephew Shobuj was not recruited. As we explained that her nephew is not eligible for the post, she directly threatened that the new project officer would have to face dire consequences, and even the school would be shut down if things goes against her wishes.

Next morning, her nephew along with five other men came to the school and forced the newly recruited officer to leave the premises, and said, no project officer can work here unless he is recruited. Strengthened with threats to Jaago from his politician aunt, Shobuj, who also forced the previous project officer to leave, often enters the school since then, with local goons, to make sure the newly recruited project officer doesn’t attend office.

As we were contacting the mayor and administration of the area for help, Lipa asked us to mention her name to them, and to tell them that it’s her order. We went to every contact we have to do something to save the school: mayor, MPs, minister and administration; but still, Shobuj with local goons often enter the school premises creating fear and panic among the little students.

It seems, Rehana Parveen Lipa doesn’t care about anyone, neither does her nephew and his friends. We are in between the power play, a toy for leaders. Whoever has more power will take over the school and the dreams of the underprivileged children studying in the school.

Entrapped in a corrupted system

Thanks to Lipa and her fellows, we have experienced a cruel reality where power game engulfs the pillars of state and even the media – the watchdog of society. As we couldn’t get help from the administration or political leaders, we contacted some journalists for help. Only one newspaper reported the incident, and the rest avoided it for mysterious reasons.

May be, the story was not a hot cake. The media, may be, didn’t find the incident newsworthy as no one died, or no politician said something spicy, or Justin Bieber didn’t lose his keys. But no one saw how systematic deprivation and a culture of impunity is killing our dreams, and hopes generation after generation.

This story is not an anomaly, and such misuse of political power adds fuel to corruption that skews governance in favour of the wealthy who can afford to “buy” politicians and officials – thereby exacerbating socio-economic, judicial and political inequalities. The culture of impunity deeply undermines the rule of law, trust in government and its institutions, and develops disrespect for the judiciary.

The love we share

In Jaago, there is no passive aggressive power struggle or ulterior aspirations that bubble under its surface; it is simply a group of motivated young people united by their shared desire  to educate tomorrow’s generation, and break the cruel poverty cycle which holds so many of the country’s children in its grasp.

We provide free of cost education to these disadvantaged children with your money. Each child’s education expenses are met by individuals like you who pay 1,500 taka per month to ensure the child’s nutrition and health care as well. The sponsor parent not only pays money, they also visit the school, some celebrate their birthdays together, and few even come to Bangladesh and spend their holidays at Jaago – bringing smiles on the children’s faces by giving them gifts.

Each school we run is a gift of love from kind people and well wishers. Take our Madaripur School for example, the land of the school was donated by a philanthropist and her family; they even provided the cost of building construction. Likewise, our sponsor parents bear the cost of every child and they stands beside them, embracing the children who are considered expendable by the society.

In that sense, each school is like a family, where the privileged class of the society share their love with the underprivileged. Bangladesh is advancing in every field only because some people still care about others, they share whatever little they have, embracing the underprivileged and deprived.

The dreams we dare

The youth of Bangladesh are dreamers and optimists who struggle every day, and never stop dreaming. The glorious birth of Bangladesh carries the mark of their blood, their sacrifice. The language we speak are a gift of our brave young who gave their lives for it.

Through our journey, we have met many young minds and explored immense potential among the youth of Bangladesh. We bet, like us, thousands of youth, have the wish to contribute for the society and change the existing system for a better country. A country, where no one goes to sleep hungry, no child is deprived of education, no youth is unemployed, no mother dies without treatment, no one is burnt alive, and no human life is wasted. Please, don’t tread on our dreams!

**This is a revised version of the article first published in Dhaka Tribune on July 1, 2014
Link: http://www.dhakatribune.com/long-form/2014/jul/01/don%E2%80%99t-tread-our-dreams-please

The Ailing Economy

MH Kawsar takes a critical look at the current economic situation as government borrowing has already exceeded its current fiscal target….

A January 22 Bangladesh Bank-data has shown that government borrowing has declined slightly to Tk 15,664.25 crore from Tk 18,000 crore on January 4 of this year. However, the budgetary target of borrowing from the banking system in the current financial year was Tk 18, 957 crore.

While BB sources have claimed that the latest reduction in government borrowing is due to ‘adjustment of tax revenues’, the borrowing has still crossed the entire year’s target in just four and a half months due to excessive spending on subsidy for power and energy sector, social safety coverage and a fall in foreign aid mobilisation, according to BB sources.

Prior to this on January 19, Finance minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith finally admitted that the country’s economy is ‘undoubtedly volatile’ although not in tatters, after repeatedly rejecting media reports on bad condition of country’s economy over the past few months.

Given the situation, experts argue that if proper measures are not taken, the country’s ‘volatile economy’, which is already facing high inflation, liquidity crunch, local currency depreciation and a debilitated share market, may be hit in such a manner, that effective and efficient recovery may become elusive.

Reasons of crisis
Economists observe that indicators of domestic economy are not pleasing since the government is borrowing heavily from banks while banks are in liquidity crisis, thus disturbing the flow of credit in the private sector.
From July 1 to November 22, 2011, the government borrowed Tk 20,204 crore from the banking system, which is 638 per cent more than during the same period a year ago. Till November 22, the amount was already Tk 1,248 crore more than the ongoing fiscal year’s borrowing target.
With this year’s borrowing, the government’s net borrowing from the banking sector has reached Tk 86,800.95 crore. Economists fear that such high borrowing has contributed to pushing up the inflation, which was 10.63 per cent during December 2011, slightly down from 11.58 per cent in November 2011. Although food inflation decreased to 10.4 per cent in December, non-food inflation crossed food inflation for the first time on a point-to-point basis to reach 11.38 per cent, as diesel and electricity prices went up.

‘Inflation is high. Projected growth is unlikely and foreign reserve is critical. The whole situation is really difficult,’ observes Akbar Ali Khan, a former adviser to a caretaker government and also a former cabinet secretary.
AB Mirza Azizul Islam, former finance adviser to the caretaker government, echoes Akbar Ali Khan. ‘All the indicators of macro economy are somewhat negative, interest rate is high, inflation is high, government borrowed heavily from the banks causing liquidity crisis in the private sector,’ he says.

Economists say that several factors including slump in foreign aid, remittance and foreign investment along with not up-to-mark export growth are affecting the foreign exchange reserve.

At the end of the December, as Bangladesh bank statistics shows, the foreign reserves stood at $9.35 billion, which is not enough for paying off three months’ imports.

While the increase in import payments exceeded the collective growth in remittances and export, the government still did not bother to take necessary measures to reduce lavish expenditure or to discourage the import of luxury products.

Foreign aid has reduced radically mainly due to the ‘sluggish utilization of project aid’, according to economists. As the government agencies, assigned for the implementation of development project implementation are slow in their work, media reports say that different development projects worth around $ 13 billion are currently hanging in the balance with nearly $5.0 billion worth of projects trapped in the pipeline, since the Awami league-led government took office three years ago.

As a result, as Bangladesh bank statistics says, the government received $414 million as foreign aid during July-November period of the current fiscal year, nearly $200 million less than the amount received during same period of the last fiscal year.

Moreover, following the unfortunate postponement of the Padma Bridge funding by the World Bank on allegations of corruption, misuse of funds and political instability, the opportunities to get fresh foreign aid from the international agencies and donors were hampered.

Consistent depreciation of taka is another concern as the dollar value increased sharply over the last year. Official estimate of Bangladesh Bank shows that dollar value against taka has increased 16 per cent over last one year. Experts worry that the value of dollar against taka may hit three digits soon.

Consequently the price of imported commodities has soared radically with the increase in dollar value. Ultimately the burden went to the shoulder of consumers making the inflation worse.

On the other hand, the remittance, considered a key contributor to country’s economy, has seen downward growth trend as statistics show that the remittance growth in the last three years has been 23 per cent, 13 per cent and 6 per cent in 2009, 2010 and 2011 respectively.

The slump in remittances is due to the fact that thousands of Bangladeshi workers were sent back from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, and particularly from the Middle Eastern countries following the unrest during the ‘Arab Spring’.

However, Bangladesh bank sources say that December 2011 was a turning point when Bangladesh earned $1,144.38 million, which is the record highest amount of remittance Bangladesh ever earned.
Economists say that this increase is primarily due to increased value of US dollar against taka. However, they termed it as a ray of hope amid the country’s economic crisis.

Trade deficit
Trade deficit, the difference between import and export, has widened over the past few years leading to the persistent depreciation of taka.

According to Bangladesh Bank data, country’s trade deficit increased by 30.69 per cent to $5.19 billion in the first five months of the current fiscal year compared to the same period of previous financial year. Statistics show that country’s import payment soared to $14.90 billion against exports worth $9.70 billion in July-November of the current fiscal year.

Many exporters claim that frequent price hike of fuel badly affected the country’s productivity and export sector.

Tangled Macro-economy

In June, 2011, Finance Minister AMA Muhith heavily criticised the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) when they doubted that the economy is likely to grow by 6.2-6.3 percent, not 6.7 percent as estimated by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. The angry minister, as reported in media, said, ‘Rubbish, totally rubbish, it is very unfair, wicked and politically motivated’.
But within a few months, the Finance Minister said that achieving 7 per cent growth is difficult. Likewise, while unveiling Tk 1.64 trillion budget for fiscal year 2011-2012, Muhith said that inflation would be kept up to 7.5 per cent.

But now that the inflation rate has crossed double digits, the finance minister himself has termed the inflation as the ‘biggest threat for country’s economy’.

Economists feel that inflation has been aggravated as the government has increased fuel oil prices four times during the last calendar year.

After the latest increase in the price of all fuel oil by Tk 5 per litre each, the prices of per litre of diesel and kerosene rose to Tk 61, furnace oil Tk 60, petrol Tk 91 and octane Tk 94.
Since May 2011, as media reports say, the retail prices of diesel, kerosene, petrol and octane have been increased by Tk 15 per litre and furnace oil by Tk 18 per litre.

Subsequently, sources at Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation (BPC) say that the demand for fuel has increased almost two folds over the last fiscal as data shows that BPC imported fuel worth Tk 165.66 billion in 2009-2010 fiscal while the import cost increased to Tk 285 billion in the next fiscal.

What’s more, BPC officials predicted that the country’s demand for fuel may rise to 7 million tonnes in the current fiscal and that would cost approximately Tk 500 billion.

Economists argue that the fuel run rental power plants, aimed at solving the electricity crisis, are mainly responsible for this steep rise in the demand for imported fuel. The government subsidies are ever increasing, which was about Tk 8,200 crore during the last fiscal.

Given the situation, government has been justifying its fuel price hike decision saying that it had no other option rather than increasing the retail price of petroleum products.

Zaid Bakht, research director of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, argue that such recurrent fuel price hike exerts a chain impact on the economy, which is worsening the country’s macro-economic condition and once again consumers and mass people are the ultimate sufferer.

Due to a huge gap existing in income and expenditure of the government, it has been forced to borrow from domestic bank systems. Being trapped in the tangle of liquidity crunch, the government than increased the fuel price to reduce the subsidy pressure.

Following the upsurge in fuel oil prices, the transport and production cost showed steep rise that is followed by the increase in the prices of essentials, foods as well as transport fare.

‘Due to increase in the production cost of export products, trade deficits widened as exports did not increase at the same rate, thus reducing foreign exchange earnings leading to a vicious cycle,’ observes Bakht.

Dilemma of foreign-funded projects
Government agencies responsible for the implementation of foreign aid projects are often blamed for their ‘sluggish attitude’ saying that foreign aid has reduced sharply due to slow implementation of the aid-funded projects.

However, sources at different implementation agencies argue that those foreign aid projects are in jumble as the aids come with too many strings.

For example, recently, Bangladesh government has decided to drop eight of its projects under the $1 billion Indian line of credit as execution of these projects was difficult due to difficult terms and condition.

The abandoned eight projects are modernisation of Lalmonirhat-Burimari road ($73.17 million), construction and improvement of 3rd and 4th dual gauge Dhaka-Tongi railway track and Tongi-Joydevpur railway track ($88.38 million), improvement of the Sarail-Brahman Baria-Sultanpur-Chinair-Akhaura-Senarbadi land port road ($33.335 million), procurement of 125 BG passenger carriages for Bangladesh Railway ($31.32 million), construction of Ashuganj inland container river port ($31.32 Million), improvement of Baraiarhat-Heanko-Ramgarh-Sabrum land port connecting road ($29.12 million), modernisation of BSTI ($8.972 million) and construction of a flyover on Jurain rail crossing ($7.70 million).

As per the terms and conditions, the implementing agencies are circumscribed to purchase 85 per cent of raw materials from India while the rest can be procured locally, only if the consultants fail to source it from India.
Sources at the economic relations division (ERD) say that if raw materials were imported from India, the cost of these projects would have increased manifold.

Easy fix!
While the government has been claiming that it has given its maximum effort to repair the economy, most of the measures taken by the government has somewhat failed to add flesh to country’s raw-boned economy.
In the name of remedy, the government tried to bypass its problems by taking the easiest option of fuel price increase.

‘Government is increasing the fuel price because of prescription from IMF and to reduce the pressure of subsidy,’ says Zaid Bakht, adding that the fuel price increase is ‘not the solution’.

Mirza Azizul Islam, however, suggests that government can reduce subsidy provided that poor people are not affected by the decision. ‘Government can cut the subsidies given to other items,’ he adds.

Also, recently the government has taken some steps to discourage imports of luxury products in order to tackle the taka depreciation. Commercial banks were requested to discourage opening LC for luxury goods aiming to keep a balance between country’s import and export by the Bangladesh Bank governor in January.
Besides, the government is also trying hard to get emergency funds from the World Bank and international donors.

Wise measures needed
Economists tell Xtra that it is the responsibility of the government to fix the knot that was further worsened through their ‘unplanned measures and confused management over the years’. They warned that any further delay would cost the economy. ‘Hard days are waiting for us in the coming days,’ says an economist.

‘Increasing the price of fuel government may ease the problem for short term, but it is obviously not the solution to solve the current economic crisis,’ observes Akbar Ali Khan.

‘Given the situation, it will take time to get on the track again. Here, government has no option but take strong measures to face the crisis,’ recommends Azizul Islam.

‘Experts have recommended that speedy implementation of the donor-funded projects should be given priority,’ recommends Bakht.

Moreover, the forex reserve situation should be given immediate attention and government should immediately stop borrowing from banks and look for opportunities to earn revenue instead.

‘Presently the government provides generalised subsidies that allow all the people to get the benefit but government should restructure the subsidy so that only the vulnerable and poor people get help,’ suggests Azizul Islam.

‘The government are recklessly approving so many projects without judging their necessity. Additionally, government should take necessary steps to explore new market in order to increase remittance,’ he adds.
Economists also urge the government to spend money on income generating sectors in order to reduce the woes of the masses due to inflation.

‘Observing the international economic trend closely, government should cut down less important expenditure and adopt robust fiscal measures to balance the expenditure and incomes, instead of looking for easy and short term solution,’ suggests Bakht. ‘Non-productive projects, especially which are only for politically benefit, should be cut down drastically,’ he adds.

Additionally, economists suggest that an investment-friendly environment should be created to draw foreign investment, and for that political stability is also a factor.

Note: this is the revised version of the write up first published in Daily New Age on January 27, 2012.