Friday, December 19, 2008

The Awami League Campaign 2008

If wishes were wings...
"If we are voted to power, we shall bring down the price of essentials, increase power generation, make education up to degree level free, give agricultural subsidies and ensure community health care facilities," Hasina said.

"Besides, more schools and colleges will be set up, allowances for freedom fighters, widows and elderly people will be doubled, fertiliser will be sold on open market and loans will be given to shrimp traders and unemployed youths," she said.

"We want to give something to the country. Give us a chance to serve you and the country. We shall build a developed Bangladesh where none will starve or live without clothes, education, housing and healthcare facilities," the former premier said.

Reality calls:

1. Bring Down the Price of Essentials

It's the economy, stupid! The world is already going into a deflationary spiral, although it probably won't last for long. They'll probably claim it as their doing, although they have no control over this. The quasi-military caretaker government also had no control over the inflation of 2007 and 2008, so it's tough for anyone to take blame either.

Whoever comes into power, though, will take credit for the deflation. Welcome to democracy!

2. Increase Power Generation

I've actually read a bit more about the planned policy changes the Awami League is looking for. This includes sanctioning new power projects as well as refurbishing old power plants. Refurbishment is, as far as my limited knowledge goes, a new promise: I've never heard any political party talk about refurbishment or the expansion of existing infrastructure in the past.

Refurbishment is not as profitable as new power plant projects. The tenders from new projects are far larger (more bang per corrupt buck, you may say), and come from outside bidders, some of who are either new to Bangladesh and so can be "educated" as to how things work here, or old players who have established contacts and can facilitate the "speed money" through established channels.

This is an understood fact of Bangladeshi government. Ask anyone in Bangladesh, and they'll give you the "don't be naive" frown.

The rallies Hasina is holding now costs money. This isn't the US where campaign donations from the masses can fund Barack Obama's 600-million-dollar campaign. Apart from key stakeholders in industry who contribute to secure their interests, the politicians invest their own money into their campaigns, and have to make this money back when they get back into power. And this can only be done through corruption.

3. Make Education Up to Degree Level Free

The taxation rate in Bangladesh is still extremely low, despite the BNP's efforts to increase the tax net (and in all fairness, they have arguably done a good job of it), and depending on loans from the ADB (which comes with the accompanying slow hemorrhaging of interest payments) or foreign aid (with its strings attached) won't cut it for long. We're aiming to become a Newly Industrialized Country by 2020, but we've shown that public spending has thus far been very irresponsible. The Annual Development Plan (ADP) has been set at more and more ambitious levels every year with double-digit year-on-year growths in ADP spending, but with consistently failing levels of implementation.

4. Agricultural Subsidies

Agricultural subsidies are the lifeblood of Bangladesh. Even the United States and the European Union are loathe to remove their agricultural subsidies, a very contentious point in the Doha Round of Free Trade Talks (what actually caused its collapse). Agricultural subsidies serve a very crucial function. This is money being invested in food, and it's a policy that's proven to work.

Whether the Awami League or the BNP comes into power, agricultural subsidies are here to stay. This is a mainstay and a staple of Bangladeshi government, and provides a crucial service to the economy.

5. More schools, colleges

The problem here isn't building the brick-and-mortar structures. The problem is in expanding the Education Ministry's capacity. Hiring more quality teachers at competitive pay rates (government wages in Bangladesh are infamously low) to attract proper talent, bringing in consultants from the private sector to train and equip these teachers, and hiring new and effective administrators and bureaucrats in the ministries to oversee these operations, that's where the challenge lies.

As an indication of the challenges ahead, the most corrupt sectors in Bangladesh are the Education and Healthcare sectors.

The education system in Bangladesh is nothing short of crumbling. One of the downsides of the fervent Bengali language movement (the "bhasha andolon") pre- and post-independence has been the overzealous banishment of English from the public sphere. Public schools today have an appalling standard of English education, which sets back most of the students from these schools significantly when competing in the global arena.

This is one of the reasons why maturing (and increasingly expensive) India is exporting its call centers to Pakistan and the Philippines (both countries with excellent standards of English), but not to Bangladesh.

Japan and Europe can afford not to adopt English, because Japan has been the world's second largest economy (until China squeezed it out very recently), and Europe has been a key player in innovation and engineering for centuries and they have a rich colonial history of theft to buoy them. Witnesses and the prime beneficiaries and drivers of the industrial revolution, they are not playing catch-up like we are. This irrational attachment to Bengali has cost us billions of dollars in potential GDP, jobs, industries and opportunities for our youth.

That being said, even in Bengali, the education system is crumbling. We are bad at being bad. Education comes to a virtual standstill after A-Levels (what we call "Intermediate"). The best schools in Bangladesh: Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, and Dhaka University, are frequently beset by political wrangling and fighting among the student chapters of the main political parties. This is affectionately and euphemistically called "session jam." 4-year degrees take 6 years to complete.

Students in university are supposed to be debating the finer points of capitalism versus socialism, or the ethical dilemmas posed by modernity to the pre-modern legal precepts of our culture. But instead, our university students fight with each other in the streets.

A university student from Dhaka University once put it to me very simply: it was either beat, or be beaten, and he wasn't about to take hits from anyone.

Professors are politically aligned and engage in partisan bickering in and out of the class. The Vice Chancellors in university are actually publicized political appointees. How do you expect an education system to function?

So building more schools is really not going to help. Deep institutional and cultural reform is needed in the education ministry.

5. Allowances for freedom fighters, widows and elderly people will be doubled

I was thinking "how would you fund this?" Well, 0 multiplied by 2 is 0, so it might not be that hard.

Freedom fighters, I think, have an allowance. A pittance though it may be, I think it hasn't been adjusted for inflation for decades, and the list of freedom fighters in Bangladesh is extremely flawed with many low-level soldiers totally omitted from the list (there have been reports in the Daily Star on this).

This has been an election promise since the 90s. We had a Bangladeshi painter back in Abu Dhabi, an elderly, hard-working chap with a very colourful personality. He cared enough about politics to actually schedule his annual leave around elections. Sheikh Hasina promised elderly benefits back then as well, and I remember him mentioning it with much skepticism and good-hearted cheer.

This must have been a good 10 to 12 years ago.

Here. Have a pinch of salt.


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I write essays in my spare time on things that are important to me. The ones that I feel are any good, or make any sense, I put them up here. :)