Growing Up With Two Giants

February 4, 2006

By Professor Muhammad Yunus

Happy Birthday to the Daily Star!

This is a great occasion to celebrate. Pages of the Daily Star have documented fifteen years of history Bangladesh history. For Bangladeshis this is a period to be proud of. Fifteen years of democracy itself is a great cause of celebration.

Now we are at the outset of a new year which is going to be a critical year for Bangladesh democracy. Whole country is abuzz with one single question: Can we hold a peaceful and fair election on schedule as required by the constitution and desired by the nation? We see many bad signs. They upset the citizens. Despite all the bad omens, the nation must express its resolve by saying: "We shall hold the election on time. We shall make it more peaceful, more credible than any other election ever held in the past. Despite all shortcomings still remaining, we shall accept the result of the election and move on to build the nation unitedly."

Election is the Overriding Agenda

Let holding a peaceful and fair election be the overriding agenda for 2006 for our nation.

Holding the national election on time is a necessary condition to keep the process of democracy alive and strong. Any derailment from this course will be a disaster for the nation. Getting derailed is easy and, sometimes, attractive, but it becomes costlier by the day to stay derailed. Getting back on the rail is an extremely painful and slow process, and exhausts the nation by consuming all the energy and attention of the nation.

Despite outstanding accomplishments recorded by Bangladesh, people of Bangladesh feel unsettled, unhappy and frustrated. Our politics is killing our spirit. It has led to our major national crises: 1) limitless corruption, 2) rise of unprecedented terrorism, 3) fast deterioration of the public service structure. They are all inter-connected and linked to politics.

From all indications it is absolutely clear that Bangladesh has quietly and steadily built a very strong foundation to make the big leap forward. But our non-stop political bickering does not give a respite to celebrate or get inspired by our enormous successes to prepare ourselves to reach out to still higher levels of accomplishments. We are ready to launch ourselves into a path to cross USD 1,000 per capita income, 8% GDP growth rate, and reducing poverty level to under 25% in the near future. But our political attention remains riveted to day to day party politicking rather than strategic national issues.

Lucky to Have Two Giants As Our Neighbours

India and China are almost there. They have already reached the 8% growth rate and 25% poverty level. They are becoming such political powers and economic power-houses that the whole world is gathering around them to get their attention.

Bangladesh is lucky to have two globally sought-after giants as her next door neighbours. These giants are not sleeping giants. They are super-active, and growing very fast. We must learn how to take advantage of fast growing giants. We must assess our best interest in building our relationship with them. In their turn, they'll assess their best interest in having us as their neighbour.

Obviously, they will look at us as their market, their competitor, their partner, and also as a potential trouble-maker. From our side we must make it absolutely clear that we have no intention to be trouble-maker for our neighbours, nor do we want to see them as trouble-maker for us.

But a section of our politics find it a very attractive theme to impress on the common people of Bangladesh that India is behind all the terrible things that happen in Bangladesh. If you don't vote for our party, India will turn Bangladesh into her client state.

Countries are not made of saints only or angels only. There are bad people in India, who can dedicate themselves to do bad things to Bangladesh. Similarly, there are bad people in Bangladesh committed to do bad things to India. Both countries must remain vigilant to catch the bad people and punish them forthwith to uphold the friendship between the two countries.

Growing Up With Giants

When our giant neighbours bring the whole business world to their door-steps, our door-steps come very near to the business world. Visibility and contacts are very important factors in business. They come to us easily because of having important neighbours. If we play our cards right our economy can pick up the speed of our neighbours. Even if a small proportion of their business finds its way to our shores, we benefit tremendously. Before business moves away to Africa, buyers and investors will examine our capability. It will be our failure to catch them that will push businesses away from us.

Growing neighbours are also sources of technology and experience. Expanding economies keep moving towards more and more high-profit products and services, leaving behind low- profit, labour intensive items. This creates opportunities for neighbours. This is not to suggest that Bangladesh has to satisfy herself only with the markets and the products which giant neighbours are not interested in. What Bangladesh can do will depend on our level of efficiency and management skill. Bangladesh can find niche to provide high value specialised products and services to her giant neighbours.

I am emphasising on the fact that having two fast growing giant neighbours is a great boon for us. Let us dispel the fear that living between two giants is a scary prospect --- that we may be stepped on from any side, any minute! On the contrary we'll be the beneficiary of coasting effect of having two giants next to us. We can get a ride on the fast train with them.

An Open-Door, Open Arm Country

Future of Bangladesh lies in being an open-door, open-arm country. We must not live under the fear of Indian wolf. We must get the constant fear of Indian wolf out of our system. If it is a real threat, we'll have to prepare for it and get on with our lives. If it is imaginary, we'll have to get our minds cleansed out. Frequent cries of Indian wolf is a sign of our political emptiness. We carved out a separate country for the Muslims in 1947 to protect us from Hindu domination in the united India. We created Bangladesh to protect us from the Punjabi domination. Now some of us are rediscovering Hindu domination coming from India. Where do they want us to go now?

We are not going any where. We stay where we are. In the world today domination does not come through sneaky conspiracies. Domination comes from economic power. If we remain a poor country, everybody will dominate us, not just India. Moving up the economic ladder quickly is the best protection from all dominations. Let us not confuse this issue.

In order to move up the ladder quickly we should open all our doors, invite everybody in, encourage our people to spread themselves all over the wide world, show their talents and win over the confidence and appreciation of the whole world. Hiding behind closed doors is no protection at all.

Let's Make Bangladesh the Cross-Roads of the Region

Let's vision Bangladesh as the cross-roads of the region, if not the world. Let people, products, investments from all over the world flow into Bangladesh, and out of Bangladesh, with utmost ease, safety, and efficiency. Let's make our laws, institutions, bureaucracy, travel and transportation facilities, financial system most friendly to the movement of people, investments, goods and services in and out of Bangladesh. Let's build everything in Bangladesh in such a way that Bangladesh becomes the natural first choice of hard-nosed investors and traders. Let Bangladesh be Bangladesh International. Let us all agree on this vision and then move forward unitedly to make it a reality in the fastest possible speed.
To make Bangladesh an international cross-road we'll have to address the following:

  • Reduce corruption level drastically.
  • Provide reliable electricity all over the country.
  • Open up ICT and make Bangladesh a very attractive country in terms of state-of-the-art ICT.
  • Build a mega-port in a suitable location along the Chittagong coast line capable of serving the following countries: Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Eastern India, Myanmar and South-Western China.
  • Build highways to connect the mega-port with all six countries.

We must visualise Bangladesh as the ICT, industrial and trading hub of the region. On the first day of 2006 we have signed a document which has the potential to change the economy of SAARC region. The document we signed was the document relating to SAFTA agreement. Now Bangladesh should take the lead, rather than wait for initiatives to come from other countries, to move SAFTA forward. We can be smart, open our doors, convert disadvantages into opportunities, and change our destiny. Our biggest worry is corruption. In a corrupt environment it is easy to befool the system; by throwing in money, one side can take away all the gains of trade (even so, I'll not support a closed border, which creates a fertile ground for higher-stake corruption). There is no way out but to eliminate corruption in politics, from where the infectious disease of corruption spreads around.

Geographically Bangladesh is strategically located to provide access to international shipping to Nepal, Bhutan, Eastern India, Myanmar and South-Western China. We should start making appropriate preparations, in consultation with these countries, to create facilities for access. Again, it'll to be our call to draw attention of our neighbours. We'll have to do our home-work well to show them the benefits accruing to them by opening up the access to the sea-routes through Bangladesh, and doing business with Bangladesh. We'll have to resolve formidable political and technical issues with India. Remaining passive is not at all to our interest. It is actually very costly in terms of gains foregone. True leaders not only have visions, they have to have the burning drive to push through the solid walls of obstacles to make their visions come true. Vision must be backed up by hard work and dedication.

Mega-port at Chittagong

Mega-port at Chittagong is the key to making Bangladesh the cross-road of the region. With the economy of the region growing at a sustained high speed, demand for the access to a well-equipped well-managed port will keep on growing. A region, which includes two giant economies, will be desperately looking for direct shipping facilities to reach out to the world. Chittagong will offer the region the most attractive option. Even today, despite the problems of present Chittagong port, Kunming is requesting permission to utilise this facility.

With global competition becoming more fierce shorter and shorter lead time for delivery will become the magic formula to attract business. An efficient mega-port at Chittagong will be in high demand. This port can be built and owned by a national or international company with government participation in equity. It can contract out the management of the port to a professional port management company.

International Airport

Mega-port may support an international airport in its proximity. With appropriate aircraft servicing facilities and hotels, this airport can become an airline hub. It has the advantage of cutting distances to many Asian cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Beijing, Shanghai, etc, and taking off the pressure from important SAARC airports.

Highway Network

During the SAARC Summit held in Dhaka recently, Dr. Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, proposed to build a highway network to connect the SAARC countries. We should enthusiastically welcome this proposal and offer our plan to build highways connecting Nepal, Bhutan, eastern India, and Pakistan. We should make sure that our highway network extends upto Cox's Bazar, so that it can be connected with Myanmar, Thailand and China --- in the eastern side.

Need a Regional Water Management Plan

With borders opening up, highways criss-crossing the region, businesses growing, we can create mutual trust among our neighbours leading to right kind of political climate to engage them to work towards preparing a regional water management plan in conjunction with the plan for regional production and distribution of electricity. Fortunately, this region has an enormous capacity to produce hydro-electricity. With political understanding Bangladesh can meet her ever growing electricity need from a mutually beneficial arrangement with Nepal, Bhutan, and India.

Human Resource of Bangladesh

Human resource is our best resource. We must pay our top priority to make sure our young generation get prepared to play important roles in a global framework. It is nothing but utter disgrace that we have allowed some of our young people to turn into suicide bombers. This is an unforgivable failure on our part. We must take the blame without any excuses, and must ensure that no other young man has to choose the path of suicide for any reason.

USD 100 Lap-tops to School Children

Bangladesh has a very young population. Half the population is under the age of 18 ! If we pay serious attention to them we can create a dramatically different next generation. Some countries are already signing up with MIT Media Lab to provide USD 100 lap-top to each school student, just like text books. Lap-top to a child gives a message. Message is: Discover yourself, discover the world, create your own world. There is no reason why we cannot sign up with MIT Media Lab to do exactly the same and give lap-tops to our students. Let us not miss this world-changing opportunity.

One way to let all children, poor or rich, boy or girl, urban or rural, feel equal is to ensure access to computer and internet. This connectivity also takes off some of the unevenness in our educational facilities. We have already witnessed a telecommunication revolution. Within a short span of five years mobile phones have reached every village in Bangladesh. At the end of 2006, one in every eight persons in Bangladesh will have a telephone! With USD 100 lap-top, every school student will have access to internet telephony.

Our Young People Can be Role Model

The world that these young people will create will be the world of innovative ideas. Old resistance to new ideas will crumble away. Ideas will chase ideas. Seekers of ideas will sift through mountains of ideas to get to the ones they are looking for. Unlike in old times, ideas and innovations will no longer remain unknown. Creativity in every direction will be rewarded more than anything else. Our education system has to be oriented towards promoting creativity in our young people.

Grameen Bank employs 17,000 staff. Ninety per cent of them are young people. I see the dedication and commitment with which they work. They can be role model for young people any where in the world. Grameen Bank gives student loans to Grameen borrowers' children to pursue higher education. Nearly 10,000 such students have received student loans from Grameen Bank to study in medical schools, engineering schools, universities, etc. Their parents are illiterate and poor. It is for the first time in the history of their families that some one went to school. They are making a sharp break in their family history --- going from illiteracy to highest level of education ! It is a thrill to meet them and talk to them.

I meet many Bangladeshi young people when I am visiting foreign countries. Many of us are used to meeting Bangladeshis in New York. But it is a quite different experience to meet young Bangladeshis in a small town of Spain, or in an island in Italy, or in Argentina, Chile, Columbia. They show up to meet me at the hotel, or in the conference where I am speaking. They discover my presence in the town from the newspaper reports. They come individually. They come in groups. Among everything else they express their worry about the political situation in the country. I ask them how they got there. Each tells a horror story. Each time it is a story of perseverance, tenacity, and high risk adventure. It is quite an experience to hear them tell the story of how they moved from one country to the next, how they switched from one livelihood to another. They are doing well now. They have learnt the local language, and understand the local way of life. They are at ease with local people. Story one gets from a migrant worker working in an Asian country is different, but not too different. It is the story of how they are cheated by the man-power agents, and how they are mistreated by the airport officials, at the time of departure as well as at the time of visits.

Bangladeshi young people reached out to all corners of the world with basically individual and family initiative, using network of friends and relatives. Government has built some facilities to help them by making it easy for them to go out. But you hear more about the harassment, bribes. extortion and unresponsiveness of the government officials than nice things about these arrangements. These young people who live under extreme difficulties are making a big contribution to the national economy. They have been sending a very substantial amount of money as remittances.

Overseas Remittance

The piece of information that amazed me is: in 2004, Bangladesh received USD 3.4 billion in remittances, compared to India's USD 21.7 billion (China USD 21.3 billion). That is quite an achievement! With nine times larger population, India's share would have been USD 30.6 billion if she had received the same per capita remittance. Bangladesh remittance earning rate compares well with Pakistan too (Pakistan USD 3.9 billion). Total remittance to Bangladesh constituted one-third of the total foreign exchange earning of the country. Despite all the problems faced by Bangladeshi migrant workers, this is a very significant chunk of foreign exchange earning contributed by them.

More important than the quantum of foreign exchange earning, remittances go directly into poverty reduction. The World Bank Global Economic Prospects Report says this remittance inflow has helped cut poverty by 6% in Bangladesh and given a boost to rural economy.

This is one fascinating example of low-income people making direct strategic contribution in achieving nation's economic and social goals. This is also an example of common people's initiative in changing their own lives. As an appreciation of their great contribution to the nation we could have done a lot more to reduce the risks involved in venturing out of their own known world to totally unknown territories. We could help them increase their earnings, reduce their costs, and humiliation.

Must Keep On Building Up Respectability As a Nation

Bangladesh is a rather new name in the list of nations. It came to world's media attention mostly through disasters --- floods, cyclones, tidal-waves, etc. Reporting on disasters always highlight poverty, and helplessness. That's the image of Bangladesh that sticks in people's mind. Two recent negative images have been added to that. One, Bangladesh has been repeatedly found to be the most corrupt country in the world, and two, suicide bombers are killing innocent people in Bangladesh.

Image of a country is very important when it comes to dealing with the world. The better the image a country has, the better is the deal it gets. To be successful in international relationships we'll have to build up respectability as a nation. Luckily for us Bangladesh has a very strong positive side which counters the negative image to a large extent.

Bangladesh is enormously respected globally for being the birth place of microcredit. Every country in the world feels the need for microcredit. No country can ignore it. They study microcredit in academic institutions, discuss it in meetings, conferences and workshops. Most countries, rich or poor, have active microcredit programmes. They all pay respect to Bangladesh for being the originator country. Bangladesh, microcredit, Grameen have become synonymous in the minds of people around the world.

Bangladesh is remembered as the country which gave the world oral saline to combat diarrhea.

Bangladesh earned respectability by demonstrating her skill and efficiency in disaster management. World media publicly suggested that Tsunami affected countries and the USA, after devastating Katrina, should learn from Bangladesh in disaster management.

Bangladesh is cited as a success story in producing enough food to feed her people despite doubling the population in 35 years.

In Terms of Human Development Indicators Bangladesh is Third From the Top

Bangladesh birth rate has declined significantly. Fertility rate declined from 6.3 in 1975 to 3.3 in 1999 - 2000 reduced almost to half. This is cited as a global success story.

During early 1990's world looked at Bangladesh with pessimism. But it all changed dramatically. Now Bangladesh stands up with many laurels over her head. World is trying to understand how can a country do so well when it is number one country in corruption, its weakness in governance is so unbearable, politics is so chaotic and confrontational, work stoppages are so frequent and unpredictable.

Economic performance and human development indicators of Bangladesh have been moving upwards since early 1990s. GDP growth has been over 5 per cent during this period.

Bangladesh has very impressive performance in terms of the human development indicators. In terms of these indicators Bangladesh came out in number three position in the developing world, after China and Cave Verde.

Life expectancy of women in Bangladesh used to be lower than men. Now it is higher than men --- a better performance compared to South Asia as a whole.

Female labour force participation rate increased dramatically between 1983 and 2000, both for rural and urban, with sharper increase in rural, than in urban. Female labour force participation rate in rural area increased from 7 per cent in 1983-84 to 22 per cent in 1999-2000. Urban rate increased from 12 per cent to 26 per cent during the same period.

Child and infant mortality have been falling at more than 5% a year, malnutrition among mothers has fallen from 52% in 1996 to 42% in 2002. Primary school enrolment rates have reached 90%, up from 72% in 1990. Enrolment in secondary education has been rising. Bangladesh has already eliminated gender disparity in primary and secondary school enrolment and has made remarkable progress in providing universal basic education.

In the past decade, Bangladesh reduced infant mortality by half ---- at a rate faster than any other developing country has done, increased adult literacy rates by 8 per cent for women, and 6 per cent for men.

In terms of infant mortality rate and female primary enrolment, Bangladesh is ahead of West Bengal, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh of India.

Progress towards achieving millennium development goals (MDG) in Bangladesh is surprisingly on track. According to data on current trends, Bangladesh has either met or is expected to meet most of the MDG targets. If right policies are pursued dedicatedly there is a good chance that Bangladesh will reduce poverty by half by 2015.

Capacity Has Been Built, We Are Ready to Go

Bangladesh has outstanding accomplishment in reducing child labour. According to UNICEF, percentage of child labour in Niger is the highest (66%). Bangladesh has one of the lowest percentages (7%). Nepal is 31%, India 13%.

The list of our accomplishments is long and very impressive. We notice the admiring eyes of international delegates focused on Bangladeshi delegates when we attend international conferences, be it microcredit, disaster management, health, education, renewable energy, environment, women empowerment, or child labour.

When we visit capitals of SAARC countries we are always asked, "How did you do it? What must we do to catch up with you?"

I am not saying that Bangladesh is on top of everything. Far from it. Our list of failures is much longer than the list of successes. I bring up the list of successes to point out how wrong we are when we throw up our hands in the air to say in frustration that we'll never make it. This list of successes will convince anybody that not only will we make it, we have already made it in many respects, and will do better than many others around us, and like us.

Good news that comes out from these successes is that we have created the capacity to address all our problems roundly and solidly. Not only we have gained self-confidence, we are ready to earn the confidence of the world. Soon a Bangladeshi passport can bring out admiration and respect from others, rather than suspicion and disrespect.

It is hard work to score points in respectability. It is easy to lose points. One tiny incident, one tiny misstep, one tiny callous decision can push us down quite a bit in respectability. Let us hold on to what we already have, and add to it, as much as we can. It is our very precious capital in facing the world.

Here are our two most important tasks at the moment: we must combine all our efforts 1) to make sure we hold our election on time with the participation of all major political parties, and 2) make sure we reduce corruption sharply and immediately.

Voters Must Unite to Say 'No' to Corrupt Candidates

Yes, Bangladesh has done very well so far. We may thank our luck for it. But let us not get used to relying on our luck alone. If we do, everything around us will crumble soon.

This year, 2006, is the year for the nation to sit up and make a desperate attempt to put our house in order. People have to wake up to the fact that they are the boss. People have to make their minds known to the politicians who want their votes to run the country on their behalf. This is the election year. This is the best time to get heard. Voters should not allow themselves to be treated as absentee owners who do not have any knowledge of their own properties. All that the absentee owners are offered by their employees, is to sign on the dotted lines. No question is allowed.

Voters must refuse to sign on the dotted line. When political parties nominate their candidates, they do not consult the voters. Voters are not given any real choice, such as a choice of voting for an honest person, for a person who is committed to work for people, for someone who is not known to have amassed wealth by using his power as a member of parliament or as a party official or a worker. Only choice voters are given, is the choice of voting or not voting.

Voters want to vote, and want to vote for a person they admire, rather than be compelled to vote out of party loyalty, or on some other considerations. Voters must create their own choice. If political parties offer corrupt candidates, people will put up their own clean candidates. If we don't do that we'll continue to be the most corrupt country in the world, and our dreams will never get a chance.

Voters Can Organise Campaign for Clean Candidates

I propose that this year the voters create their own option. They tell the political parties who is to be nominated in their constituency. Supporters of each political party or alliance of political parties will organise themselves to prepare a three member panel of clean candidates of their choice, in order of their priority, and give it to the political party/parties to nominate one out of them. If none of their candidates are nominated voters will be free to submit blank ballots as a protest, unless they actually ask one of their candidates to run as an independent candidate. Similarly, voters who do not vote on party lines will organise themselves and suggest to all parties who they should nominate.

Voters must start speaking out their minds from now on. Rather than speculating about who is going to get which party's nomination, party supporters and independent voters have to start speaking out who they think should be nominated. This year people should get themselves heavily involved in the nomination process. This will be the only way to get the bad people out, and good people in.

Core agenda of the voters and non-voters this year will be to eliminate corrupt candidates from the ballot-paper. If they still get on the ballot-paper, it has to be ensured that they'll not be the only ones on the ballot-paper. Honest persons as protest candidates will be put on the ballot-paper as people's choice. The loudest message the voters must give to the political parties is: "We shall not give votes to a candidate who is known to be corrupt, who is known to have amassed wealth by misusing his power and authority or using his power to terrorise people."

All civic groups, associations, professional bodies (teachers, doctors, journalists, etc.), youth groups, farmer groups, women groups, business groups, student groups, political parties, individuals, both voter and non-voters, can prepare and submit their panels to the political parties. They can make a panel for each alliance of political parties. Groups can share these panels among each other, can come up with common panels to make their cases stronger. If the clean candidates within the party do not want to run against the party candidates, voters can select an independent clean candidate to run.

When sending the chosen names for party nominations to respective party, voters should give those names also to the press. Voters should keep lobbying with the parties to let them know how strongly they (voters) feel against the potential party candidate and promote the case of their own candidate. Voters should tell the party that if they nominate the person that voters reject, then that candidate will not get their vote. Voters will vote for their own candidate instead. Even if their candidate does not win, voters will have a tally of protest votes. If these protest votes add up to be a significant number, it may have an impact on the outcome of the election. Some protest candidates may even win.

I invite the media to launch their own Clean Candidate Campaign. They can start a series of reports identifying and highlighting at least three potential clean candidates for each contesting political party, in each constituency. They may refrain from publishing speculative news about possible nomination of non-clean candidates who are usually considered as front-runners. Media can play a decisive role in bringing out support for clean candidates, and destroy the chances of non-clean candidates in getting nominated or elected.

Students can play a vital role in this Campaign for Clean Candidates. But they'll have to start building up the campaign organisation right from now. They can work in the constituencies where they appear as voters, or volunteer in other constituencies. Electing clean people to the parliament is very important task this year.

A Proposal To Resolve Election Impasse

Opposition parties have put some conditions for their participation in the next general election. These conditions can be discussed and resolved if the two opposing sides can sit face to face. But given the past history, we do not expect this to happen.

Here is my proposal. I request both sides to find a Respected Person, accepted by both sides, who will come up with a solution package in consultation with both sides. He will be given 30 days. If both sides agree time can be extended. The Respected Person can co-opt two persons of his choice to help him prepare the solution package.

There may be other proposals to resolve this impasse. Let us all put them on the table to see if any one of them can interest both the parties. Although ruling party's position on those conditions is clear and constitutionally correct, there is nothing wrong or unconstitutional about making attempts to bring all parties on board to hold a peaceful, credible national election.

Our media, and individual or groups of citizens can suggest names of the possible Respected Person. Ruling and opposition alliances can come up with their own choices and pass on to the other side.

Important thing is to hold the election in the right manner, and right mood, to uphold our democracy and move forward.

Tremendous Energy Waiting to be Mobilised

World is changing very fast. If we are late by a day we'll fall behind by years. We have come a long way and we are ready to go forward with speed. Bangladesh has the fire in her belly to keep pace with her giant neighbours. Let us not allow ourselves to slow down. We need the right politics and the right leadership to mobilise the tremendous energy in Bangladeshi young people.

Let us think and work hard to make it happen.

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