Bangladesh govt determined to re-institute checks and balances of a functioning democracy


New York : Chief Adviser of Bangladesh Caretaker Government Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed Friday expressed firm determination at World Leaders’ Forum in the Columbia University here to re-institute the checks and balances of a functioning democracy and said, the future of 140 million Bangladeshis will largely depend on the efforts to bring back the nation firmly on the path of democracy.

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“We are thankful for the full support and understanding of the international community which our government received. This support is critical to achieving our objectives of fulfilling the promise of democracy in Bangladesh. Our vision is that of a stable, prosperous and democratic Bangladesh, and we have every confidence that we will achieve this goal,” Dr Fakhruddin told the World Leaders’ Forum at Colombia University.

“We cannot afford to fail, or even falter. Our window of opportunity is very small. I reiterate our pledge to hold elections before the end of December 2008, and in that time we must lay the foundations for institutions that will prove to be sustainable,” said the Chief Adviser delivering a lecture at the great citadel of learning founded in 1754 creating many mighty minds from its portal winning over seventy Nobel prizes through the past century.

The lively lecture session was moderated by director of the South-Asian Institute of Columbia University Vidya J Dehdjia. The Chief Adviser took a number of questions from the floor.

Dr Fakhruddin described Bangladesh as a paradox that has baffled many a pundit and shared with the world leaders forum the recent experience of his country.

” We must ensure that our people reap the benefits of economic growth, and we are therefore committed to ensuring that corruption does not steal the opportunities and rights of the underprivileged.”

He said that his government is working hard to develop zero tolerance against abuse of power and corruption in Bangladesh where ‘winner-takes all’ system of politics implies that winning an election brings nearly absolute power in a given district.

Narrating Bangladesh situation, he said, the caretaker administration is doing the best so that elected governments in the future can act for the public good instead of pursuing their own interests. The first step in this direction is to create a strong dis- incentive for corruption by making it immensely costly for all individuals, politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen alike.

The Chief Adviser said corruption takes away opportunities from the most deserving. In order to foster good governance, we must promote awareness regarding the externalities of our actions.

Dr Fakhruddin said, Bangladesh cherishes its past heritage, yet nurtures innovation, witnessed by concepts such as micro- credit and non-formal education, which have transformed Bangladesh as well as the world. Bangladeshis like Prof Dr Muhammad Yunus, he said, demonstrated that individual ideas can result in profound change. Bangladesh achieved near self- sufficiency in food- production, as well as steady economic growth at an annual rate of 5-6%.

According to the World Bank, he said, Bangladesh’s GDP growth rate is the least volatile among 151 economies surveyed. Bangladesh has therefore witnessed a significant dent in the incidence of poverty since its inception as a nation.

Dr Fakhruddin said, the country is on target to achieve the first Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of reducing poverty by half by 2015. ” Our poverty headcount rate has declined from 59 percent in 1990 to 40 percent in 2005. This has been possible because we attached the highest priority to poverty reduction”.

He said, we are implementing our own homegrown Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper(PRSP), which incorporates poverty reduction targets outlined in the MDGs.

Bangladesh takes due pride in being a world leader in poverty research and innovation, he said and added, our significant growth performance, along with a decline in the population growth rate, has contributed to a doubling of annual per capita GDP growth in Bangladesh since the 1980s.

Effective farm and non-farm activities, as well as the strong export performance of the ready-made garments sector and lately strong growth of remittances from Bangladeshi migrant workers, fueled our growth rates, he pointed out.

Dr Fakhruddin said, studying our sustained economic growth, Goldman Sachs recently included Bangladesh in a list of 11 countries that have the greatest economic potential to replicate the success stories of China and other Asian Miracle countries.

He said, Bangladesh managed to increase net primary school enrolment from 74 percent in 1991 to 87 percent in 2001, and pride ourselves in having already attained the MDG of eliminating gender disparity in enrolment.

The Chief Adviser said his government has employed various food and cash-based programmes, often targeting the extreme poor, to reduce hunger and under-nutrition.

Other programmes, such as the Vulnerable Group Development (VGD), contribute to augmenting the income of the poorest households. VGD provides skills training as well as short-term employment.

The share of agriculture, the Chief Adviser said, in GDP has declined from 30 percent in 1991 to 20 percent in 2005. However, agriculture still employs about half of the population in Bangladesh and nearly 75 percent of our population still lives in rural areas.

He said his government is pursuing policies to improve market access for the farmers and to reduce distortions in prices. This will, in turn, spur growth in other sectors of the economy.

Dr Fakhruddin said, in Bangladesh, micro-credit is one of the most effective development tools. The Grameen model of credit delivery to the rural poor has proved that the poor can lift themselves out of poverty.

The micro-finance industry in Bangladesh, he told the world leaders forum, has demonstrated extraordinary growth over the last two decades. Nearly 700 micro-finance institutions ( MFIs) now provide micro-credit to nearly 13 million households.

By 2006, the Chief Adviser pointed out, the cumulative number of borrowers reached 26 million. Micro- credit programmes cover over 80 percent of our poor households, and an overwhelming majority of the borrowers are women.

He said, academics and researchers can help us to develop innovative solutions on various development issues, he said and hoped that Columbia University will take interest in such initiatives.

Dr Fakhruddin said, Bangladesh has made significant advances in ensuring education for all. Net enrolment rates in primary education increased from 74 percent to 87 percent in about 15 years, he informed the Columbia University mighty minds.

We, he said, have also achieved gender parity in primary school enrolment – one of the key millennium Development goals. The government has made female education free up to the 12th grade to ensure gender parity in secondary and tertiary

He said BRAC, the largest NGO in Bangladesh, and perhaps in the World, plays a leading role in providing non-formal education to poor children. It operates 32,000 primary schools in all 64 districts of Bangladesh with nearly 1 million students currently enrolled.

By 2005, over 3.2 million children had attended BRAC schools. Nearly 90 percent of them successfully transferred to formal secondary schools.

Referring to population, he said, in size, Bangladesh is one- 70th of the United States and added its population, however, is almost half that of this country. “Our growing population is facing a chronic deficit of jobs. This makes migration and overseas employment the only viable option for many of our people”.

The Chief Adviser said, there is compelling evidence that international migration, through remittances, the transfer of social capital and diaspora linkages, can positively contribute to poverty alleviation, while at the same time benefiting the host countries.

He said, migration stimulates development in the countries of origin. But it also benefits the recipient countries by meeting labor shortages in critical areas. By some estimates, the origin countries of temporary labor migration would enjoy a return of up to USD 200 billion if the EU, Canada, Japan and the US allowed migrants to make up just 4 percent of their labor forces.

Dr Fakhruddin said, the number of Bangladeshis that went for work abroad reached a record high of nearly 400,000 in 2006. While significant, this is still a very small number, and the potential for migration is much higher.

Remittances, he told the Columbia University sponsored leaders’ forum, reached US Dollar 5.5 billion in 2006, accounting for nearly one tenth of our GDP. Bangladesh is among the top twenty countries in terms of remittances received.

He hoped that Columbia University, especially its School of International and Public Affairs, would devote resources to studying the issue of migration.

The Chief Adviser said, the ready- made garments (RMG) industry employs more than two million women, who contributes significantly to the rural economy throughout the country.

But, the future of this important sector will depend heavily on its ability to compete with other countries. It will also depend on the outcome of the Doha Development Round, in the areas of special and differential treatment.

Pointing to signs of a slowing down in RMG exports, he said, this would have severe adverse consequences on poverty reduction efforts. By some estimates, he warned, almost 740,000 garments workers, mostly women, will lose their jobs if Bangladesh loses preferences.

He said, Bangladesh have taken bold steps to liberalize its trade since the early 1990s. Trade now accounts for nearly 37% of our GDP, compared to about 19% in 1992.

Referring to global warming, he said that by some estimates, the sea-level in the Bay of Bengal is rising by about 3 mm a year. It is estimated that as much as 30 percent of our land-mass would be submerged if the sea level rises by just one meter.

He applauded Columbia University, especially the Earth Institute for its groundbreaking work on climate change. We believe that the research done at Columbia will benefit many low- lying coastal countries like Bangladesh, he added.

The Chief Adviser said, Bangladesh is currently going through a critical phase in its history. Efforts are on to hold free and fair elections for democratic consolidation.

” We must acknowledge the fact that democracy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for good governance. Democratically elected governments during the past 15 years failed to promote
good governance and to protect citizens’ rights,” he told the leaders’ forum.

Democracy, he said, may take various forms and manifestations, its ultimate objective is always the same, the rule of law by the will of the people. It must put in place checks and balances against abuses of power and corruption, he added.