মঙ্গলবার, ২৯ সেপ্টেম্বর ২০২০, ০৯:৪২ অপরাহ্ন
Dr. Reza Kibria ::
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required…If a free society cannot help the many who are poor it cannot help the few that are rich.” John F. Kennedy
The Covid-19 pandemic has not only changed the way we live and work, but may bring about a sea-change in how we view global issues. We suddenly have time for introspection and taking stock, not just of our own lives but our societies. Is this really the world we want to live in and leave to our children? Wealth is concentrated in a few hands while the poor are faced with the soul-destroying choice of which child they can afford to feed. Futile wars profit only armaments manufacturers, harming millions and depleting precious resources needed in education and healthcare. Refugees flee violence and hunger in failed states, and are greeted with batons and in havens of peace populated by otherwise decent people. In the face of evidence that we are destroying our environment, Governments fail to achieve consensus on corrective actions, thereby betraying our collective responsibility to future generations. The state of the world even before Covid-19 does not seem to warrant smug satisfaction anywhere.
In the corridors of power of the nations “that matter” there is an unspoken understanding that some countries and people just “don’t matter”. The premise is that the prosperity and lifestyles of richer nations can exist in isolation, their populations untouched by suffering elsewhere, except by media images of hunger, misery, and genocide in distant lands. One questions this view given the fact that we breath the same air (granted the difference between New Delhi and Auckland), swim and fish in the same oceans, regard international travel for work or play as an essential part of our lives, and profit from the specialization in production and trade in goods and services that raise overall well-being. Moreover, with aging populations and huge unfunded pension liabilities in the industrial nations, their growth and fiscal stability cannot be sustained without immigration or “guest workers” willing to do jobs no resident is willing or able to do.
The refugees now trying to enter Europe and the United States are testimony to the impossibility of remaining oblivious to what happens elsewhere. Building walls appears to be a simple but expensive response to the problem of keeping people out, but will it really be effective?
The United States, its confidence shaken by a series of unfortunate foreign adventures, has recently moved away from the globalist ethos of the post-World War II era. It has resiled from international commitments and is seen as no longer willing or able to take up the mantle of global leadership. The coronavirus may strengthen isolationism in the United States, but It would be unjust to blame just this one country for turning inwards. Most OECD nations (Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries being exceptions) mouth vaguely comforting platitudes about being “partners in development”, but these statements mask basically similar attitudes. As for the United Nations and other international agencies, they merely mimic the attitudes and actions of the richer nations who largely fund them.
The richer nations (the “North”) may need to rethink their strategy towards the rest of the world (the “South”). This should be not out of any sense of philanthropy, post-colonial guilt or in terms of being a source of raw materials, market for their manufactures or investment destination, but with a view to protecting their own interests. The Covid-19 has exposed some critical fault lines in countries of the South that threaten the well-being not only of their own people, but of the entire world.
The North has acquiesced in the emergence of outright dictatorships and autocracies masquerading as democracies. Bangladesh is one example of such a “democracy”. Kleptocratic rulers, blatantly rigged elections, the stifling of dissent and the harassment of the opposition and the media present a familiar pattern. The Bangladesh elections in December 2018 were marked by remarkable turn-out numbers – figures in the high 90s were not uncommon and one enthusiastic election official initially declared a turnout of 104% in a southern constituency. The Government and its allies “won” 294 out of 300 parliamentary seats. The use of ruling party thugs, police and security forces to intimidate and brutalize opponents has so far ensured the absence of any major displays of public disaffection, so far. Forced disappearances are not uncommon and the murder of a university student for anti-Government posts was just one such instance of open killing of opponents. There were some mildly disapproving statements from development partners after the elections and then it was “business as usual”.
There is vast and obvious corruption throughout the Government, as reflected in the defaulting on loans taken from state banks by political cronies and the inflating of infrastructure project costs by large “commissions”. This has been associated with widening inequality, the build-up of debt without a matching accumulation of assets, the weakening of the financial system, capital flight, high costs of doing business, and glaring inefficiency in administration. The absence of democratic institutions, free and fair elections and a free media preclude any real accountability. Without political and judicial accountability there can be no incentive to improve governance. All this is seen by some outside observers as the price of political and economic “stability”.
The Bangladesh Government, widely perceived as illegitimate, has failed to win the confidence of the public due to mismanagement, corruption and inefficiency in its handling of the coronavirus crisis. The public health system has been quickly overwhelmed and testing has been minimal. Official statistics on infections and deaths are regarded with disbelief. The Government failed to introduce a strict lockdown reinforced by a curfew. Instead, a “general holiday” announced at the end of March represented a confused and half-hearted response to the coronavirus. It damaged the economy without containing the outbreak.
The delayed and inadequate Government response has caused great consternation and anger as it is believed to have resulted in needless suffering and deaths. The delay is widely believed to have been linked to the March 17 celebrations for the centenary of the birth of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Bangabandhu- Friend of Bengal), the leader of the Independence movement. A second explanation is that the Government was clueless about the threat posed by Covid-19 and did not comprehend the significance of warnings by the WHO. As early as January 30th the WHO declared that the outbreak constituted a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) and on March 11 declared it a Global Pandemic. Either explanation for delayed action does not reflect well on the Government.
Even in early June social distancing is not always practiced and quarantines or localized lockdowns are enforced very loosely. People are encouraged to stay at home and yet shops and factories have been allowed to open. An already strained healthcare system faces collapse with many doctors and nurses without adequate protective gear falling victim to the virus. This at least partly due to the Government supplying insufficient or substandard items. The lockdown has reduced the poor to destitution and hunger. In such a situation the very poor do not face a “decline in net worth” or “financial losses”. Without an effective and corruption-free system to deliver cash or food to the needy, they face hunger and starvation. The Government, mired in a culture of graft, has found it impossible to develop a reliable system for relief distribution. Leaving the management of public food and cash distribution to local ruling party leaders has been disastrous, with many media reports of misappropriation. The Government’s response has been to arrest journalists and even private individuals who draw attention to such activities.
The honest answer of some observers in the North to all this will be, “how does this matter to me?”. The answer is, it will matter, probably sooner rather than later. The effects of incompetent government in such countries eventually spill over to the North. Even before Covid-19, there were a large number of states in the failed or failing state category, most of them corrupt and non-democratic. The current crisis will add quite a few more to this list.
Good governance everywhere is desirable due to negative “spillover” effects of dysfunctional states and the positive effects of competent management. Corruption, for example, is often the cause of unsustainable debt burdens, with assets created not being matched by outlays, creating debt crises that strain global financial markets. Reducing the economic and social factors that encourage people to migrate would also necessitate less expenditure on discouraging illegal immigration to the North. Moreover, with more efficient governments, capital-poor nations with high rates of return for capital, strong demographics and high propensities to consume could be even more attractive destinations for investment. A final consideration is that corrupt and incompetent governments make poor partners in any global initiative, from tackling Covid-19, to eliminating terrorism and dealing with the problems caused by global warming.
In the final analysis, any improvements in countries of the South must come through internal forces for change. What is needed from the North and the development agencies it controls is a more nuanced approach to promoting economic growth and stability in developing nations. Sometimes what seems like self-interest merely reflects the choice of time-frame. Taking a longer view may make sense, however difficult this is in countries where policy perspectives are limited by the election cycle. This would support the process of developing responsible and accountable political structures everywhere that will yield efficient governance as well as sustainable and more equitable social and economic outcomes. This will not only be in the interest of the people of such countries, but would ultimately benefit the global community.
June 3, 2020
Dr. Reza Kibria has worked for the IMF and other agencies. He is currently General Secretary of the Convening Committee of Gono Forum. He dedicates this article to the memory of a beloved Oxford teacher, Prof. Peter Sinclair, who died recently due to Covid-19.