Most Nepalis are unsure about what to make of Bangladesh. When asked, they grope for clich?s: floods and cyclones, heat and dust, overpopulation and food shortage, poverty and destitution. Others who have been there talk about the allure of Bangladeshi textiles and handicrafts, the zing of Bangla cuisine, Sylhet's stunningly beautiful tea gardens and mangrove forests of Sundarbans. Some mention the vitality of politically conscious theatre and arts scenes, a few may even hum a stanza or two of evocative Rabindrasangeet.
But tell them how this youngest South Asian country, with a land area that's slightly smaller than Nepal's but a population of 150 million, has today created food surpluses. Explain to them its success in reducing population growth at a rate lower than Nepal's. Describe its pioneering use of micro-credits to help impoverished women through NGO networks. Talk about how its $ 5 billion-a-year readymade garment industry has managed to maintain a steady growth despite the end of the global quota system. Add further that South Asia's largest shopping mall opened for business in Dhaka last October and you are likely to hear the inevitably lamentable comparisons with Nepal. To be sure, highlighting Bangladesh's recent achievements is not going to make its problems related to governance, economy and geography disappear anytime soon. But doing so does recast them as manageable problems that-given the political will, resources and time-are likely to yield solutions.
And offering lists of solutions to Bangladesh's problems, in a format similar to that of a typical donor report, is what Abdul Awal Mintoo's 466-page book Bangladesh: Anatomy of Change does. Mintoo, who retired as the president of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI) in 2001 after being active on the Chambers scene for about 20 years, believes that 'a nation-state can be run like a corporation'. A fan of various western management theories, Mintoo says that a nation 'can benefit from adopting a strategic management approach'. One imagines him putting on his CEO cap to lay down, in 23 sprawling chapters, his compilation of how to address Bangladesh's problems-everything from parliamentary governance to energy infrastructure to Dhaka's transport system.
Most of the time though, Mintoo's 'strategic management' way of explaining Bangladesh-similar to what some of our own high-profile businessmen propose as answers to complex social and political problems-appears simplistic. He picks a topic, tries to lend credibility to it by throwing in quotes of western sages and stacks of Bureau of Statistics tables, then ends with lists of do's and don'ts. For political parties and politicians, for instance, he proposes that 'all decision-making processes must be transparent and that (lobbying) for any personal benefit should be considered fundamentally wrong'. Fine but how does one ensure that this recommendation can be put into practice?
Likewise, his prescription to improve governance is that 'political parties should not support the closure of ports, airports, highways and railways'. On further reading, it becomes clear that in his rush to offer solutions, what Mintoo misses is a discussion about why and how Bangladesh's democratic governance has come to be characterised by pervasive corruption, nepotism and the seemingly endless and increasingly violent rivalry between the two political Begums-the present PM Khaleda Zia and the leader of opposition Sheikh Hasina. Such a discussion would have placed his to-do lists in a realistic and changing context. Else, they risk ending up as generic lists that could be applied to any developing country anywhere.
Anatomy's chapter on Economic and Financial Infrastructure goes on for 50 pages. But again, it is no more than a catalogue of various lists about what to do about VAT, exchange rate, rural development, informal trade and the like. A typical recommendation is 'All hotels, motels, restaurants, duty-free shops and rental services should be privatised on a priority basis'. Yes, that may have to be done but how? Mintoo does not discuss the fine-grained details. Instead, he piles list after list-leaving the reader exhausted by his earnestness.
In retrospect, Mintoo would have been better off showcasing the resilience of the Bangladeshi business community which has, by all measures, done an admirable job of delivering, say, garments and frozen foods to global stores-despite persistent delays at the Chittagong Port, power outages, natural disasters and anti-business mindset of the bureaucracy. Bangladesh could well build upon the resilience of its business community to shore up its commitment to unblock constraints in the private sector.
Anatomy is useful as a reference book to flip open from time to time. It is best read as a compendium of wish lists of foreign-returned members of the Bangladeshi business elite as to what their aspirations are to develop their country in a linearly technocratic matter in the coming years.
On one hand, such wish lists, with a tinge of angst, have the advantage of conjuring up postcard-perfect pictures of the future without having to confront the messy, contradictory and dirty realities of the present. On the other hand, Bangladesh's future potential may send Nepali readers to seek other sources to better understand how their country can make use of additional trade advantages with this important neighbour.
Bangladesh: Anatomy of Change
Abdul Awal Mintoo
The University Press, 2004