Right politics for development

Publish: 9:39 PM, December 6, 2021 | Update: 9:39:PM, December 6, 2021

Entering 1900s Norway was (together with Ireland) one of the poorest countries in Europe. Entering 2000s Argentina was one of the most prosperous countries in the world but lost its status between 1916 and 1989. Today, Norway is one of the richest countries in the world, with Argentinais fading to become a ‘middle-income’ country. Beginning from the same level, some forty years ago, Malaysia is now an upper-middle income country (where many Bangladeshis are going to make fortune) while Bangladesh is still struggling to break out of the least developed country (LDC) status.
This write-up has high relevance in the present context of Bangladesh when the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) seems to be getting ready to unleash another round of destructive agitation just to spoil the developmental activities of the present government though it hides its real intention under other excuses.

The remarkable transition for both Norway and Malaysia has been driven mostly by the smooth transformation of political power, and appropriate exploitation and proper management of natural resources. Meanwhile, Bangladesh and Argentina have seen a vulnerable on-off democracy alternate with military dictatorships, while the institutions which should support a democratic system have been kept weak.

Evidence shows that economic growth, poverty alleviation and political stability are interconnected. On the one hand, the uncertainty associated with an unstable political environment may reduce investment and the speed of economic development. On the other, poor economic performance may lead to governmental collapse and political unrest. A joint study by four distinguished academics (Alberto Alesina, SuzOzler, Nouriel Roubini and Philip Swagel) – measuring Political Instability and Economic Growth – found that, in a sample of 113 countries for the period 1950-1982, when countries and time periods with a high propensity of governmental collapse, growth is significantly lower than otherwise.

Many believe the real problem of development is not figuring out good policies; it is to sort out the political process. If the politics are right and responsible to the public, good policies will eventually emerge. Without good politics it is impossible to design or implement good policies. In their book Poor Economics, MIT professors Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo argue that “there is no point in figuring out the best way to spend a dollar on schools if 87 cents will never reach the school anyway.” If teachers and nurses do not come to work, no education or health policy can really be implemented. If truck drivers paying a small bribe to police can drive massively overloaded trucks, billions of dollars will be wasted in building roads that will be destroyed under their wheels, Banerjee and Duflo go on.

Until institutions that support a stable political environment and smooth political changeover have properly been developed and grounded on a solid footing no country can go far for the wellbeing of its citizens. The long shadow of bad political institutions, cultures and habits creates a vicious circle called the “iron law of oligarchy.” Development experts believe this is the main reason many countries in the developing world have failed to grow. Basket-case Bangladesh could, by now, emerge as a Tiger-case if the political class controlled their greed and abandoned their vision of accumulating personal wealth. Specially, the rule of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) during the eighties and nineties were just too bad when Bangladesh five times consecutively had the distinction as the most corruption infested and mal governance prone government in the world.

The unfortunate reality in most of the poor developing countries is that those already in power under the current political institutional framework get to make sure that the economic institutions work toward making them even richer, and use their wealth to forestall any attempts to move them out of power. This is true from Burundi to Bangladesh, from Nepal to Nigeria.

Political instability costs the poor the most no matter which parts of the world they live in; in a rural village or in a city. When a series of Hartal (strikes) occur in Bangladesh it is the day-labourer, street vendor and rickshaw puller who become the victim. For those struggling to survive, the cost comes in two ways: loss of employment, and higher prices for their daily needs.

If the political processes are right, good mission-driven policies will eventually emerge. It is the responsibility of the political establishment, i.e. the leadership, to ensure a political culture that supports good governance, economic growth and development. It is understandably true that in some parts of the world conflicting interests are tough to accommodate, but visionary and patriotic leadership can overcome all these difficulties and maintain political stability.