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Mind-boggling Saudi mendacity

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia portrays itself as the holiest place in the whole of Muslim world of 54 sovereign states and claims to be the custodian of two most sacred mosques in Islam. But the reality cannot be furthest from such exulted claims. The country is bereft with corruption, misogyny, brutality, inhumanity, deception and downright criminality. No country in the whole world can match or even come close to Saudi Arabia’s egregious claim of virtuosity and the reality of unfettered criminality.

Let us scrutinise Saudi Arabia’s activities in modern times and the havoc these activities are creating worldwide. To do so, we have to start from the roots of Saudi Arabia, its barbaric activities, its total absence of humanity and its criminal use of religion for political purposes. Overall, this country wants to gain prominence and supremacy at the back of religion and to do so, nothing is off the table.  

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia came into being in 1932 when Abdulaziz ibn Saud managed to beat his rival, Ikhwan in the battle of Sabilla in 1930 with the covert support of Britain and named the country after his family name, Saud. In other words, the country became the possession of the Saud dynasty. The country and the people were extremely impoverished at that time. But as luck would have it, in 1938 vast reserve of oil was discovered in areas close to the Persian Gulf by a British oil company. As petrodollars started pouring in, the country prospered, despite blatant corruption. The oil revenue in 2019 was $202 billion, despite oil price being less than half of what it was a year ago.

Saudi Arabia’s objectives with its vast oil wealth rests on two main planks: (i) legitimising and securing the rule of ibn Saud over the country and (ii) gaining undisputed supremacy in the Islamic world by eliminating any vestiges of dissent to their Sunni sect from other religious sects in Islam. Needless to say that Islam, being the political religion, readily lends itself to use overtly and covertly to achieve the above mentioned objectives of the Saudi Sunni dynasty.

When Abdulaziz ibn Saud conquered Riyadh in 1902 by sheer brutality, he realised that the fractious regions of desert lands of Arabia could only be brought together under his control if the overarching umbrella of religion was established – an uncanny resemblance of what Prophet Mohammed felt some 1400 years earlier. He revived an alliance drawn between Mohammad ibn Saud (the founder of 1st Saud dynasty) and the preacher Abd-al Wahhab in 1744 whereby ibn Saud and his heirs pledged to protect the Wahhabi dynasty from the prevailing animosity towards it in exchange of retaining the proprietary right over this Wahhabi ideology by the Saudis. This Wahhabi ideology mirrored the original teachings of Islam as encoded in Salafism, but with more vitriol and viciousness.  It suited Abdulaziz ibn-Saud and his band of warrior Islamicists very well to use Wahhabism/Salafism as a tool to impose autocracy in the name of Islam. Thus, Islam became truly a political-military religion.

What ISIL/IS did in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere reflect in totality the Wahhabi ideology which Saudi Arabia propagated and promoted. Few beheadings by IS in camera of ‘infidels’ might have shocked the world; but in Saudi Arabia beheadings of human beings on offences like adultery, apostasy, heresy, insult to prophet Muhammad etc. are almost every day affair. These are all done in Saudi Arabia legitimately under the Sharia Law. That the brutality of Sharia Law conflicts with the Human Rights Provisions to which Saudi Arabia had signed up to does not bother them an iota. Law is what suits the interests of the ruling class in Saudi Arabia; not something that conflicts with their interests.

It may be mentioned that the political Islam, reflecting the Bedouin culture of 7th century in the deserts of Arabia, lends very good helping hand to those bigoted men. As per religion, women are not to be treated equal to men. In fact, in matters of inheritance, a daughter is exactly half of a son. A woman cannot divorce her husband at all in Islam, but a man can divorce his wife by pronouncing ‘divorce’ words three times. If a woman is raped, it is always the fault of the woman – on the grounds that she might have aroused sexuality in the man and hence she is the one to be punished. Many hundreds of migrant women workers in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Countries are punished every year by long term imprisonment, severe lashing or even beheading when their masters happen to rape them. For fear of their lives, these women workers remain silent. But if they become pregnant, they have to face brutal punishment as prescribed by the Wahhabi ideology.

Saudi Arabia’s other objective is the global domination of Sunni Wahhabism. As the King of Saudi Arabia is the custodian of two holiest mosques in Islam, Sunni domination is effectively his domination. The war in Yemen that is going on from 2014 is due to Saudi Arabia’s attack on Houthi rebels who are mainly Shias. Saudi Arabia had been bombing various parts of the country to kill Houthi rebels and any fatality of innocent civilians were regarded as collateral damage. More than 233,000 civilians have died until the end of 2020 due to the Saudi-led coalition attacks on Yemen, according to UN Humanitarian Office. Millions of children are now facing serious malnutrition and death due to diseases.

Saudi Arabia and its cohorts in the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia) had been funding and fuelling the discontent among the Syrian people against the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad. Alawite belongs to the Shiite sect of Islam, which Saudi Arabia regards as the enemy of Sunni. Other Shiite denominations such as Ismaili, Zaidi, Baha’is and Ahmadiyya are Wahhabis/Salafist enemies. Sufi had been declared non-Muslim. ISIL/IS had been killing these apostates under their occupation, unless they accept Sunni ideology straightaway.

Saudi Arabia is the root of most of the evils, if not all, of the world today. Most of the attackers of the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001 were Saudi fundamentalists. The untold misery of millions of people in Syria, Iraq and other places were due to Saudi inspired rebellion against established regimes. Despite that, the country did not feel any compassion to offer refuge to the dispossessed war victims, although the country has hundreds of billions of dollars and vast unused tracts of land. Saudi and other Wahhabi regimes in the Middle East gave the Fatwah that women (and even girls over 10 or 11) would be required to wear face veil (hijab) and all body veil (burqa) as part of the religious requirement. And now hundreds of millions of women round the world wear these attires, although there is nowhere in the religious books that they are mandatory.

In 2018, a Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi who worked for the Washington Post had been killed in Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. He advocated liberalisation of strict Wahhabi doctrine in Saudi Arabia and in the process became an enemy of crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. When Khashoggi went to Saudi consulate in Istanbul to collect his marriage certificate on 2nd October 2018, the death squad was waiting for him. He was murdered, his body was chopped up into pieces and then dumped into the well of the Consul General’s home just across the road. They also enacted an elaborate ploy as one look-alike Khashoggi leaving the consulate through the back door. When Khashoggi did not come out of the consulate hours later, his fiancée (a Turkish national) started enquiring, the Saudi Consulate said at first that they knew nothing about Khashoggi’s whereabout and when she contacted high level Turkish officials, then they said he had left through the back door and produced the video clip to support it. That was a complete fake as reporters found that the imposter was wearing different shoes and different tie. The Turkish government investigated the case and found that Khashoggi had been brutally murdered inside the consulate. Two weeks later, the Saudi government said that he was killed in a fight. Yesterday, the American Intelligence report produced in 2018, which was stopped by Donald Trump’s orders, had been made public and that showed that he was murdered inside the consulate by the direct orders of crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. For over two years, the Saudi government had been lying and deceiving the world and Donald Trump was complicit with it.      

There is a humourous saying which asks, when do you know that an Arab is lying? The answer came, when he opens his mouth.

  • Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist
Bangladesh, Cultural, Economic, Human Rights, International, Literary, Religious

International Mother Language Day

Language is the most important and principal method of communication between humans and only language sets us apart from other animals. Yes, animals do communicate by making noises, by the sign language or by body language. But we, the Homo sapiens, had taken the method of communication to a higher level by inventing language comprising letters, words, punctuation etc in structured forms to convey our feelings by oral and written methods.

Thus, language confers us our mode of expression, our identity, our existential experience. We inherit it from our mothers, almost through umbilical cord – like blood, like nutrition. We develop our tongue like our mothers’ and that is why it is called the mother tongue and the language is called the mother language.

So, when language is challenged, the very identity is challenged. That is what happened immediately after the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The Two Nation Theory (TNT) propounded by Allama Iqbal in 1930 and supported by Mohammad Ali Jinnah to fork out a separate Muslim State called Pakistan in India was the beginning of Political Islam in India. The low-level sectarianism that had existed in India for centuries had been uplifted to communalism and patriotism by the support of the opportunistic Muslim and Hindu politicians.

The Indian subcontinent had been divided into India and Muslim Pakistan in August 1947. The province of East Pakistan comprising 55% of the whole country’s population was totally Bengali speaking, whereas West Pakistan having 45% population had Punjabi, Sindhi, Baluchi as well as Urdu speaking people; with Urdu spoken by about 7% population.

The fault line between the two provinces appeared in less than a year after partition when Mohammad Ali Jinnah declared in a speech on 21st March 1948 at the Race Course in Dhaka that Urdu would be the only national language of this nation. It was an injustice of monumental scale. It was an attempt to rob the mother language of 55% of the people and impose Urdu in the name of Islam.

The students from university level downwards felt betrayed and humiliated. Only a few months ago they spearheaded the creation of the Muslim State on the assumption that two provinces would be self-governing with their own culture, own language. Even Sheikh Mujibur Rahman went to Guwahati, Assam in 1946 with more than 500 students from Calcutta to campaign in the plebiscite in Assam for Pakistan. Now they were at the brink of losing their language, their identity!

The students’ movement started to grow; low level local protests merged into sub-district and district levels. From 1948 to 1952 students’ grievances and anger were palpable and at the boiling point. They felt that they had been made to jump, at the urging of the politicians, religious leaders and above all their parents, from frying pan to fire!

The students took a decision to observe the Language Movement Day on 21 February, 1952 throughout the whole province and Dhaka University students took the lead. The government declared Section 144 of the Penal Code in Dhaka and banned all assemblies of more than five people. But schools, colleges and universities were left open and so assemblies of five or more people were inevitable. The government of Pakistan wanted to teach a brutal lesson to the arrogant and disobedient students and thereby to the people of the province!

The students started gathering at the Dhaka University Arts Faculty campus in the morning of 21st February. They wanted to express their demand that Bengali should be one of the national languages of the country. Slowly and cautiously, they emerged through the main gate of the campus and turned left towards the Dhaka Medical College. They had no weapon of any sort and had only placards. Hardly the front the demonstration moved 100 meters or so, the waiting police at the edge of the campus opened fire on the students. Five students died almost instantly with blood spilling over the street and more than 17 students were seriously injured. In less than five years of creation of Pakistan, the students had to pay with their own blood for the sins of their forefathers (and their sins too) for opting for a Muslim State!

First Shaheed Minar in Dhaka in 1952

A day later the university students along with medical college students started building a monument in memory of their fallen students at the side of the road, which was only a stone’s throw away from the campus, and it was completed on 23rd Feb. The police came and with all their brutality desecrated the memory and demolished the monument. It was an insult to the memory of martyred students and an all-out onslaught on the people of East Pakistan. However, a few days later, on 26 February, 1952 the editor of local Bengali newspaper, Daily Azad, inaugurated a new monument within the compound of the Medical College and it had been named as the Shaheed Minar – the Martyrs’ Monument.

The government of Pakistan eventually accepted Bengali as one of the national languages of Pakistan, when the National Assembly adopted it on 7th May 1954. In Pakistan’s first Constitution in 1956, Bengali and Urdu were given the status of national languages under Article 214.

But what led to the bloodshed of students on the street of Dhaka could not be swept away any more. The constant denigration of Bengali culture and language by the Pakistani government, economic subjugation, employment disparity etc added fuel to the fire of language movement. On 26th March 1971, Pakistani military junta launched an unprovoked attack with full military force on civilians and the Dhaka university students and teachers to teach another lesson. The hitherto tenuous link of Muslim fraternity between the East and West had then broken down completely and after nine months of brutal war, Pakistan surrendered and Bangladesh achieved liberation on the 16th of December 1971.

Thus, Bangladesh became the first and only country in the world that fought for and gained freedom to preserve the mother language. In recognition of the unique sacrifice that the Bangladeshis made to establish Bengali as the national language, UNESCO had assigned 21st February as the International Mother Language Day. This day is celebrated throughout the whole world, wherever Bengalis are. The Bengali language is the 5th largest language in the world and is spoken by nearly 275 million people – Bangladesh (162 million), West Bengal (100 million) in India and the diaspora of Bengalis in the world (13 million). The top five languages are: 1. Mandarin Chinese (1051 million); 2. English (510 million); 3. Hindi (490 million); 4. Spanish (420 million) and 5. Bengali 275 million. Bengali is also one the culturally richest languages in the world, enriched by Rabindranath Tagore (Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1912), Nazrul Islam, DL Roy, Atul Prasad, Bankim Chandra and many more.

  • Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Bangladesh, Economic, International, Political

Bangladesh’s rising Foreign Exchange Reserve – getting the most out of it

With the highest ever Foreign Exchange Reserve (FER) of 43 billion USD (end 2020), Bangladesh faces a dilemma – should it continue accumulating the reserve or invest the surplus reserve on large-scale public sector projects?

The government seems to be staking in favour of development projects. A write-up in the Daily Star reported that “The Bangladesh government has decided to use the country’s ballooning foreign exchange reserves to implement development projects” (Byron and Uddin, The Daily Star, 12 October 2020). If this is true, it is a momentous but risky decision for Bangladesh.

The FER in developing countries are mostly used for self-insurance: to acquire the ability to pay for imports, service external loans, maintain a stable currency exchange rate, and competitively priced exports. A good reserve spares a country from kowtowing to donors and preserve its dignity.

But maintaining a reserve beyond what is necessary for self-insurance also involves a cost; the cost is the spread between current earnings (which is zero or near zero) and potential return. Safety considerations may dictate maintaining a high reserve for rainy days; on the other hand, investments in high yield projects could generate a handsome dividend.

There is therefore a temptation to use the surplus reserves for large scale investments, and get a handsome return.

Such investments would be welcome if they can be invested in high yield sectors, and the reserves could be made to increase at its historic rate to provide self-insurance for the country.  If these two requirements are not met, the country can be in financial peril in the longer run. Examples abound in the world on large publicly financed investments not delivering the right returns at the right time.

At this time of covid-19 related uncertainties, the risk arising from the volatility of the global economic situation can be quite large. Today, most countries in the world, impacted by covid-19, have slumped. Small and big businesses, especially those related to tourism, travel, and those requiring close human contacts have suffered. And so far, recovery has been erratic. Even with the roll out of vaccines, the recovery remains uncertain.

The prospects of investment in these circumstances vary widely across countries. The opportunities for successes and the risks for failures, both can be high depending on how well businesses click with evolving economic opportunities, public health and financial support scenarios. Well placed, they can succeed (like Amazon, communication like Zoom, and not the least the medical equipment suppliers and covid-19 vaccine producers); if not, they can limp on and even fail (like tourism, airline industry and other forms of public transport).  Huge public investments can fail to deliver, not only because of bad choice of projects but also due to adverse local and global economic circumstances, bad management and the risk of time and cost overruns.

China’s trillion dollar ‘One Belt One Road’ project financed out of its huge reserve is a long-term initiative to project China’s global reach and its economic and political intentions. It is a high-stake investment which is expected to over a number of years. The country has enough economic prowess, well recognized management capacity and political influence to pull it up. Even if it does not fire initially, the Chinese juggernaut support structure and financial capacity can pull it up.

Similarly, examples of sovereign funds of many petroleum rich countries and rich developed countries can succeed as they have large resource base to back them up, tide over bad patches and come out successful at the end.  Such examples of investments using sovereign fund are not of much relevance to Bangladesh given the country’s smallish surplus reserve and limited capacity to take up large projects on its own.

The debate in India on the choice between self-insurance and public investment in large infrastructure projects could be more pertinent to Bangladesh. India today boasts of having a very high FER of about 585 billion USD, but compared proportionately with Bangladesh, the difference is not enormously high. What makes it more comparable to Bangladesh is its socioeconomic environment and the governance structure, in which these two countries are not too far apart.

India too called for investing the surplus FER for infrastructure projects and public sector investments for industrial development. But it attracted flaks from financial analysts, independent reviewers and economists. The government’s policy to invest in large scale publicly financed projects  was criticised on the grounds that such investments could very well crowd out private investments, that investment in the industrial sector could be boosted by cutting tariffs instead of creating facilities for the potential investors to borrow funds. Moreover, it was argued that big public sector investments could create monopolies, which is considered to be an unwelcome outcome where anti-monopoly and anti-trust legislations are not well developed. A better policy would be to support the domestic economy through market stabilization scheme rather than investing in infrastructure projects.

While the above provide some indications of what could possibly be the direction and modality of utilizing surplus reserve in a situation similar to that of Bangladesh, the answer to the dilemma facing Bangladesh has to be sought and resolved in the specific Bangladesh context.

Apart from the issues raised in the context of India, for Bangladesh, one has to consider the constraints on project implementation due to the evolving covid-19 situation, the usual drama of not so infrequent changes in project designs and management inefficiencies leading to time and cost overruns, and therefore delays in profiting from the returns on investments. The government currently has its hands full with (more than a dozen) large scale development projects, financed by foreign loans as well as by the country’s own resources. These mega projects are at various stages of completion, and some are suffering from significant time and cost overruns. The projected returns are expected to be delayed, and therefore low at current prices. Even though Bangladesh is projected to do well in terms of recovery from covid-19 slump, thanks to the pick-up of the vibrant garment sector and minor damage, if any, to the agricultural sector, the longer term prospects of recovery and growth would depend on how quickly the covid-19 pandemic is tamed.

And it will also depend crucially on how quickly the remittance income of the country, the main driver behind the growth of FER, picks up. It is hard to make a projection; much of the pickup will depend on the growth of the host economies of Bangladeshi migrant workers. It will also depend on whether the economies which traditionally absorbed Bangladeshi workers will continue their dependence on unskilled and semi-skilled workers or move towards automation, use of robot technology, and highly skilled workers.

The flow of remittances can probably increase over the short term, but in the longer term, it may as well decline.

The country’s FER therefore may even go up the in the near future, but whether it will return to the current high level is questionable. In this scenario, it would be wise for the country to focus on completing more than a dozen on-going large scale infrastructure projects (financed through local funding and donor assistance). It would be wise to take a step back from taking on more large scale investment projects, assess the situation, local and global, and not throw precaution out of the window in a hurry to minimize the opportunity cost of surplus FER. 

This does not mean that the purpose of holding on to the reserve fund is to keep the surplus fund idle. Given the time and cost overruns of the on-going projects, much of the surplus fund may be needed for successful completion of the on-going projects. Besides, the government could focus, in the short and medium term, on supporting (through subsidized loans) the small and medium industries in the private sector to strengthen the industrial base of the country, finance advanced research and capitalization of agriculture, develop the IT sector, and improve manpower skills so that expatriate workers can move up the ladder of income scale when they get employed abroad.

As the global economy recovers and the country begins to build up its reserve fund, it would be time for the country to be ambitious again. Until then, the government has to be cautious with people centric approach for consolidating growth. The country is doing fine, and the mega projects awaiting completion will keep the country engaged for some time.  Hurried approach and high ambition with more large scale projects can overheat the economy and jeopardies the stable and good progress the country made so far.

Dr Atiqur Rahman is an economist and ex-Lead Strategist of IFAD, Rome.

Bangladesh, Cultural, Human Rights, International, Literary, Political, Religious

Religion and Morality

Religious scholars and even some philosophers lay claims that religion and morality are intricately intertwined; without morality religion would be baseless and without religion morality would be without foundation. The main purpose of religion is to impart moral values to mankind. When religion instils morality, humanity sees the true value of life, unbridled beauty of life and the majestic creation; without morality humans would lead a life in depravity.  

All these high-sounding, mouthful preaching of the religious scholars may appear to have deep inner meaning; but one must appreciate that religion has no unique claim on morality. In fact, most of the religions embody in practice just the reverse – sectarian, antagonistic and insular codes for the followers of a particular religion. These basic traits of a religion are against the very grains of morality. To appreciate the inner discord between religion and morality, let us look at the meaning and essence of morality.

Morality fundamentally embodies the ‘corporate rule’ – the rule embracing cooperation among the people of the community, the society, the country and beyond. The corporate rule that brings benefits to all in a cooperative way – for all, not for just the few – is a moral imperative. In the terminology of the game theory, it can be stated that morality inherently offers more than zero sum. If an attribute brings benefit to some people at the cost of others, then that attribute may be called zero sum issue and that has no moral underpinning. For example, when government taxes the rich to help the poor, that may be considered a good political decision, but not a moral issue. On the other hand, if an attribute brings benefit to everybody, equally or proportionately, without harming any particular section, that can be viewed as a moral decision. For example, giving free education to all within a country or free medical care at the point of need may be considered moral undertaking. Morality brings benefit to everybody and hence it is viewed as offering more than zero sum.

Morality maybe considered to have seven basic strands and these are: Family, Group, Reciprocity, Heroism, Deference, Fairness and Property. Human beings being social animals tend to live together in the family and the inherent desire of fair, equitable and cooperative distribution of benefits drawn collectively among the small bubble of Family members constitutes the first strand of morality. The morality of the Group is an extension of that of Family issue. What can be shared and sacrificed within the wider circle of the group, beyond the family, is the Group morality. The morality of Reciprocity is that if one person helps another person at the time of need, it is a moral imperative on the recipient to reciprocate the initial help at the right occasion. It helps both the initial giver and the recipient when it is needed most. Heroism is that strand of morality when one carries out a task to help others even at the risk to himself. The morality of Heroism is not to earn the plaudit of heroism, but an impartial attempt to help others. An example of it can be given as, recently when a Chinese man fell into a river in Shanghai and was struggling to save his life, a British diplomat (aged well over 60) instinctively jumped into the river and pulled the man to the shore and saved his life. This is the morality of Heroism – without any expectation for any reward or plaudit – pure desire to help others in need. Deference implies submission or yielding to judgement of recognised superiors or higher officials and thereby maintain harmonious relationship in the society. This is an important part of morality by maintaining corporate culture. Fairness comes as an essential element of morality as without it the whole corporate rule would breakdown to chaos. What is right, what is true, what is wrong etc should be established with Fairness as part of morality. And finally, Property offers the morality of maintaining one’s right to own and maintain property and possession. As a proverb says, An Englishman’s home is his castle. It is morally right that he should be allowed to live in his own home in a safe and dignified way and that is part of morality.

All of these strands, singly or collectively, offer the spirit and essence of morality. Morality is not only ethically justifiable but also beneficial from evolutionary point of view. Individual genes may exhibit selfish behaviour, but when it comes to the welfare of the whole survival machine (the whole body), morality encompassing corporate rule plays a dominant role. A moral society encourages a code of conduct where all the people may live comfortably, equitably and in dignified ways.

Now the big question is what role does religion play in maintaining morality or corporate rule? To answer this question, one has to trace back what role religion plays traditionally. The basic premise is that a religion inherently wants to establish its superiority and supremacy over other religions – as religions are competing against one another. This very basic competitive strand goes against the grain of morality of corporate rule. One religion does not accept or tolerate another religion’s theological stand and that is evident by their mutual antagonism and centuries of fighting. So, there cannot be a universal morality applicable to the whole society comprising various religions. The morality of cooperation, reciprocity, fairness, property etc may be applicable to people within a particular religion, but they may not be extended to people of other religions.  

So, in a theocratic state having people of many religious affiliations cannot get morally justifiable rule. Morality becomes subservient to theocracy or may even be abandoned in favour of theocratic dogma, as in many Islamic states and even in India at the moment. The claims by the religious scholars and leaders that religion is the custodian of morality and without religion morality would disappear are absurdly ludicrous and without any basis. Religion is detrimental to morality, as religion is sectarian whereas morality requires corporate rule. Therefore, one can say religion is amoral, not immoral.  

Almost all philosophers, psychologists, evolutionary biologists, writers, thinkers, scientists and so forth have expressed views that morality is not a good bedfellow to religion, in fact just the opposite. Their dislike to associate religion with morality had been expressed in many different ways and one particular area where their abhorrence was expressed firmly against religions when assessed against the perceived punishment and reward as depicted in religious books.

The British philosopher and polymath, Bertrand Russell, Nobel Laureate in literature in 1950, expressed his revulsion against religion when he said, “Religion is based mainly upon fear, fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand.”

Albert Einstein, Nobel Laureate in Physics in 1921, said, “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed”.

Christopher Hitchens, a British intellectual, said, “Human decency is not derived from religion; it precedes it.” 

Thus, religion and morality do not go hand in hand in the modern society. The Secularism within the Constitution may provide the rightful place for morality overriding communalism and sectarianism of various religions.

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Environmental, Human Rights, Life as it is, Political

COVID-19: Pauperisation of the Poor

South Asian Network on Economic Modelling (SANEM) conducted a survey late last year to appraise the socio-economic condition of families in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. The findings of the survey contain enough negatives to alarm the policymakers and the concerned citizens alike.

Bangladesh

According to the survey findings, the proportion of Bangladesh’s total population living below the poverty line has doubled from 21.6 percent in 2018 to 42 percent in late 2020 and the proportion of extreme poor tripled from a mere 9.4 percent to 28.5 percent over the  corresponding period. The pandemic has caused serious economic hardship, especially for the poor, all over the world. But such a mammoth slippage is unfathomable, especially when the country achieved nearly 4 percent growth last year compared to negative growth posted by most South Asian countries.

The findings raise serious questions about the efficacy of the government’s recovery packages in reaching the population in dire need of government assistance. The population living marginally above the poverty line or in poverty are always vulnerable to slip into one level down at the slightest sign of any economic instability.

Our policymakers should keep in mind that no degree of economic growth is fulfilling if its benefits fail to reach the downtrodden masses.  Development, no matter how glittering it appears, carries little value to the poor unless its benefits trickle down to them in some form or other. Else, they feel left behind as then they only see the glitter of development but not its benefits.

Moreover, such a substantial spike in poverty level may derail Bangladesh in its journey to achieve middle income country status. Apart from maintaining the required per capita Gross National Income (GNI) level, which it likely will, the country must also maintain the threshold level in one of the two other criteria, the Human Assets Index (HAI) and Economic Vulnerability Index (EVI) criteria, in the next triennial review to be held in 2021. Only then the chances of Bangladesh being recognized by the UN as a middle income country in 2024 will remain alive. Otherwise, there will be, at a minimum, three-year delay in Bangladesh achieving middle income status unless the UN relaxes the conditions due to the pandemic. 

As of today, the chances of Bangladesh slipping below the threshold level on both counts appear real, demanding immediate pragmatic measures to counter them.

Now the question arises, what went wrong with the government’s relief packages. Why did they fail to deliver the desired benefit to the population in direst need? Was sufficient resources allocated for the vulnerable population in the relief packages? Did the mechanisms used for the delivering the resources to the target beneficiaries work? Well, the time has come to look seriously into the foregoing questions as a first step to mitigate the suffering of the people living below or hovering around the poverty line.

Understandably, the major goal of the relief packages is to keep the economic wheel rolling at a time of unprecedented difficulties caused by the pandemic. It’s common knowledge that preventing the consumption level from rock bottoming is pivotal to succeed in achieving this goal. The following measures may help the country in improving the poverty situation as well as giving the economy a boost:

1) Delivery of increased food and cash resources to the population in dire need;

2) expansion of agricultural grant or loan, as appropriate, to subsistence farmers; and

3) enhancing employment opportunities via increased assistance to small and cottage industries.

Both cash relief and cash freed through food relief will help increase purchasing power of the target population enabling them to buy more manufactured consumer goods, essential for steady economic recovery.

Much thought should be given on formulating the best possible path of achieving speedy economic recovery. The path on which poverty alleviation and economic recovery walks hand in hand. A path on which each complements the other.

It is heartening that the country has attained the economic capacity to make it happen. What’s needed is due diligence to develop necessary plans and programs and their effective execution.

ASM Jahangir is a former Senior Program Manager of USAID/Bangladesh.