Bangladesh was born out of a war for freedom, democracy, social justice, self-reliance and economic emancipation, what Andre Malraux once called "the last noble cause." Since defeating Pakistan in the Liberation War and emerging as an independent and sovereign state in 1971, the densely populated nation at the head of the Bay of Bengal has swung between hope and despair - between mass apathy and violence in the streets. Many economic growth-oriented development models have created both gross and net happiness for the national elites, but a question remains whether these have brought genuine and lasting happiness for the broad majority of the population. It appears, however, necessary to formulate and build the premises of a self-reliant social development model for Bangladesh, a country whose population always maintains the spirit of rejuvenation for political, economic and social emancipation. A self-reliant development must be measured and indicated on the basis of social proficiency and happiness, not only on economic efficiency and productivity.
Bangladesh was a prosperous region of South Asia until modern times. It had the advantages of a mild, almost tropical climate, fertile soil, ample water, and an abundance of fish, wildlife, and fruit, which together created conditions for the people to enjoy a favourable standard of living. Independent Bangladesh, from the beginning, therefore has been regarded as a test case for development by economists, policymakers, and programme administrators of donor countries and international financial institutions.
In 1971, Bangladesh had 75 million people and its per capita annual income was $100. In four and a half decades, its population has increased to around 160 million and per capita income to $1342. Bangladesh was a self-reliant country in the past in the sense that it depended entirely on the efforts of its own people but the introduction of the Green Revolution in the 1960s caused a sharp change in its self-reliance stance. It introduced dependence on outside aid which is a well-known phenomenon that slows down the path to sustainability.
A country that makes development plans which heavily depend on the receipt of substantial foreign aid may do much damage to the spirit of self-respect and self-reliance of its people. Even in the narrowest economic terms or in academic sense, its loss is greater than its gains. Resources, particularly money, are not value-free. They bring certain baggage with them, depending on their origin and culture. They may not be available to you in the future; they have significant disadvantages that outweigh their advantages. Carmen (1996) notes that development aid is tied to the power of money and the power of money is identified with the right of interventions. Such interventions generally impact negatively on traditional systems within society causing a breakdown of its integrity.
Bangladesh's dependence on foreign aid can be traced to the compulsion of a war-ravaged economy of 1971, but what initially began as a necessity for the rehabilitation of 10 million refugees displaced by the nine-month-long war of independence, soon became a pattern of dependent development. It seemed to become a convenient and easy option in place of taking hard decisions on mobilising domestic resources and improving the yield of dying investments. Bangladesh receives various aids, grants and loans in the form of food aid, commodity aid and project aid. An empirical study (Rehman Sobhan, Iftekharuzzaman and Rumana S. Khan) revealed some crude facts that:
(a) A new elite class has emerged in Bangladesh whose affluence derives from such aid programmes so much so that the percentage of businessmen and industrialists among the legislators has increased from 4.0 per cent in 1954 to 24 per cent in 1973, 59 per cent in 1991-92 and around 78 per cent in 2014-15.
(b) Bangladesh's human rights record, defence expenditure and other internal developments, all remain under the observations of the donor countries.
(c) Privatisation and disinvestments of the public sector enterprises have grown fastidiously due to foreign aid but at the cost of lack of sustained industrial growth. It is estimated that a significant percentage of aid money went back to the donors in the form of costs of procurement of projects inputs and consultancy fees to foreign experts.
(d) Aid leads inevitably to a heavy debt burden that future generations of Bangladeshis have to pay one day or the other. Aid dependence may erode the sovereign power of any country in the economic realm. The massive amount of aid has imposed a serious financial burden on future generations of Bangladeshis. The high loan burden has substantially curtailed the country's development spending,
(e) Heavy dependence on external resources for public expenditure has had its impact on the domestic economy. Domestic savings as a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP) have fallen and this declining rate of saving is in turn reflected in the low rate of gross investments. This could explain the lack of dynamism in the economy.
The concept of living in a state of self-reliant sustainability and economic emancipation involves a natural simple lifestyle with enough for basic needs. It does not engender ill health, famine, illiteracy or inadequate living standards. Self-reliant living is a viable means of caring for nature and other human beings, and hence, for sustainability.
Grassroots people should be encouraged to realise that they are the key agents of a better future - that the best route to sustainable development is self-help when it is owned and managed by the people themselves.
Against the backdrop of high loan interest and a very low number of registered taxpayers, the National Board of Revenue (NBR) may take a move to generate tax money from myriad potential taxpayers to help government out of the credit trap, urge people to help the government in building a self-reliant Bangladesh through paying their income tax spontaneously, initiate steps towards creation of a client-friendly tax administration, try to narrow the gap between the taxpayer and the collector by changing their mindset. And all this should be directed and expected to transform the economy at large from credit dependence to self-reliance - to ensure economic emancipation of the mass people.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Mazid is former Secretary to the Government and Chairman, NBR.