Selim Jahan is the Director of UNDP's Human Development Report Office (HDRO) in New York and the main author of the UN’s Human Development Report. This former teacher of economics at Dhaka University recently visited Dhaka and spoke to Prothom Alo on human development, democracy, and other issues.
Prothom Alo (PA): Bangladesh ranks 139th on UNDP’s human development index. It’s been 46 years since the country’s independence. Is this ranking an achievement or a failure?
Selim Jahan (SJ): I would say it is positive and promising. Despite so many obstacles over the past five decades, we have achieved a lot. If we look back, since the killing of Bangabandhu our four fundamental principles have been successively eroded. It had even been said at one point of time that Bangladesh would be an Islamic state. Next socialism was misinterpreted. Thirdly, our country was under autocratic rule in the eighties. Fourthly, two factors harmed us the most. One is the lack of accountability and the other is the lack of institutional visibility in the eighties.
Our development process has an economic aspect and an institutional aspect, or the aspect of good governance. By saying that money is no problem, accountability is dashed to the ground and political progress is stemmed. There can be differences, debates and discussions, but all this is harmed when the natural progression of politics is hampered. This has wasted two decades. We have been divided in our search for identity, not realising that there is no conflict between being Bangalee and Bangladeshi. Without these contentions, we perhaps could have progressed further.
PA: There has been the same government at the helm for eight years now. Do you see accountability and participatory politics, or have things regressed?
SJ: There has been progress, not regress. There are three areas of progress. At least because of information technology, the people are being able to express themselves in various ways. Hopefully in future this will have an impact on our policy making. We are seeing a manifestation of people’s hopes and aspirations.
Secondly, there are various types of broadcast media in Bangladesh now. This reflects varied ideologies. Many say that there is a lack of open discussion and debate. I would say many things are surfacing because of open discussion and debate. For example, even the government now is talking about inequity. This is happening because of the debates and deliberations.
Thirdly, such debates and discussions were centred on Dhaka in the past, but now this has spread to the district towns, too. This is positive. Democracy basically is a matter of practice and culture. There have to be elections, but basically democracy is about creating space where everyone has the scope to express themselves. Not everyone has to have the same view, but we have to respect each other’s views. Everyone must be given the opportunity to speak out. This is not the responsibility of the government alone, but of society and of the individuals too.
PA: But the state is suppressing all opposing voices. There is repression. The space for media to express itself is shrinking. Even international organisations are pointing this out. If the media is not independent, it cannot question the government’s corruption and misguided development. The Rampal power plant is a case in hand. So won’t the absence of democracy stunt development?
SJ: I feel that development and democracy go hand in hand. If we take certain dimensions of development into consideration, then development means equitable development. Everyone will benefit from it. It will be visible. It will have accountability. In other words, no matter what difficulties it may pose, there is no alternative to democracy. Living overseas, I cannot comment on the topics you raised. There can be no sustainable development without democracy. And without development, democracy will be restrained.
PA: The latest UNDP human development report speaks of development for all. Can you elaborate?
SJ: Not everyone has benefitted from the development that has taken place over the past 25 years. Inequality has increased the world over. One group in a country is benefitting from development while another is being deprived. Men and women are not getting equal opportunities. Refugees are being deprived. It comes as a shock to learn that a refugee remains a refugee for 17 years on average. Among those who come as refugees from Palestine, many remain refugees down to the third or even fourth generation.
When we speak of development for all, we are referring to a politico-economic problem that needs to be resolved accordingly. Development will not reach indigenous communities or refugees under the normal system. Special arrangements are required for this. Everyone must be given a chance.
PA: The human development report basically is an assessment of the performance of the state, but in the globalised circumstances many things are ascertained by international institutions. The interests of multinationals also determine economic policies of the state. What is UNDP’s stand on the accountability of these actors?
SJ: It is true that not all aspects of development are in the state’s hands. Things are determined by the globalised system. There are three aspects of globalisation to note - its institutional shape at a global level, its policies and the fact that the wealth and power of many multinationals exceed those of entire states. We have a separate chapter dealing with this.
We have unequivocally stated that inequality has increased in the world. This too has certain aspects. Firstly, despite free trade, smaller countries face all sorts of tariff and non-tariff barriers. Secondly, while there is a free flow of commodities and capital, people face many hurdles in travelling. In the past people could migrate freely, but things have changed. Migration is often seen as a security issue. But it must been viewed from an economic angle. Thirdly, many multinationals still follow customs of World War II, but the world has moved on. China, India and Brazil have progressed far ahead.
But the head of the World Bank is still and American national, the IMF head is still a European national. This needs to be changed. Fourthly, the multinational are unwilling to conform to any legal framework. We have no idea how they plan to make their profits. There needs to be certain global policies to regulate their activities.
We have also spoken about safety for members of the civil society and the media. After all, it is through them that we learn about what is going on in various places of the world such as Syria or South Sudan.
PA: Is there anything the UN can do in this regard?
SJ: There is scope for the UN to play a role. Civil society is now represented at various platforms of the UN. We speak about safety for physicians. We have to ensure the safety of our colleagues. The present secretary general is eager to prepare a framework for this, though not all countries may agree.
PA: NGOs have played a vital role in the country as development partners, but with shrinking foreign funds, many are now turning to business. What will the role of NGOs now be?
SJ: After independence, the voluntary organisations worked for the distressed, for rebuilding the country. Not all do the same work, but we generalise them as development agencies. There are many local organisations doing a laudable job. However, if voluntary organisations turn to business, they lose their characteristic. Business is about making profit. A voluntary organisation cannot be a business organisation. This needs to be reviewed.
PA: Thank you
SJ: Thank you