‘Reform’— the very own platitude of ours
Our systems and institutions in Bangladesh are often old and inefficient. Most people know that through their own experiences and queries. Even common people do talk about that and talk about the need for ‘reform’. The topic, apparently, draws enough attention in public discourse; yet reforms are hard to come by, writes Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury
THE word ‘reform’ seems to be the mother of all clichés in Bangladesh. Everyone from enthusiastic youth to astute elderly, dedicated professionals and even potential subjects of reform, e.g. bureaucracy, politicians, governmental organs, keep talking about ‘reform’ in the comfort of their urban living rooms and/or nicely set-up TV talk-shows. For bureaucrats, and ruling and opposition politicians, this ‘talking the talk’ often appears to be a way to elude the core points of reforms concerned. Personal and vested interests, suspiciously, come in the way.
The most ‘sensible’ genuinely believe that ‘reform’ is imperative to make our systems effective, hopefully efficient and long lasting if relentless persistence can be endured with reform over a considerable period of time. That would engrain basic structures of refined systems. Smaller reforms are a continuous process.
The word ‘reform’ can have vast connotations. In a general sense, we mean transformation of any functional system of our state or its policy/procedure of such organs from one form to another; plausibly from bad or average to a distinct better. For better understanding, we can categorise ‘reforms’. Political reform, judicial reform, legislative reform, etc and similar others at different spheres could be termed ‘systems reform’. ‘Policy reform’ entails major policy shift in an area of governance like educational policy, environmental policy, etc. Institutional or state organ reform focuses on the structure and modality of the institution concerned.
Our systems and institutions in Bangladesh are often old and inefficient. Most people know that through their own experiences and queries. Even common people do talk about that and talk about the need for ‘reform’. The topic, apparently, draws enough attention in public discourse; yet reforms are hard to come by.
The most plausible explanation of that is the ‘resistance to reform’. Some stem from the government itself which ‘speaks about reform but doesn’t mean it’ for its shallow benefit of various kinds or political convenience. Dr Akbar Ali Khan’s resignation from the position of the chairman of the Regulatory Reform Commission in 2009 seems to validate the fact. The rest of the obstructions come from the elements of our colossal bureaucracy or the vested governmental or non-governmental interest groups come in the way that, somehow, due to the faulty pre-existing system or culture, hold some nuisance value to thwart a reform initiative aimed at greater public interest. We often come to know about reforms halted in the red tapes of the high government offices or due to protests from junior government employees or their unions. In most cases, their group interest, be it power of their position or inflow of sheer bribe, takes pre-eminence in their acts rather than greater good of wider populace. Most politicians conveniently give in and focus on grabbing their share of the pie; instead of persevering with the ‘reform’.
We have seen many gaudy formations of commissions for reform and they died quiet deaths. Little work was done by most of them amid multifarious predicament; predicaments more of their working environment than that of objective reform work.
There are other issues related to ‘reform’. Often some tasks are undertaken cloaked in the disguise of reform, but just to give undue benefits to some vested quarters. In such cases, personnel chosen to carry out the task are often controversial, untrustworthy to civil society and establishment loyalists. Many such selections are purely incompetent. Selections are often fraught with intrigue or simply wrong. Normally, reform of a government department or institution won’t happen if officials or ex-officials of the same are in charge. For real ‘reform’ to take place, a sensible, educated, competent and conscious general citizen who could be a professional or otherwise, is required to be in the helm of the affairs. The role of the establishment in this is to start a fair selection process for such personnel involving all important stake holders, e.g. service recipient citizenry, civil society, independent experts, media, etc, to facilitate their work honestly.
Sometimes the line dividing policy decision and policy reform is blurred. A wholesale change in policy decision may amount to policy reform. Dr Anu Muhammad’s movement demanding indigenous exploration and extraction of oil, gas and other natural energy resources like coal is indeed an aimed policy reform. The judiciary is another branch that is in acute need of reform to better its service, which is almost pathetic as it stands now, to the justice seeker. Decentralisation is another core reform theme conveniently evaded by our corrupt bureaucracy. Red tapes in Dhaka and, to some extent, in few other cities seem to have a perpetual ploy at work to enslave the rural and small town commoners forever.
Reforms are also impeded through disagreements expressed in public discourse. Although it’s encouraging to have open debates on reform issues that reaches to something conclusive or a compromise, we, the Bengalis, tend to end up in bitter deadlocks. An ideal situation could have been gradual withdrawal of the losing voice in the debate as stronger facts and arguments of the winners get surfaced. Sadly, many big names, otherwise respectable, invest their effort so unwittingly in the reform debates that they get stuck with their ego and close the scope of a graceful concession. Politicians behave like party slaves in these situations and yield nothing. Recent debates around political and electoral reform to revoke the caretaker government system and amending the RPO seems to be a solid proof of the facts.
Several domains in our system require reform to make them more efficient or at least reasonably effective. Government departments, offices, authorities and institutes meant for providing public services in primary and secondary education, land and assets including registration, transport, agricultural support, financial service, power, water, gas, roads and communication, health, etc, which means almost everything to common citizenry, badly need reform at various levels or on the whole. There are positions and resources in the public administration which are wasteful and yield about nothing. Again there are areas where essential services can’t be provided adequately due to a lack of manpower. In so many places, red tapes are being preserved for unjustified reasons. What is being realised after having a closer look at the state of affairs is that it is about time we build a culture of reform and the needed all-encompassing momentum. Mere talking the talk doesn’t work in Bangladesh.
Reform cannot be an isolated affair in the socio-political ambit of a society, especially in a developing society like ours. The process of our collective decision making hasn’t been clearly drawn and smoothened yet, like the West. We would, initially, require greater effort to complete a reform than the advanced others.
There is an exigent need of a broader understanding, explicit or implied, and integrity in the stakeholders holding initiative of reform, e.g. the government, civil society, media, independent experts about the system of decision making. The reform needs to be time bound, which is ought to be realistic of course. In certain cases, releasing periodic updates to public might be useful to have a check and balance through public and expert feedback. The same can be done through releasing the draft report where the latitude of correction remains. Arbitrary reform or soft lingering effort, both are detrimental to a fruitful outcome.
Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is an associate research fellow at the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies. A SOAS alumnus, he was an army officer and UN peacekeeper before that. firstname.lastname@example.org.
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