Two burning issues, the media and
democracy: a missed opportunity
by Dr Anwar Islam
The media, electronic and print, plays a significant role in a democracy. It is more so in a country like Bangladesh where the largest opposition party does not like to fulfill its responsibility of being present in the legislature and raise and debate issues of national interest. Moreover, the opposition remains so preoccupied with its own partisan agenda that issues of paramount national interest often receive little attention. In this context, the media must assume a more proactive role to champion the national interests. In a democracy (and when the opposition is oblivious to the work of the Parliament) it is the media that often takes on the task of initiating debates on many national issues and fashion a consensus. In other words, with a view to uphold democracy the media must remain vigilant and at the same time neutral. Criticizing the government, and identifying its lapses, weaknesses and failures are obvious tasks of the media. However, in doing so a distinction must be made between the government (represented by the political party in power) and the state – the supra entity called Bangladesh that belongs to no one political party or group. As governments change, power changes hands. However, the state, crystallized symbol of the dream of the people continues unabated.
It is often difficult to differentiate between the government (and the ruling party) and the state. However, it is not impossible to do that either. One must have a sense of absolute commitment to and pride for the state. It seems that the media in Bangladesh, by and large, failed to make a distinction between the government (and the party in power) and the state. In their criticisms they got carried away with a sense of punishing the government and the ruling party – the Awami League (AL). In their rage against the AL, they forgot to identify, defend and promote the interest of the state of Bangladesh. A critical look at two contemporary events that are currently dominating our airwaves and newspapers would convincingly prove my point. These are the Professor Yunus saga and the Padma bridge fiasco. A closely linked (but not covered here) issue is our love affair with the American government and its representatives. Let me explain.
Let us start with the Professor Yunus Saga: It is true that as the only Nobel laureate the government of Bangladesh should have dealt with Professor Yunus with much more respect and softness. Bangladesh must feel proud to have a Nobel laureate like Professor Yunus. His idea of extending credit to the poor (without any collateral and, therefore, ignored by “normal” banks) is a “revolutionary” one. With micro-credit (and a novel way of getting the loan back despite its high interest rate) he has connected the capitalist system to the poor and the underprivileged. Whether and to what extent the micro-credit holders would move out of poverty require much research and extensive evidence. Many research studies carried out so far (including a PhD thesis on micro-credit by a student in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada) have produced contradictory results. Perhaps we should wait in assessing merits of these studies.
Professor Yunus is a nice, humble man with an amiable personality. He is connected to the most powerful individuals and institutions in the capitalist system. His ties and friendship with the Clintons (undeniably the most powerful and influential political couple in today’s world) is legendary. Professor Yunus is the only Bangladeshi who was invited by and addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress and the Senate. He was honored with the Congressional Gold Medal. When Grameen Bank (GB) was awarded the Nobel Prize, he had the novel idea of taking a group of ordinary Bangladeshi women to Oslo to receive the prize on behalf of GB. Their presence in the ornate Hall in Oslo was also a moment of pride for us. Dr. Yunus is also an excellent speaker able to mesmerize the audience with “ordinary” but powerful lectures. I remember listening to him in a meeting in Washington DC in late 2006 and terribly moved when he announced that by 2030 Bangladesh will be “free of poverty” and that “poverty will be an object in the museum.” The thought of fashioning a poverty free Bangladesh through micro-credit within two decades truly moved the audience and Professor Yunus received a standing ovation.
Whether micro-credit will free Bangladesh of poverty or not, the concept caught the imagination of the movers and shakers of the capitalist world. During his second term in office, President Clinton organized the first ever Micro-credit Summit in Washington DC on February, 2-4, 1997. More than 3,000 delegates from 137 countries attended the Summit. The keynote speech was given by none other than Hilary Clinton, the reigning First Lady of the U.S. The summit vowed to “reach 1000 million of the world’s poorest families, especially women”, with small credit for self-employment to achieve financial freedom. Since then six more Global Micro-credit Summits were organized, the last one in Valladolid, Spain from November, 14-17, 2011.
As a Nobel Peace prize winner Professor Yunus is an exception in the sense that he is not concerned with world peace. Unlike his other peers, he never raised his voice against the continued oppression and colonization of the Palestinians or the devastation in Iraq brought on by U.S. occupation. When Gypsies were faced with harassment and deportation from France during the waning years of President Sarkozy’s reign, a number of Nobel Laureates raised their voice for the Gypsies and their human rights. Nobel Peace laureates also regularly express their opinion on other injustices, conflicts, human rights violations and other contentious global issues – from the practice of “rendition” in post 9/11 by the U.S., the drone attacks that kill militants and civilians alike to the struggle for the rights of the indigenous populations around the world. However, Professor Yunus is conspicuous in his absence from such appeals for justice, human rights and world peace. He is singularly concentrated on the Grameen Bank. It seems that Professor Yunus is reluctant to add his voice to any issue that would raise the ire of the world capitalist system and its masters.
The government of Bangladesh has handled the GB issue ineptly. Perhaps Professor Yunus could be allowed to continue with the GB. However, with Professor Yunus at the helm it would have been difficult to bring new ideas and reforms to the GB. Nevertheless, an understanding with Professor Yunus would have been much better and would have helped us protect our interest within the global capitalist system. However, our media, by and large, is content with criticizing the government for its failure to “respect” and “honor” the only Nobel laureate that we have. In its zest in criticizing the government, the media refused to look at the nature of the nexus between the world capitalist system and Professor Yunus and the GB. Surely the media did not serve the interest of promoting freedom of information and democracy.
Let’s turn to the Padma Bridge Fiasco: The government and the World Bank (WB) have totally messed up the mega project so vital for the country’s future development. Although all facts are not available, it is clear that the WB suspected of corruption by the then Minister of Communications and a few other public officials. Once someone is suspected of corruption, it is quite normal in a democracy for the said person or persons to leave office (either resign or take extended leave of absence) till the investigation is complete. Their fate depends on the findings of the investigation. Clearly we have yet to develop and internalize the culture of accountability. What was wrong for the Minister in question to resign or take a holiday till the investigation is complete? Perhaps the Minister mistakenly equated resignation with acceptance of guilt. On the contrary, it would have been a bold and precedent setting act if the Minister had offered his resignation as soon as WB made the allegations.
However, was there credible evidence of any serious corruption by the Minister and/or other public officials? Professor Jamilur Reza Chowdhury (JRC), a man of impeccable professional expertise and integrity who chaired the international panel of experts on the Padma Bridge project published an informative article in the daily Shomokal (July 2, 2012). The article described the process that was in place at the project in assessing bids and selecting the right firm from among the bidders. It seems that there was a network of committees composed of both local and international experts to review all tendering process, evaluate firms competing for specific work based on criteria agreed on in advance by the donors (the WB included) and the Bangladesh Government. Matters like how much weight should be given to technical competency and how much to cost were clearly specified and agreed on by the parties. There was hardly any room to decide on any bid (and offer a contract) without going through the relevant committee. Even if bribe was offered and accepted by anyone, was it possible to circumvent the process laid out by these expert committees? Don’t forget that JRC whose integrity and honesty are unquestionable was at the helm of this process. Could the Minister circumvent the laid out process? Would JRC entertain an unjust or unethical request from either the Minister or anyone else? In their enthusiasm to criticize the government (and harass the party in power) our journalists and the electronic media totally ignored to carefully look into the process set up to review the tender process and the fact that a person like JRC is intricately involved in the Project. Sadly I have not observed Professor JRC being interviewed by our journalists or TV stations.
Besides, there is also allegation against the WB. Apparently WB tried to convince the expert committee to appoint a particular firm for some specific work of the project. The said firm was found to be technically not competent for the task and was not selected. Is this allegation true? Did this failure to get its preferred firm earn a contract angered the WB? If so, did it play a role in the Bank’s decision to cancel the loan? Again, our media hardly highlighted this fact. The media seems to be exclusively driven by its “dislike” of the ruling party/government. Clearly the media failed to provide full information to the public thereby failing to serve the greater interest of democracy.
The retiring President of the World Bank, on the very last day of his tenure, took the decision to cancel the contract. Was it necessary or normal? Usually a departing Chief Executive leaves such major decisions to his successor. Why the departing WB President departed from the norm? More abnormally his letter cancelling the Padma Bridge funding was posted on the WB’s web page before it was handed over to the recipient. This is indecent and a violation of official norms. Moreover, the language of the letter is harsh, undiplomatic and rude. It is unbecoming of the Chief Executive of an international organization to use such harsh language when writing to the government of a sovereign, independent country. Mind it Bangladesh is also a member of the World Bank and a contributor, however small it might be. Surely the WB President would not have used the same language were he writing to the government of Germany or France. This is a humiliation for Bangladesh. It is shocking to see that the media totally ignored this episode of the Padma Bridge saga. No one, not even the all powerful WB has the right to humiliate the people of Bangladesh. In this case, an unconditional apology from the WB to the people of Bangladesh is necessary for two reasons: for the undiplomatic and rash language of its letter and, more importantly, for disclosing the contents of the letter before it was delivered to its rightful recipient. National pride cannot and must not be sacrificed at the alter of the World Bank, however powerful it might be. Our opposition parties including the major one and the media at large should be reminded of their responsibility of maintaining a distinction between the government or the ruling party and the nation.
Last year Cambodia got the same treatment from the WB. Perhaps there was corruption. This year it was our turn. Perhaps in this case too, WB had a strong point of not to compromise with corruption. But the problem is there is nowhere to turn to when a developing country has some allegations against the WB. Is the WB immune from corruption, nepotism and irregularities? It would be naïve to think so. World Bank has a history of very cozy relationship with a host of dictators all over the world – from Mobutu in Congo to Marcos in Philippines and Suharto in Indonesia to Ziaul Huq in Pakistan and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Did the WB ever raise any voice against the corruption of these and other dictators around the world? Obviously not. What was common among these dictators? They were all “friends of the United States” serving the interests of the superpower. All long as these dictators served the interest of the U.S. World Bank could find no wrong with their corruption.
World Bank and the International Monetary Funds (IMF) have especial relationship with the US Headquartered in Washington DC, the chiefs of these institutions are always from the US nominated by its President. There is an unwritten custom that if the President of the WB is an American, the Chief of IMF could come from the Europe especially France or Britain. As the biggest contributor to the WB and IMF, the US exerts unparallel control over how these institutions function and how and what decisions are made by them. If the U.S. is unhappy with a country over its foreign policy, it would be difficult if not impossible for that country to get anything from these institutions. This is how the Professor Yunus fiasco and the WB decision seem to be interconnected. Angering the U.S. by not accommodating the demands of Professor Yunus – one of the most successful champions of world capitalism in contemporary times – is very likely to have the WB cancel the Padma Bridge loan. However, nothing can be said with certainty. It is deplorable that the media did not explore these possible linkages aggressively to better serve our interest and that of democracy as well.
Corruption, inefficiency, ineffective and lack of accountability of the WB and the IMF had been discussed among world renowned economists and policy experts for ages. One of the most eminent African (born in Cairo, educated in France and spending most of the working life in Bamako and Dakar) economist, Professor Samin Amin has repeatedly shown how WB and IMF dictated structural adjustment policies ruined economies of many African countries during the 1970s and 1980s. His works like Unequal Development: an Essay on Social Formations of Peripheral Capitalism (1976) and Aid to Africa: Redeemer or Colonizer? 2009) provide glaring examples of the damage done by the WB and the IMF in ruining many African economies. Is there any accountability for the WB or IMF? Not really. These WB and IMF prescriptions and policies of the past still haunt much of Africa. Africa is still carrying the burden. As for accountability, remember the disgraced IMF Chief Strauss-Kahn? He had to resign from his IMF job when a hotel maid in New York alleged attempted rape against him. The case went nowhere. Subsequently more allegations of sexual misconduct appeared about him. Questions have been raised about his behavior with some IMF staff too. Was there any internal mechanism in IMF to identify such irregularities and initiate appropriate action? Some lament the weaknesses of internal accountability mechanism within the IMF. WB is not immune from such weaknesses.
As the WB was getting ready for a new President, in its July 16th online issue the Forbes Magazine published a scathing assessment of the World Bank’s performance over the last few decades. The article termed the WB as “one of the most dysfunctional institutions in the world. According to Forbes, World Bank is an “endlessly expanding virtual nation-state with supranational powers, a 2011 aid portfolio of $57 billion and little oversight by the governments that fund it.”
Perhaps to understand the WB better, one has to listen to Dr. Joseph Stiglitz, a Colombia University professor, who served as Senior Vice President and Chief Economist at the WB during 1997-200. Perhaps the most quoted economists of our times, he became so critical of WB (and of IMF) policies that within three years he was forced to resign. It was rumored that the then U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers convinced the then WB President James Wolfensohn to remove Stiglitz in exchange for Wolfensohn’s re-appointment as the WB President (the rumor was denied by both men). Although he left the WB, Stiglitz continued to criticize the IMF and WB policies. In an article in the New Republic in April 2000, Stiglitz wrote: “They’ll say the IMF is arrogant. They’ll say the IMF doesn’t really listen to the developing countries it is supposed to help. They’ll say IMF is secretive and insulated from democratic accountability. They’ll say the IMF’s economic ‘remedies’ often make things worse – turning slowdowns into recessions and recessions into depressions. And they’ll have a point. I was chief economist at the World Bank from 1996 until last November, during the greatest global economic crisis in a half-century. I saw how the IMF, in tandem with the U.S. Treasury Department, responded. And I was appalled.” He repeatedly termed the WB and the IMF ridden with corruption, inefficiency and insensitivity to developing countries.
Dr. Yunus saga and the Padma Bridge fiasco need to be more critically assessed for the sake of protecting people’s right to
know and thereby upholding democracy. Our media, by and large, failed this test. Sad for democracy!
Dr Anwar Islam is an educationist, health researcher and columnist.