It took the worst floods of the century to bring Bangladesh back into the spotlight of the international media. The sight of so much water just couldn´t be ignored, even by a world weary of a long list of woes. Fortunately, the flooding this year wasn´t followed by something worse, as had happened the last time around in 1988, when an assortment of Western agencies came up with a Flood Action Plan (FAP) and which required a Supreme Court decision to suspend its implementation.
Presumably, thanks are partly due to Bill Clinton´s adulterous adventures, which prevented fertile Western minds from paying too much attention to Bangladesh. That, however, did not spare one of Bill Clinton´s closer friends, Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank, from undergoing severe scrutiny. Yunus went on international media to say that the entire micro-credit system is under pressure. And it is.
Micro-credit is great but it is not without problems, a fact that should have been noted by the many laudatory reports that have come out on the subject. Now that these problems are surfacing, there is a danger the opposite may happen: people could get hyper-critical. One can only hope that those served by the micro-credit sector will not suffer too much.
In Bangladesh, the poor are so many that there is yet another category below “poor” -the poorest of the poor. These, as it was recently revealed, are the 25 percent of the population who live outside any social service net. Twenty-five percent of 120 million means 30 million people, and the sheer numbers have suddenly made most development success stories appear colourless and false. Neither the government nor the NGOs reaches the doors of these millions with anything but a few grains of wheat. So wretched are they that the glorified micro-credit institutions of Bangladesh, be it the Grameen Bank or BRAC (the world´s largest NGO), will not touch them.
These outfits basically deal with those who can pay back loans and the poorest of the poor can´t. However cliched it may sound, this policy is plain economic discrimination. So when someone says that micro-credit reaches the poor, remember s/he also means that, in the case of Bangladesh, it doesn´t reach the poorest or a quarter of the total population.
These people have a name, of course, “Vulnerable Groups”, probably dreamt up by some highly paid experts who are specialists in this sort of thing. There is an almost permanent support programme in operation called the “VGDP”, which translates into “Vulnerable Group Feeding Programme”, the modern version of the old langarkhana (soup kitchens). It involves food-for-work activities, which are really just an organised way to prevent mass starvation.
Against this backdrop, political activities take on a new meaning. When a decent election campaign costs an individual more than the cumulative total of 500 years of the per capita income of an average Bangladeshi (USD 250 per year against USD 125,000), one begins to get an idea of the level of absurdity that politics has reached in this country. Since elections are held regularly and aspirants are counted by the hundred one can only guess what kind of money is in some people´s hands.
More relevant to the problem is the continuity that is sought of a system in which the number of the poorest of the poor increases along with the number of the richest of the rich. The major donors are soundly behind such a path. And in Bangladesh, donors not only call the tune but also hire the piper, lend the pipe and decide where it is played. They do allow the local leaders to line up and clap and collect the coins from the dust – which, it appears, is all that the latter want.
It is no secret that during the last two decades a legion of experts, local and international, have made a decent living analysing Bangladesh´s problems and offering solutions. It is something like the World Bank-IMF act. First the WB funds a project and creates a growth pool in a particular sector. A number of people benefit a lot from it and defend their policies in the administration while siphoning off millions. Everyone looks the other way while the social, political and criminal laws of the country are transgressed.
Then the inevitable sneaks up and everything crashes. All the problems which never found mention in the WB reports emerge and turmoil follows. Finally comes the IMF bailout package and more debt, more wealth and more poverty. The cycle of “semidevelopmentalism” goes on, as we have seen in Southeast Asia.
But this has not led to any sense of emergency in the political marquee. When one confronts the facts of absolute poverty rising almost every year and sees no plan to stem the tide, one fears that the objective of politicians is to preside: it doesn´t matter whether it is over construction or destruction.
Alternatives to traditional politics used to be considered earlier but this is now forbidden in this age of foreign-funded democratic regimes. Both the European Union and usaid charities support numerous efforts to teach everyone, from parliamentarians to grassroots leaders, how they should behave in a Westendorsed democratic society. Huge armies of election observers descend to look at how voting is done and it is upto them to decide and declare if the people conducted themselves properly. Even public participation in decision-making issues relating to state management are now development-agency driven activities and not public matters.
Does it therefore matter if the winter of 1998 will be a long hot one with the agitational fires stoked by the rage of Khaleda Zia and her BNP supporters as she tries to oust Sheikh Hasina, the incumbent prime minister leading the Awami League, which is hell bent on preventing precisely that?
It´s a game which will probably escape the minds of the 30 million people, the millions who barely get to eat and who are almost equal in number to the voters in this land.