A tale of two advisors
Dr Akbar Ali Khan and Lt Gen Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury have many things in common. Both reached the top in their respective fields. Dr Khan became the country’s top bureaucrat, and is a rare public servant who enjoyed confidence of both Awami League and BNP. After a distinguished career that included commanding the Bangladeshi contingent in the first Gulf War, Lt Gen Chowdhury also rose to the top of his profession.
In November 2006, both joined Iajuddin Ahmed’s caretaker government. At that time, the partisan media dubbed both of them as favourites of Tarique Rahman and the dreaded Hawa Bhaban. And then in December that year, they both resigned (with two other advisors), saying Iajuddin wasn’t serious about a fair election. Their actions led credence to the fear of election rigging. The four advisors were idolised by the media. And after 1/11, both Dr Khan and Lt Gen Chowdhury were appointed chairmen of agencies that could, in theory, be enablers of fundamental reform.
With the election of the Awami League, both of them found it difficult to stay in their positions. Both eventually resigned. No one expects the agencies they led after 1/11 to make any difference to anything.
Even though both had to resign, one of them is a hero in my book, the other a mere has been. Some of what these two distinguished gentlemen have in common symbolise what has been wrong with Bangladesh. However, comparing what they don’t have in common perhaps point to how we can improve things.
What do they not have in common? Where do they differ most?
Look at what Lt Gen Chowdhury did after 1/11? As head of the Anti Corruption Commission, he talked tough about uprooting corruption. In this he wasn’t alone. Serving and retired generals with first names beginning with M also talked tough about corruption. A lot of people, including the current and past prime ministers and their family members, were rounded up, tortured, and framed in kangaroo courts. It soon became clear that tThe anti-corruption drive was a front for a political game.
Was Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury part of this game? I don’t know. But if he refused to be part of the game Iajuddin was playing to rig the election in BNP’s favour, then why did he not resign when it became clear that the 1/11 regime had no interest in tackling corruption, and was using him as a pawn in their game? And if he thought he could serve the public interest by staying on, why did he resign when AL came in?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I do know that the anti-corruption drive was a monumental waste. It resulted in an investment slump in 2007 and 2008, when for the first time in years investment fell relative to GDP. It led to massive chaos in bureaucracy. And for all this, it did nothing to improve the day-to-day governance in Bangladesh.
Dr Chowdhury was asked to head the Regulatory Reform Commission. The body was supposed to streamline rules, sub-rules, regulations, and acts that regulate trade and commerce in the country.
How important was this task? Consider this: it takes eight months to register a property, and nearly four years to enforce a contract, in Bangladesh. This chart compares Bangladesh against a bunch of similar countries.
Dear reader, you heard so much about how bad corruption is in Bangladesh. Did you know about these regulatory burdens? It’s these cumbersome regulations and red tapes that fosters corruption in Bangladesh (I wrote about this here). When Chowdhury sahib was talking a tough game on corrupption, Khan sahib was actually doing meaningful, feasible work against it.
The two approaches they took under the 1/11 regime differ a lot, and provide clues to how we can fix Bangladesh. ACC headed by a general will yield nothing. RRC headed by a bureaucrat might.
I say might, because it is the politicians who decide whether they want change. Dr Khan resigned last week. In this interview, he makes his reasons clear (and has many interesting things to say about food security).
AL isn’t serious about reforming microeconomic regulations that support corruption. And its rhetoric about food security is wrongheaded and is likely to prove counterproductive. But it is the legitimately elected government. If we want to improve things in Bangladesh, we have to engage this government, and the opposition (yes, BNP). We need to raise the issues, discuss solutions, and convince the parties that it is in their best interest to pursue them. And in doing so, we need to remember the experiences of Akbar Ali Khan and Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury.
(Crossposted at UV).