Naeem Mohaiemen is a well known name in Bangla cyberspace, going all the way back to the days of soc.culture.bd and DOS. To many, its his tireless work for the marginalised peoples of Bangladesh such as the Paharis or the Ahmadiyaas that matters most. To others, it’s his art, intricately linked with his politics. And then there is his work on the history around the formation of Bangladesh — few things highlight the intellectual shallowness of the Sachal-Shahbag types than the way they reacted to the most detailed take down of Sarmila Bose.
Few know that Naeem is also an empirical economist. Or was. Or could have been an excellent one. Consider the abstract of his honors thesis:
I will look at the factors that effect (sic) jute prices. This is important for several reasons. Since sudden changes in the price of jute are unanticipated by the individual farmer, they are adversely affected if they produce the same amount of jute each year but suddenly receive lower prices for it. Jute prices are also important factor in Bangladesh’s development. If overall production remains stable, but prices suddenly drop, revenue fluctuates. In trying to aid the jute industry, there have been two arguments frequently repeated in Bangladesh. One is that, jute growers need to bring sudden supply shocks to a minimum. The other is that jute growers need to concentrate on developing new markets for jute, so that Polypropylene and other substitutes do not keep eroding the market. The analysis in this paper may help to isolate the more important factors effecting price variations and, therefore, point to which factors need to be concentrated on to reduce price fluctuations in the jute industry.
That essay is from a bygone era — no one will begin a paper with ‘Bangladesh is one of the five poorest countries in the world’ in 2015. In fact, hardly anyone thinking seriously about Bangladesh economy spend any time on jute these days. But when Naeem (and a few years after him, I) went to school, essays on ‘the golden fibre’ was as commonplace as winter pitha.
That essay is from a bygone era, when people wondered about the point of the ‘electronic mail’, and mobile phones could double as a blunt instrument of murder. Back then, the honors thesis of choice for most was ‘critical review of the literature’ — you read the introduction and conclusion of two dozen papers and books and produced a mash up, pepper your conversations with jargons, and naively believe that girls and supervisors were impressed… you get the gist (my own essay, coming nearly half a decade after Naeem’s was of this type). If you were really clever, you did mathsy theory — take a well known paper, and tinker around with the algebra, score well on GRE, and get into a top school for PhD.
Back then, few did econometrics for their honors essay. Hardly anyone did it on anything to do with Bangladesh. Data was scarce. Computers were big boxes of whoknowswhat. To run a regression to parsimoniously explain the collapse of jute prices in the 1970s — this was brave. To get a result with decent explanatory power — this was cool!
Anyone who has met him, or listened to Radio Bangladesh World Music in the 1980s, knows Naeem is cool. But doing econometrics in the early 1990s — that’s freakonomics cool.
And his analysis points to something quite novel too. After accounting for factors such as the advent of synthetic substitutes of jute, he found that the main supply shock to hit Bangladeshi jute industry was the 1965 India-Pakistan War (and not the Liberation War of 1971).
Fifty years ago, as tanks clashed on the Punjab plains, East Bengal delta were cut off from the rest of the world. Political, and economic, ramifications directly led to Bangladesh. Naeem is doing ground breaking work to bring to light stories from that era that are marginalised by our current politics. Maybe someday he will go back to his roots and do some quantitative work too.