Archive for the ‘International Financial Institutions (IFIs)’ Category

Making a new order

September 18, 2008

By Nurul Kabir*, NewAge, September 2008

 

Change is the key word that has been ringing in the political discourses in our country for quite some time now. Almost all the thinking sections of our society, even of diametrically opposite ideological moorings, have been talking about the need for a changing order – political, economic and cultural – for the further progress of our people. The various left groups talk about change, as do those on the right. Even the middle-roaders, still the mainstream, who are proponents of a centrist polity, preach change. And that almost an entire population initially supported enthusiastically the anti-political, and therefore anti-people, military-controlled ‘caretaker’ government of Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed in January last year, was a massive manifestation of our people’s eagerness to see a change – a change for the better that is – in their social, political and economic lives. The incumbents, one would remember, promised qualitative change in our political, economic and cultural order. And that the entire populace, barring the small politically naïve or self-seeking coterie known here as ‘civil society’, quickly got disillusioned about the present regime is due, by all probabilities, to the latter’s visible failure to prove itself anything but an agent of the cherished change – the pervasive popular aspiration of the day.
   

However, that all the thinking sections of a people, including the politically organized ones, eagerly talk about a new social, political and economic order – regardless of the differences of opinion they have with one another on the nature of the required change – is a clear proof that the exiting order has failed utterly to serve the cause of the people.
   

What is the nature of the order that we are forced to live in that has failed to fulfil the people’s social, political, economic and cultural aspirations of the day? What kind of an order, then, can help realise the popular aspirations, and how can such a positive order emerge? These are questions that perhaps need to be discussed thoroughly, and debated freely, in the society in order to facilitate a comprehensive change of qualitative nature.
   

To begin with, the political order that rules us is non-representative and non-participatory, and therefore undemocratic, and does not effectively allow people to have a decisive say in policy formulations of the state – thanks primarily to the absence of elected local governments at all the tiers of the administration, a constitutional obligation on the part of the elected governments which has never been met properly. Then, the dominant political culture, plagued with the overriding influence of money and muscle, hardly provides any opportunities for the thinking people with moderate income, let alone the poor, even to contest the elections – local or national. Thus the elected representative bodies, if one calls them so, eventually become the clubs of the rich, understandably indifferent towards the need of ensuring effective public participation in the policy making process of the governments – local and central.
   

Moreover, the parliamentary form of governance that the country has experienced since 1991 has never ever been able to deliver even some of the positive results that it produces in some parts of the world – the most important idea being parliament controlling government policies. In reality, just the opposite has happened in Bangladesh: the governments have controlled the parliaments – thanks primarily to the constitutional failure of separating the legislature from the executive wing of the state. How can members of parliament control a government when the head of that government simultaneously remains the head of parliament, and that too in a parliament where a member loses his/her seat if s/he votes against the party that s/he is elected on the ticket of? Notably, the Bangladeshi brand of parliamentary democracy allows the same person to simultaneously hold three vital positions: chief of the ruling political party, head of the government, and leader of parliament. No wonder that our ‘democratic system’ is not keen on democratising the state and devolution of power, let alone democratising the political parties and their front organisations.
   

Then, we have an economic system that is entirely insensitive towards inclusive developments, and thus devoid of the democratic principle of social justice. Under the system, the economic policy makers, usually a bunch of economists and bureaucrats influenced more by the political-ideological hegemony of the anti-people foreign financial institutions like World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Asian Development Bank, etc rather than the ideas of public good, blindly pursue a kind of unrestrained ‘market economy’ which is committed only to maximisation of profit , and that too primarily of the transnational corporations and their local cronies in the age of imperialist globalisation. Least bothered about the democratic concept of equal rights and opportunities of the citizens in general, the unbridled market economy, which is practiced here, only contributes to perpetually widening the income gap between the rich and the poor. The obvious political implication is powerlessness of the vast majority of the poor, which pushes them further from participating in the policymaking process of the state, and thus practically turns the state to be the association of the rich minority. And there is the bureaucracy, fashioned on the colonial model, to perpetuate the anti-people system by using the coercive state machine.
   

Then comes the question of culture/s, one of the most important components of human life that provides, among many other things, social legitimacy to a political order – democratic or undemocratic. The culture that dominates our national political psyche, the psyche of the Bengalis within the nation-state called Bangladesh that is, still gravely suffers from horrible insensitivities towards various inequalities – gendered, ethnic and religious alongside the social, political and economic inequalities – in almost all spheres of life, private and public. It is, therefore, not surprising that the political parties or anti-political groups governing the country still do not face any effective public resistance of their political practices devoid of the sense of equality of citizens. Slogan mongering for democratising the society and state is the last thing to help democratise the society and state, if the slogans are not inspired by a pervasive cultural sense of social, political and economic equality of citizens irrespective of their gender, faith and ethnic identities.
   

However, there are at least two political camps – the left and the right – that engage in critiquing the dominant political ideologies of the dominant political stream represented primarily by the Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The right wing offers religious rule, which is nothing but theocracy, as the sole solution to get rid of the exploitative socio-economic formation of the day. Theocracy, it is to be noted, does not believe in the idea of sovereignty of people in running the affairs of the state in the first place. Besides, the camp, committed to gendered social division of labour, abhors the democratic idea of equality between men and women. Moreover, it does not appear to have serious objection to the West dominated international politico-economic order, identified by the progressive democratic sections of people across the globe as a prime impediment towards the social, economic and cultural emancipation of the post-colonial countries of the world. However, the right wing political groups, although divided in various groups, have seriously been propagating their ideologies for quite some time now, and thus slowly, but steadily, progressing towards creating a cultural hegemony to secure social legitimacy of its political agenda to set up a theocratic state in Bangladesh.
   

The left, on the other hand, offer socialism, the dictatorship of the proletariat that is, as an ultimate solution to the existing politico-economic order standing in the way of social, political and economic emancipation of the people at large. This camp, however, identifies an interim phase of representative democracy, at least theoretically, before it reaches its final destination. The camp rightly identifies the corporate global political–economic order as a serious impediment towards national economic liberation of poor countries, rightly criticise the social injustice produced and reproduced by the development paradigm of the undemocratic mainstream political parties, points out the democratic importance to demolish gender inequalities, repression of the ethnic and religious minorities, etc for a genuinely democratic order to emerge in the country. But unlike its rightwing counterpart, the left camp, divided into splinter groups, is hardly carrying out any significant programmes to create a counter cultural hegemony against either of its opposing streams – the failed existing system presided over by the dominant parties, and the right wing slowly filling the political space automatically created by the failures of the dominant polity of the day.
   

It is a complex circumstance, indeed. The old order has failed to deliver, the new order is to yet emerge. The present, naturally, is inflicted with hopeless confusion. But the future has to be created – a future that genuinely promises people’s democratic emancipation – social, political and economic.
   

We are aware that any qualitative change in the existing order needs painstaking efforts, theoretical and practical, by those politically ready to bring in the cherished changes. There are no short-cuts to be taken in creating new history. The cherished changes cannot be translated into a political reality until the majority of the people are convinced about the need of a change of order, the way of changing it, and they themselves are ready to change. Heroes do not change history one fine morning. Rather, it is the people who bring about heroic changes over time.
   

But there is always the question of guiding history, which by itself is blind, towards the light of hope. It is always the farsighted intelligentsia with proper understanding of the dynamics of history who have shown the right paths across the globe. We, on the occasion of New Age’s fifth anniversary, offer our readers some essays, written by some of our reputed scholars most committed to bringing positive changes to Bangladesh’s history, that hint at various paths that they find right. The readers, we believe, would find the essays thought provoking. 

*Nurul Kabir, Editor, NewAge. Contact: nurulkabir@gmail.com  

Tax policies should be left to people’s representatives

November 17, 2007

Editorial, NewAge, November 16, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

Tariffs and taxes are inherent parts of the economic policy that governs the state. They partially reflect the vision that the politicians have in mind and the direction in which they desire to steer the economy. As such tax policy should by all means remain strictly under the authority of the elected people’s representative, meaning the finance minister. This authority to decide upon tax policies must not rest on a bureaucrat, be it within the revenue board or at the finance ministry. The International Monetary Fund’s suggestion the tax policy unit, in order to ensure impartial implementation of tax regulations, should be placed ‘at an arm’s length’ from the government and thus be located at the finance ministry is erroneous and self-contradictory.

Firstly, establishing this unit at the finance ministry would further integrate the unit with the political establishment, if anything, since it would then be directly under political supervision. Secondly, the tax policy unit would be charged with issuing statutory regulatory orders, which we have pointed out before are undemocratic and illegal, and setting tax policies but it would still be up to the revenue board to ensure implementation of those policies. Thirdly, application of tax laws, as long as they are universally applied, must be decided by the political quarters depending on the economic situation and business environment of the country and as such there must be political involvement in formulation and application of the tax regime. The IMF also recommends that the unit should be headed by a joint secretary at the ministry. As the revenue board officials pointed out at a meeting on Wednesday, this additional secretary or the staff working at the unit are likely to be frequently transferred and may not command the kind of expertise or skills required for the job. Frequent transfers would also hamper the consistency and smooth functioning of such a unit.

We agree with the experts that the suggested move would surely weaken the revenue board when it should rather be strengthened with the infusion of more staff and personnel to review tax policies and gradually strive towards a progressive tax structure that not only ensure income for the exchequer but also acts as a redistributive measure through which the radically unequal distribution of wealth and economic disparity. We believe that the suggestions of the revenue board personnel are justified when they ask for a separate policy unit within the board and more personnel to work there. However, the matter of policy setting should not be left with the bureaucrats or any personnel of the revenue board and must be the domain of the elected public representative in charge.