Sunday 14 October 2012

Any end to political blame game?

Any end to political blame game?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Any end to political blame game?

Mo Chaudhury

Political blame game is the practice of scapegoating the competing political parties for any failure or untoward event and unpopular outcomes in general. The purpose of this commentary is to explore why blame game continues to be a popular political trick and if there is a way to end its hold on politics in Bangladesh.

According to the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, researchers find that, in the end, blame game is not beneficial at the personal, group or organisation level. One explanation of this counterproductive behaviour is the virus of goal contagion, namely, one is driven to protect ego or self-image because others are doing the same. The prescribed remedial steps include constructive criticism, ownership of failure and learning from mistakes.

Given that the war rooms of political parties are quite astute, we would have observed more prevalence of such practices in politics if blame game were counterproductive in this arena. Instead, blame game has become the most anticipated strategy in politics perhaps because the electorate is not astute enough to see through the blame game maneuvers and/or not informed enough to determine true culpability, may view the blame game as a socially acceptable practice, and may not have a meaningful alternative choice (when all viable parties practice the blame game). The greater these electorate deficits are, the more aggressive the political parties may be in using blame game as a politicking tool, ultimately leading to a poor state of democracy and governance.

That blame game has taken a crushing hold on politics in Bangladesh with all of its ill consequences for the country is amply demonstrated by rampant blame and counter-blame by the ruling regime and the opposition alliance in the context of a series of recent controversies (Grameen Bank and Dr. M. Yunus, Padma Bridge financing), alleged scandals (railgate, Destiny, Hall-Mark and share markets scams), and crimes (Sagar-Runi murder, abduction of BNP MP Mr. Ilyas). However, the most blatant episode of blame game broke out following the September 29 Ramu-Ukhia incidents of violence against the Buddhist minority.

Let us explore the political landscape of Bangladesh that continues to permit and incentivise blame game even when it is utterly irresponsible, insensitive and disgraceful, like the latest one. First, despite steady strides in literacy and political awareness of the population, the vast majority of the electorate and even the grassroot party activists are still not savvy enough to decipher top level political maneuvers and theatrics. That a possibly fabricated blasphemous photo on Facebook succeeded in unleashing violence against the Buddhist community indicates that the electorate will remain quite vulnerable to manipulations like blame game for the foreseeable future.

Second, due to technological advancement and affordable access to communication networks (TV, mobile phones and internet), information now travels across the land at an unprecedented clip. Unfortunately, so does misinformation, making malicious campaigns (as witnessed in Ramu-Ukhia) and political spinning (like the ensuing blame game) more cost effective and time efficient than ever before. What is possible, however, is to leverage the same technologies to improve the transparency of governance of the state and that within the political parties and the judicial process.

The Padma Bridge financing crisis is a glaring example where inadequate and sporadic release of pertinent and often conflicting information has spawned a multilateral and global blame game that has been detrimental to the country's vital interest. Learning from that experience, a multi-party and multi-ethnic taskforce to oversee the investigation of the Ramu-Ukhia incidents can significantly improve the transparency, speed and credibility of the process, and thus save the victims and the population at large from the agony of a protracted blame game.

Third, blame game does appear to be a socially acceptable practice in Bangladesh. The political leaders and holders of high offices over many regimes have consistently declined to take ownership of their failures. Hitherto, no leader of a major political party has voluntarily taken the responsibility of a colossal electoral defeat and resigned, and no minister has yet voluntarily resigned either for massive governance failures or to make room for unhindered investigation of such failures.

Other efforts to cure the virus of goal contagion, such as constructive criticism, are also rather foreign to the political landscape of Bangladesh. Despite seemingly endless cycles of blame game and practically non-existent diligence to mitigate this infection, there is no electoral evidence that the population is sufficiently disturbed regarding this matter. Based on widely reported public sentiment, the Ramu-Ukhia centered blame game, however, appears to have shattered that complacency. If public outrage about this proceeds unabated, there is hope that blame games will finally start to recede.

Lastly, the trend of electoral alliances has practically confined the electoral choice to two grand alliances that are equally happy and mighty combatants of blame game. Since each knows that the other won't relent and there is no other viable alternative than these two grand alliances, neither has any incentive to stop blame game. In principle, an election act that prohibits electoral alliances (while permitting post-election coalition government in the absence of absolute majority) has the potential to dislodge the current grand alliances, and thereby to make room for political parties that can commit to healthier democratic practices and no blame game. But in reality, the prospect for such an act is quite slim since neither of the two grand alliances has any incentive to initiate such an act.

To conclude, the most promising path of making blame games unpalatable and politically unworthy to the political parties is for the people to remain united and unrelenting in expressing their disdain for the Ramu-Ukhia political blame game. If this blame game is not immoral, what is? If now is not the time to eradicate the virus of blame game in Bangladesh, then when is?

The writer is a Professor of Practice in Finance at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.


Monday 8 October 2012

Reducing violence against minority

Reducing violence against minority

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Reducing violence against minority

Mo Chaudhury

The September 29 incidents of Ramu and Ukhia are a clear reminder that the minority citizens of Bangladesh remain quite vulnerable to deplorable acts of violence even under a ruling party strongly committed to fighting religious or ethnic extremism. This commentary explores how best to reduce the future incidence of such heinous acts.

Violence in general is preponderant against citizen groups (for example, women) that are vulnerable to such crimes. The minority status of the religious and ethnic minorities makes them especially vulnerable, meaning that they are relatively more vulnerable than their majority counterparts. To illustrate this minority bias in violence let us use some hypothetical numerical figures, but the analysis and the conclusions below do not depend on the exact figures chosen. Suppose that the population of Bangladesh is normalised to 100, and say 80 are Bangali Muslims (B) and 20 are minorities (D). And say, in a year, a total of 40 citizens are victimised by violence. If there is no minority bias in violence, then we would expect 32 B victims and 8 D victims, in proportion to the population mix of 80% B and 20% D. Given the ugly reality of minority bias in violence, we would, however, expect more of the 40 victims to be D victims. A mild minority bias may lead to 12 D victims, indicating that 30% of the victims are minority citizens although they are only 20% of the population. With a severe minority bias, D victims may rise to 16 or 40% of all victims, twice their proportion in the population.

Now consider the situation where violence in general has risen so that a total of 60 citizens are now victims of violence in a year. If there is no change in minority bias due to a higher level of violence in general, we would now expect 18 (30%) D victims under mild minority bias and 24 (40%) D victims under severe minority bias. In either case, regrettably, there are more minority victims than before. But this increase in violence against minority is completely driven by the rise in violence in general and not because the minority citizens are relatively targeted more.

Aided by the above, some important observations can be made. First, with no change in attitude toward the minority (minority bias), violence against minority can be reduced significantly by vigorously arresting violence in general in the country, that is, by greatly improving the countrywide law and order situation and day to day security for ordinary citizens. In the above illustration, even with severe minority bias, reducing the incidence of violence in general from 60% to 40% cuts the number of D victims from 24 to 16. Here it is worth noting that the rise in violence against minority in Bangladesh since liberation may in part be due to an increase in the incidence of violence in general.

Second, significant improvements in security for minority citizens can be obtained by combining steps to reduce violence in general and special measures offering relatively greater protection for the minority. Thus, for example, with the lower incidence (40%) of violence in general, if the minority bias is reduced from severe to a mild level, the number of D victims will drop by 50% from 24 to 12.

Third, special motivational measures can reduce minority bias. These measures should include ceaseless public education and campaign to promote greater tolerance of competing views of religion and culture. However, a pre- or co-requisite for such measures is the assurance of freedom of expression, political or otherwise, and a culture of peaceful and legal, instead of violent and extra-judicial, resolution of conflicts of interests and opinions. Unfortunately, hopes are far fetched in these regards. Having said that, there is greater hope in an alternative motivational campaign, namely, to proclaim and promote a strong and pervasive sense of nationalistic feeling. In any political state, the greatest common denominator of citizens is their shared citizenship, and religious, ethnic and other identifications lead to increasing compartmentalisation and potential frictions. Thus, the best motivational healer of minority bias in violence seems to be an overwhelming sense of pride in and love for the land that both the majority and the minority share.

Fourth, motivational measures should preferably be supplemented by suitable legal deterrents to reduce minority bias in violence. One such legal measure could involve making the discriminatory (religious/ethnic) intent a count of criminal charge additional to the violence charge and having equal punishments for both charges. This way, a violent act with discriminatory bias would carry twice the punishment of one without such bias. Note carefully that the discriminatory intent/bias should be punishable both ways, majority crime against minority or minority crime against majority. As such, it should also help contain the risks of counter- violence and escalation in inter-group violence.

Fifth, special or targeted legal protection measures could include declaring the places of minority worship or cultural activities as national heritage sites and making the trespassing/vandalising of national heritage sites an additional (to general trespassing/vandalising) and equally punishable count of crime. It will of course be quite challenging politically for a democratically elected government to institute/legislate special protection for the minority citizens in this manner as the majority Bangali Muslims may feel reversely discriminated against. This is especially so if the special protection for minority is not accompanied or preceded by a significant improvement in security for ordinary citizens.

To conclude, it seems the best way to reduce violence against minority citizens is to improve security for ordinary citizens, promote freedom of expression and tolerance of competing views in all spheres, pass laws that make discriminatory intent behind a crime heavily punishable, and above all cultivate strong nationalistic pride and love for the country that once was earned by the promise of sanctity of life and liberty for all.

The writer is Professor of Practice in Finance, McGill University, Montreal, Canada.


Monday 1 October 2012

How Unholy is Foreign Aid?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How unholy is foreign aid?

Critics of foreign aid (FA) often argue that it is primarily used by the rich nations as an influence peddling mechanism to augment the interests of the citizens and organisations of the donor countries at the expense of the recipient countries. The popularly alleged partners of this unholy FA alliance are the donor governments, institutions like the World Bank, IMF and the UN, international NGOs and large multinationals. Political parties in the recipient countries are often labeled as agents of the FA alliance by many of their citizens, intellectuals and media.

This commentary attempts to evaluate the merits of this perception of FA being unholy or immoral. The focus here is on whether FA is contrived as an unholy endeavour, not the extent to which FA has historically helped or harmed the recipient countries. There are several angles to look at this issue.

First, except in unusual circumstances such as Iraq and Afghanistan, FA is not forcibly parachuted into the recipient countries; by and large it is the recipient countries that seek out FA.

Second, critics may argue that the alliance manufactures a crisis environment or a pretext in general, that forces a recipient country to request and accept FA. This could indeed be the case for achieving geo-political objectives of mighty or aspiring donor countries. In such instances, FA can be termed unholy if the geo-political outcomes are detrimental for the recipient country. There is nothing unholy about the manufactured pretext if both the donor and the recipient ultimately benefit from the geo-political outcomes.

Third, it is important to keep in mind a framework of mutual benefits for the parties to an endeavour. One-directional flow of benefits is inherently unsustainable in the long term, especially when resources are scarce. As such, that the FA alliance may seek to harness benefit from FA for their stakeholders is rational, and should be expected instead of suspected or despised. After all, FA transfers to the recipient country imply foregone opportunities (such as curtailing budget deficit) in the donor country. What could be truly at stake is the sharing of the long-term benefits of FA between the recipient and the donor countries. As a matter of practice, the long-term benefits for the donor countries are rarely stated or even discussed in FA arrangements. This lack of full disclosure permits the critics and political opportunists to paint FA as unholy endeavours with hidden agenda. Importantly, however, that the agenda of long-term benefits for the donor country is not being delineated does not make the offering of FA unholy in any way.

Fourth, it is true that there can be collusion between the international agencies and the rich donor countries funding these agencies. But this is known, rational and expected. Doesn't it make sense that the donor countries have a major say about the FA operations of the agencies they fund? Thus, for example, suppose the major donors ask the WB to cancel a previously approved loan to Bangladesh because of corruption allegations. Is this immoral? Not really. Governance is a major concern everywhere and it can only be beneficial for the people of Bangladesh if the WB uses the FA window judiciously to help improve governance atmosphere in Bangladesh.

Fifth, multinationals do profit from FA through consulting, banking, construction, et cetera, in the process of implementing FA funded projects. In most cases, the multinationals obtain these businesses through competitive bidding process and quite often they seek the services of local lobbyists and partnership of local firms. As long as the multinationals carryout these activities in a legal manner and within the stipulated conditions of specific FA ventures, there is nothing unholy about it. In fact, there is a transfer of technology and know-how from the multinationals to the recipient country. It is true that in some cases, the donor countries may insist on the employment of specific firms for FA projects. But in those instances, it is generally because the technological information is very sensitive and/or its transfer or leakage may pose a security risk, as in the case of nuclear power plants.

Sixth, unlike the multinationals, the NGOs are non-profit organisations. As they carry on their development work in the recipient countries, their mandate may require them to promote specific types of economic or social practices and institutions. Critics argue that the preferences of the NGOs lead to transformation away from the traditions of the recipient country. Yes, they can and yes, they do. The important thing, however, is that none of this is done by compulsion, all NGO activities take place upon the approval of the government of the recipient country and within the laws of the land, NGOs are not making any money from such activities and there is no owner of NGOs. They raise a significant part of their FA funds from the well-meaning citizens across the world including those from their home base or donor country, and the operations of NGOs create local employment and transfer of technology and know how. So, what is unholy about the operations of the NGOs?

To conclude, there is not much that is unholy or immoral about FA. So long as the FA activities are mutually consented to, respect the laws of the land and the terms of the contracts, and are not designed to benefit the donor countries and institutions at the expense of the recipient country counterparts, the perceived unholy alliance is just that, imagined, not factual, and the allegations are likely spawned by political opportunism or an inherent philosophical intolerance for foreign practices and institutions.

The writer is a Professor of Practice in Finance at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. Email: