Before we left the United States, I had done very little research about the political situation or governmental institutions in Bangladesh. After briefly examining Bangladesh, I understood the poverty situation to be, for the most part, an economic issue involving a lack of resources, low levels of job creation, insufficient credit systems for the poor and improper living conditions. While this was all true, I had completely ignored the political and social factors that contributed to this poverty and underdevelopment. I had wrongly assumed that the government was efficient, transparent, and that any differences between its system and others’ systems were insubstantial.
We had studied corruption in our Politics of Developing Countries course, and I understood the relationship between political systems and policy making, and the implementation of successful poverty alleviating policies. We had also studied Bangladesh specifically in our Developmental Economics course. Throughout the course we examined piecemeal and small-scale methods towards attaining development, as shown through Bangladeshi non-governmental organizations like the Grameen Bank. I assumed that the two lessons were unrelated, and that Bangladesh did not suffer from any major political problems. I had unintentionally done the one thing that our major is designed to not do, separate politics and economics of the developing countries we studied.
Our first day in Dhaka we stepped off the plane and into a loud and hectic mob of international and local travelers trying to get rides into the city. We quickly learned that many roads had been shut down due to a series of protests. This was not the first time I had experienced a protest; in France I had witnessed numerous protests. French protests, systematic and organized, focused on a single issue and unrelentingly voiced their opinion until something was done. This, however, felt very different. In an almost anarchistic frenzy, the protest affected almost every person throughout Dhaka.
The protest was inspired and passionate, but we had difficulties finding out what exactly the people were protesting about. As far as we understood, the protest was against the current government, and designed by the “opposition”. Once I found this out, I realized that I had no idea of the political situation in Bangladesh. We could have just entered a country with a tyrannical government that was violently transitioning to democracy. Luckily, this was not the case.
I will summarize what I have learned about the government through discussion with my boss, conversation with PEP coworkers and reading the Bangladeshi newspapers. The political system in Bangladesh is a democratic republic with a parliamentary form of government, much like Britain. Two major parties dominate the political spectrum; Awami League (AL) is the “ruling party”, meaning it has a majority in parliament, and Bangladeshi National Party (BNP) is the “opposition party”, meaning that it is not the ruling party. AL support is held by minorities and BNP support is held by a devote Islamic population. Elections for parliament and other governmental positions are held every five years.
The diction used to describe the different elements of the government was fascinating to me. In the United States, I have never heard either party referred to as the “ruling party” or “opposition” based on house or senate representation. This is partly because it is expected that the party with majority rule does not implement extremist reforms every time it gains control. The parties in Bangladesh will undermine and cut policies established by the “previous government” to institute their own policies. This continual tug-of-war for power has defined the last 25 years of governmental rule in Bangladesh. As one of our coworkers explained “every five years the government switches parties”. This is not exactly the case, yet historically each party has abused its power so significantly that in the next election the other party is voted into power.
The actions by AL that sparked the protest are a perfect illustration of the extremist activities that define this governance. AL had, just before we arrived in Bangladesh, captured nearly 20 BNP leaders and had refused to release them. Rumors of killings and torture circulated the news and angry BNP supporters went to the streets. While western readers may be inclined to blame and punish AL, these events represent a pattern of corruption that has plagued Bangladesh for the majority of existence, and under each party’s rule.
This corruption and the lack of transparency are so widely accepted that policies have been formerly written into the election process to ensure government credibility. During elections, a caretaker government establishes itself to ensure that the process produces reliable and representative results. While a caretaker government is useful in a newly established democracy, I am shocked that the government of Bangladesh is so distrusted by its own population that this transitional governance is established every election.
Although the protests have subsided, AL has recently threatened to disallow a caretaker government to establish itself during election time. This threat could potentially deepen corruption by ensuring AL control. I have never experienced these sort of threats in the United States. While I may be unhappy with the activities of the government in the U.S., I know that I can participate in a transparent election in the following years that will represent the will of the people. This is not to say that the U.S. political system is perfect, it simply shows that this trip has greatly expanded my understanding of the effects of corruption and a lack of transparency.
Experiences meeting with PEP workers and the poor have supported my claim that economic factors are integral forces in perpetuating poverty in Bangladesh. However, our experiences with politics and corruption showed me that the economic characterization of this poverty was narrow-minded. Poverty and underdevelopment are multifaceted, and in Bangladesh, corruption and lack of government transparency are two of these facets.
- Ryan Gibson