Students give a wake-up call, seniors ashamed: Farah Kabir

Khawaza Main Uddin | Update:

Farah KabirCountry director of ActionAid Bangladesh Farah Kabir thinks there is a need to change the narratives for bringing up Bangladeshi children to make them better citizens.

They, she insists, must be freed from the pressure of high scores as students or buying property afterwards - pressure that current generations suffer from.

“We are imposing the same pressure on them what we underwent,” she said in an exclusive interview with Prothom Alo.

Farah Kabir, who has been working in development and humanitarian aid for two decades, regrets a self-centric worldview of many these days but expressed optimism that the recent student demonstrations have shown that school students are ‘no longer self-centric’.

“Our young children demonstrated what we should have done. I think most of us are ashamed. If we have any conscience, we are ashamed,” she observed and added, “It's the young people who make Bangladesh exciting, who give us a ray of hope.”

Farah Kabir is also critical of the governance culture devoid of any a dialogue with the people for improving service delivery. “… the government is always making excuses for their failure. The government could stand up and say yes this is not working so let's work together.”

Dwelling on institutionalisation of corruption, she said there are a very few institutions “where you can expect a service or action without engaging in corruption.” She cited an example of a television advertisement which said, “You don't have to pay money to get the job.”

Farah Kabir stressed the need for restoring trust and confidence in the electoral system so that the people feel that the general elections would fair.

Leading an organisation that works for rights of development of the poor and women, among its agendas, she criticised the international community for failing to make Myanmar responsible for creating the Rohingya crisis and also failure to provide Bangladesh with assistance they pledged to support the Rohingya people who fled Myanmar persecution.

The full text of the interview with Farah Kabir is given below:

Prothom Alo: In reference to an often quoted feminist saying ‘personal is political’, may I ask you how far are a person’s activities are really personal when s/he is a social being with political implications of his/her actions? What should be the model of a Bangladesh citizen?

Farah Kabir: A person is defined by the family, society, environment and its external interactions. And it shapes your values and your principles. But it’s also the people’s experience and the society we live in that’s the basis of an individual’s development, in terms of emotional values and also the lifestyle. All this is related to, firstly genetic and part of it is social and environmental.

For a feminist, I think the philosophy and values that drive us come from these practices. And you will see that a feminist is always talking about justice. Now, 50 per cent of any population would most likely be women. It doesn’t matter what country you are talking about or what country you are referring to, injustices are everywhere. And injustice is because of patriarchy, existing practices, acceptance by the society. I strongly believe that our intolerance and the present world - where there is so much conflict and agitation - are coming from the years, centuries of tolerance of violation against the women.

When a society is comfortable around violence against women, then it is comfortable around any crime. So why are we surprised? There are violations against this group, or based on class or ethnicity, it’s all been allowed, it has been tolerated. You just have different arguments for it. And there is that tolerance and impunity across history. Across the globe and throughout history, there was impunity. And this is why I believe that the personal is political.

It’s not an opportunist stance. It’s about understanding of what politics is. I have worked for years on women in politics. That’s exactly the reaction I used to get from all kinds including the grassroots, urban, homemaker women. They would always end up saying; politics has nothing to do with me. So we had to organise training where we said: What is important to you? They said ‘water’. Then we would define the whole politics around water. They would talk about family being very important to them. Then we would get into a discussion on how families are not treating everyone with equity. So parents dominate children, there is a power play between the parents and the children, between the male and the female in the family, between the senior citizens and juniors. So this is how we brought the issue of politics which is very much a part of the process. You are born in a society, so immediately there is politics. The institutions, the practices, the services, everything is political.

Now, the Bangladeshis have to understand that every action is political and therefore has consequences. You can’t separate the person from politics, wherever you come from, there is a link. And you have to understand that politics to be able to have a better world.

I think we are looking for a democratic participatory citizenship. The right to live with dignity irrespective of gender, class, profession and background - that’s the citizenship we are looking at, an inclusive citizenship. You can’t discriminate because of my colour, physical ability, my economic state - I think that’s the citizenship the people expect. Isn’t that why we fought the liberation war, why we wanted to be free? I think that was the value our leaders, parents, freedom fighters had fought for - my right to speak my language, my right to move wherever I want.

Farah Kabir

Prothom Alo: Don’t you think ‘sustainable development’, as mentioned million times in official documents, has lost its appeal in the public domain? What do understand by the term in today’s Bangladesh context?

Farah Kabir: I can’t agree with you on the framing of the question. The whole government machinery is now working on the agenda 2030 and their thinking, planning, design, allocation and everything revolves around the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals]. So it hasn’t lost its appeal. But what I would like to see is a truthful understanding of sustainable development. It can’t be measured by GDP or by percentage of growth. Because now we all agree that there is no such thing as trickledown effect. There is that one per cent or 10 per cent in Bangladeshis who live in a balloon. They live in a very unreal world. And the rest of the country lives on a day-to-day basis. This is where the sustainable development has to come. Sustainable development means we would address issues of poverty, gender discrimination, sustainable cities, resilience, livelihoods, food security, sustainable production and consumption, I mean you talk about sustainable development and at the same time you see the use of plastic, the production method has not changed. We are not talking about green development. There is that need to be much more comprehensive in thinking and planning, connecting all the dots. So, sustainable development has not lost its flavour or its need. It’s about how you design and who you are talking to. It can’t just be a project. It has to be thought out in terms of social, cultural, political and economic dimensions.

Prothom Alo: As a key focus of your campaign is tax justice, let me ask you about moral position of tax collection and spending taxpayers’ money. If legitimacy of power remains a question mark and corruption is pervasive in governance, what will you emphasise on to make improvement in the coming days?

Farah Kabir: That’s a lot of questions. If you are talking to me about Actionaid’s campaign on tax justice, the understanding is: for a long time it has been said and promoted that the poor don’t pay taxes. That’s a myth. We and many others have done research and it’s clear that the poor do pay taxes. And therefore, the duty bearers have a responsibility to them as well. It’s not about charity, not about welfare state - everyone is paying the taxes. So the tax payers include every one of us. In our society, the understanding of tax for a long time was limited to income tax when it comes to the issue of collection. The coverage was very poor. And the government has now moved into taking many actions into the tax net. But the action that we see is still about income tax and collection of those, and a bit on property tax and other taxes. There are a lot taxes the government is missing out. We have done lot of research with international partnership and investment and we found that the contracts developed in such a way that Bangladesh loses out. The country suffers because of outflows and tax evasion.

Yes, I am talking about corporate contracts. Multinational companies are not necessarily paying the taxes they are required to pay. This has been going on for many decades and part of it because of the whole arrangement about offshore business. In many of the sectors, the offshore business investment is made by the international companies. Then there is the national face of a company. The national manufacturers are paying the taxes but they are paying national tax whereas the international companies are not liable, they are not being held accountable. It's not just a problem for Bangladesh. We actually studied 500 treaties and found that it happens in many countries. And we know there are tax havens and most developed countries have given the tax havens. That's how they encourage rich people to get richer. And when you speak to people in power, they think that if they get strict on the tax there will be no tax coming in. This is another misconception because investment would not come unless there is safety, security, stability, accountability. You can't make profit when there is uncertainty and insecurity, if you don't know whether you will be able to work. And of course there are other issues like infrastructure, energy and transportation. Those sectors have to be of global standard. You can't expect the investment to flow in. Sadly, none of the governments so far promoted national investment. It's changing slowly because our investors and young entrepreneurs are taking up new initiatives. But I think, they could have been encouraged in a much bigger way, instead of waiting for international investment. And internationally, many of the developed countries are running out of money for various reasons. Things are changing and you have to be relevant in this changing context. You can’t have policies and tax mechanisms which are fifty or thirty years old.

I think the argument [why should I give tax when there is lack of services] is a very simplistic one. I fully understand the sentiment, why should we pay taxes while we are not getting services, but we are getting services and it's not because of one particular regime. In the last 47 years, we do have roads, water, gas, electricity and public institutions. I mean, look at the universities. Public universities are still the best ones where we don't pay anything. Think about the fees we are paying for higher education, unbelievable! Our teachers, most of them are PhD holders and they are doing research. You can't have public education unless you pay tax. There are still a lot of public schools where students from all around the country study. Yes there might be serious questions regarding their quality and standard, but they are still being provided. So if you don't pay taxes how do you expect to get the services?

I would then ask you the question who is going to run these services? The private sector? In this case we have to pay higher prices for it. So we have to understand there is a need for the government and the government has to be responsible and accountable. It has to behave like the duty bearer; it has to take its responsibility seriously. And please remember it's not easy to provide services to 160/170 million citizens. That is the size of five or six million countries. The problem is instead of having a dialogue with the people, the government is always making excuses for their failure. The government could stand up and say yes this is not working so let's work together. We don't have the culture of accepting that something doesn't work or has not worked, that's not the fault of any organisation or any party. It has to be through a consultation and joint effort. Today many of services are not up to the mark because we never had the opportunity to understand that these are my rights as a consumer or a client. But look at the private sector, the moment they introduce a new service, people will fall for it. It is because it's hassle-free or they are willing to pay the extra money. The people now go and get hospital appointments through a service provider. They get their visas through a visa processing company. Why? Because, they want to avoid the hassle. If you think seriously, you're actually paying a middleman. And I thought that now with technology, with access to services through digital systems that we will have no middlemen. But why are we doing that? Because we don't have systems and institutions working.

The issue of being responsible citizens is about ownership. I have to feel that this is my country, this is my right, my entitlement. Tax paying is a responsibility and that leads to entitlement.

Prothom Alo: Since governance is another major focus of your campaigns in Bangladesh, can you explain why the stakeholders have been so immune to repeated scams in the financial sector? What are the reasons for shrinking space for dissent and civil society criticism in the country?

Farah Kabir: I don't agree that the civil society is silent about corruption. If you look at the decades from the 1990s, the conversation around good governance has been there. It has been pushed by the World Bank and institutions like World Bank, but there has been this conversation. Corruption from the lowest tiers to the topmost level has always featured in this kind of conversations. Now corruption has become institutionalised and there are a very few institutions where you can expect a service or action without engaging in corruption. Luckily at least there're some to whom at least we can still go to. We also have to remind ourselves that this is an issue of looking the other way round because of self-interest. There are many in this country who have encouraged and indulged in corruption. The culture of impunity has led us to this situation. For a simple job appointment people are willing to pay a sum. Imagine we have to run a campaign on television saying that you don't have to pay money to get the job. That means the society and the government both have accepted that there is corruption to such extent that you have to run such an advertisement. It's unfortunate. But it also demonstrates that the people are aware and they are taking action. So the civil society is not always silent on corruption and there are many voices raised and they have suffered.

No, I don’t think it is enough, because every day there is a new issue and people fall out on that. If you go out to the general people and talk to them, they are so busy in making a living. The world has become so self-centric. I won't say this anymore. Because the student uprising last week has shown that the school students are no more self-centric. They all came out and demonstrated that they believe in issues. There is still a spirit and there is still strength in them which has really ashamed all the adults. But again, we are not able to respect the sentiment and emotions of the students and their call for justice. Instead we might be capitalising on it for other ends, which is sad.

Prothom Alo: When there are both local and foreign players involved in exploiting resources of a host country like Bangladesh, how could we expect positive changes or who will act to ensure people’s rights over fruits of development?

Farah Kabir: I think I've already said that. But you see in a country there are systems and there are institutions. It's the responsibility of the institutions to ensure that no one can exploit its citizens. This is the responsibility of the government. The state has certain responsibilities and government has certain other responsibilities that need to be ensured and delivered. If there is any attempt to exploit those, the government has to come forward and take its responsibility seriously. And the exploitation under the neo-liberal system is the call of the day. It's happening everywhere. There is exploitation of our workers. If you look at any of the sectors, what are the wages international brands and companies are paying our workers and we would like to see our government negotiate on their behalf and ensure the workers have right kind of working conditions, they are being paid what they deserve. I understand the profit will be the driving force in neo-liberal system but the government can step in and ensure their people have decent livelihoods.

No, there is no such thing like fair share in a capitalist system. That's romanticism. Let's say that we would like to see that they have a decent working environment and they can live with dignity, their payment is ensured. But profit sharing? No, that's utopian.

I think, we also have to change our narrative. We bring up our children with the understanding that you have to get an education only to buy property and all that but why? You have to change that script. Instead we have to think that not the internal learning and certification only, trying to become better citizen, contributing towards the sustainability of the society we live in, taking care of the environment and the values of justice and equity has to be infused. Because if anyone believes that I'm not going to be engaged, I'm going to be apolitical, it's nothing but a fool’s dream. You can't escape from being involved no matter wherever you go. I would expect the media to play a strong role in changing the narrative that life is not just about certification and getting a job, buying a flat or car. Look at the picture of young migrant workers. They all are between 19-20 years. No one tries to understand they might have entrepreneurial skills or other skills; they can still contribute to the society by living in the country. All the citizens have to understand they have the potential to do different things.

You also hear the narratives that the youth is our future. But no one listens to the youth, what they want to do, what is relevant to them. We are imposing the same pressure on them what we underwent. And economically Bangladesh is not in the state it was in 1970s or 1980s. There has been a shift, but we still have 35-40 per cent people unemployed. This is where we need to focus. We also have to try to find alternatives for them. There are 30 per cent of the population living below the poverty line, we need to work with them and find alternatives for them. The present arrangement we have is not sufficient to meet our demands, it didn't succeed in getting them out of poverty. Something we are doing is not right. We need to change the narrative. We also need to change our thinking, planning and designing.

Prothom Alo: Dhaka has given shelter to 700,000 Rohingyas who fled persecution in Myanmar, when the country is burdened with its own population and plagued with allegations of human rights violations including extrajudicial killings. Do you think the international community has effectively offered the authorities a trade-off? If so, why?

Farah Kabir: The first people to give them shelter is the host community, we should never forget that. What is happening within your jurisdiction is something the international community can only raise and take to the UNHCR. And if you are talking about human rights violation, what are they doing at Myanmar? What mandate does the international community still have, given their performance? So I would not come to this point from the point of view of international community. The international community have to review their performance. And Bangladesh, especially the local people, welcomed them in the first place around a year ago, is a generous act. I'm proud to be a Bangladeshi on that account. And the government didn't stop them from coming to Bangladesh. They have been given sanctuary and given some hope to the Rohingya people. I'm sure you can remember the total dismay they were in. They just didn't know whether they had a tomorrow. Even now they don't know what tomorrow may look like, but at least they now feel safer. They are now living under the worst kind of circumstances, but at least they are not being persecuted, they are not being penalised for their ethnicity or their religion. There is some sort of safety and security despite questions about many things. In terms of international community, they are far behind their commitments. What happened with the Rohingyas is the problem of the Rohingya and the Myanmar government. We are just hosting them, giving them the refuge because we ourselves know what it are like to be refugees from our own experiences during our liberation war in 1971. But where is the international community? Number one, why aren't they holding Myanmar responsible? Number two, if the international community is worried at all, then where is the planning to rehabilitate the Rohingya people to different countries, to give them citizenship in different countries? Have you seen any of this forthcoming?

Even 50 per cent of the humanitarian aid commitment is not met. Yes there can be some arguments about some difficulties, but I would like to ask the international community to give me one example where there are so many refugees and everything is running smoothly. And also what was the international community doing in last 30 years when the Rohingya people were being persecuted? So I don't think the international community has any moral high ground as far as Rohingyas are concerned. When it comes to the violation of human rights inside the country to its citizens, I'm concerned, we all are concerned. When there is child marriage, rape - that's a concern. And that has to be dealt with, as citizens we have to hold our government accountable. If we are looking at some power to come from somewhere and deliver justice, I don't think that's going to happen. We will have to practice justice ourselves.

Prothom Alo: How do you look at today’s Bangladesh youth, in terms of their dreams, ideologies and career prospects? What do you think - is the recent quota protest an outburst of frustration or an optimistic demonstration?

Farah Kabir: It's the young people who make the Bangladesh exciting, who give us a ray of hope. And in the last week, our young children demonstrated what we should have done. I think most of us are ashamed. If we have any conscience we are ashamed. But it's not the responsibility of the children to do this. The children should have been safe and secured in their schools and studying and getting quality education and living in the country where the systems work, where the institutions work. What the students had done is a wake up call. And this wake up call is for all of us. Some are trying to divert the wake up call and give it a twist. But I'm not pulled into that direction. The movement that started was about safe city, this is a fundamental demand. A developed society should be able to deliver that fundamental necessity. The arguments such as we can't develop a traffic system because we have so many cars or we can't have safe roads doesn't really hold. Those are very weak arguments. It's about political commitment. If we have the political will, then we can do it. There are so many countries in the world where there are organised traffic systems. While we are going to be a middle income country, we can't let our traffic system remain old. If you want to be middle income, automated and advanced country, your transport sector has to be advanced too. In terms of all the other movement by the young people, it's very justified because they are looking for employment, opportunities and skills development. How can we not agree with that? I would question the political class, where is the disagreement on that?

Prothom Alo: Given the general elections in the country later this year, what would you recommend for an enabling atmosphere for the people to exercise their voting rights?

Farah Kabir: Trust and confidence in the system. It's the responsibility of the government and the state machinery. They have to revive the trust in the system, convince us that all is going to be fair. That's when you will have an enabling environment.

Yes, election is a political process, but why do you think that a political process can't be successful if you bring the confidence and trust of the citizens? Where is this coming from? It only comes from insecurity. Instead of insecurity the political actors must invite its citizens, its voters to work with them, to contribute and make this enabling condition. The people will have choices and people should be allowed to practice their choices. That's what democracy is all about. Otherwise, we don't need that electoral process.

* Galib Ashraf has contributed to transcribing the text

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