When will there be research on the wealthy in Bangladesh?

Poverty takes on permanence as income disparity increasesAbdus Salam

There's no end to research on the poor in Bangladesh.  It was from the beginning of the seventies that a wave of research on poverty swept the world, at a time when revolutionary politics reverberated in countries around the globe. At the time, Robert McNamara, who had been secretary of defence who had played a major role perpetrating the US genocide in Vietnam before taking over as the World Bank chief, expressed his concern about the spiraling poverty around the world.

It was from back then that a flow of funds opened up for research on poverty, various poverty alleviation programmes, including NGOs and so on. Studies on poverty and poverty alleviation programmes were taken up in full swing in various countries around the world. Through such research on poverty, various methodologies of measuring poverty, its quantitative and qualitative research and so on, were added in development economics. This brought about huge improvements to the calculations of poverty. But the state of poverty hardly underwent any change. At times the situation improves to an extent, but then adverse circumstances knock it down again.

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In the eighties, research consultancies came under the all-encompassing structural adjustment programme of the World Bank group. Prior to that, economists had worked with interest in various aspects of structural change on their own accord. After the eighties many of them themselves became a part of the existing structure, as this was a perfect way to make money and a savvy career move. All sorts of poverty alleviation programmes took shape.

The bottom line of so-called neo-liberalism was that all problems would be solved by means of the market or companies and NGOs, relieving the state of all liability. Many countries have been thus pitched into oscillating between the poverty created by this initiative on one hand, and the poverty alleviation programmes on the other. Bangladesh is one of these countries, despite being a worldwide brand for microcredit and NGOs. At the same time, the rapid rise of the ultra wealthy is another phenomenon in Bangladesh, for which disparity is spiraling at the cost of uncertainty and deprivation of the majority.

Amidst all this fuss and fanfare over poverty, one simple fact is never mentioned, and that is there has never been so much research on poverty and such festive poverty alleviation programmes in countries with socialist or capitalist or welfare systems in place, where poverty had actually been alleviated or eradicated. Those countries have been freed from extreme poverty by means of structural transformation of the social economy. They have no self-made poverty line, pulling people up and below it as they please in a humiliating and illogical manner. It is important to place people at a position of dignity. People’s income is not important alone. There is need for dignified work and life security, civil rights, education, healthcare, access to shelter and rights over the state. All this is important.

When people loot billions of taka from the banks, siphon this out of the country, this results in inflation, pressure on the foreign currency reserves, a hike in the price of essentials, creating a fresh wave of poverty

An archbishop in Latin America delving into liberation theology, once said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist!” Actually if poverty, deprivation, inequality and oppression us to be removed, the cause must be known. And to find this reason, what is more important than measuring the poor people’s arms and legs, homes and homesteads, incomes and earnings, is to investigate the sources and fallout of the rapid growth in the wealth of certain persons. This research will reveal the cause behind the poverty of the majority, their deprivation, the political system bereft of rights, the increase in crime and terror, the destruction of rivers, forests, nature and the environment, everything.

When people like Benazir, the heads of several of the government’s forces or influential persons close to the government, amass billions of taka in wealth, and grab thousands of acres of land and forests, these things don’t happen automatically. It is difficult to account for the innumerable persons who have lost everything in this process, who have been oppressed, evicted and left bereft of everything. When people loot billions of taka from the banks, siphon this out of the country, this results in inflation, pressure on the foreign currency reserves, a hike in the price of essentials, creating a fresh wave of poverty. A few people including a former minister and his family have made billions of taka by manipulating manpower export to Malaysia and other countries, leaving thousands of people penniless on the streets.

Is there any account of how many families have been flung into long-term poverty due of people dying in accidents simply because of corruption in issuing fitness certificates and licences for buses, making the terminals into hubs of extortion?

Bangladeshi businessmen at home and abroad are becoming wealthy, but their generation of wealth is pushing up the price of gas and electricity, is weakening the country’s financial sector, is decreasing people’s actual incomes. Ruling party leaders, so-called MPs, bureaucrats and businessmen are grabbing rivers, canals and land, destroying people’s homes and livelihood. How will poverty be eradicated when thousands and thousands of people are losing all to the people who manipulate the share market, take bank loans and become the top richest people of the country? How will people’s poverty be eliminated when they are being threatened, their land be snatched, their settlements being set on fire and razed to the ground make way for high rise buildings of the wealthy?

Extortion is on a steady rise in the streets, on the footpaths, in shops and businesses, everywhere, creating wealth for the powerful. But this is destroying the livelihoods of innumerable people, lessening their food intake, curtailing their life span. Medical treatment and education are now big businesses for some, resulting in creating new poverty for many. Without going into the reasons of poverty, what is the use of research that comprises mere sighs of sympathy?

There is no dearth of books about how the wealthy people of the world have made their wealth. These are glorified stories of their lives, sacrifices and hard work. These are nothing new. Kings and emperors have spent millions on their biographers. Anyway, Bangladesh almost tops the world list in the rapid rate of the growth of ultra rich. Their ill-gotten gains have created their permanent addresses in Dubai, Malaysia, Europe, North America and all over the world. Bangladesh is their colony.

Unless research is carried out on the accumulation of the wealth of the ultra wealthy, how can the actual state of Bangladesh development highway, the destruction of the ecology and environment, the permanence of poverty and the increase in inequality be understood? But it is hard to find any institutional, individual, academic research or study by any think-tanks on these illegitimate ultra wealthy persons. After all, there are no funds for such work, no focus on this, no institutional initiative. Unlike the poor, there is no way of getting hear their wealth. Quite to the contrary, many intellectuals thrive at their mercy!

Such endeavours are suicidal for the government and international agencies too, and so they will not take up such exercises. Unless the free people and researchers of the society strengthen initiative in this regard, we will simply remain inundated in all forms of fraud and exploitation.

*Anu Muhammad is a teacher, writer and editor of the quarterly journal Sarbajankatha

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir                

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