from Asia Unbound

Prosperity and Politics

October 31, 2013

Primary school students march by the bank of the river Buriganga during an event in support of education, organised by Campaign for Popular Education Bangladesh, in Dhaka April 23, 2007
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Two seemingly unrelated items caught my eye this week: one, the release of the new Legatum Prosperity Index, and the other, the release in Bangladesh of a transcript detailing an important and much-anticipated phone conversation between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition.

The Prosperity Index, like any index, pulls a number of metrics together to create a ranking system; in Legatum’s description, they include factors like “wealth, economic growth, and quality of life.” This year’s index resulted in Bangladesh surpassing India in the rankings for the first time, as Quartz’s Heather Timmons noted. Legatum devotes a whole page to analysis of this unexpected ranking, especially given Bangladesh’s much lower GNI per capita (about half of India’s in purchasing power parity). According to the more detailed notes from the Prosperity Index, Bangladesh rose five places in the rankings due to better safety and security—a result of “a fall of grievances between different social groups and a decrease in state violence.” Bangladesh also moved up eighteen notches on governance, due to “a fall in perceptions of corruption and an increase in government stability.” India’s ranking this year reflected drops in personal freedom, safety, and security, according to Legatum, the result of “a drop in the tolerance of immigrants and drop in civic choice variables” along with “an increase in property being stolen, assault rates, group grievances, and drop in the perception of feeling safe walking home alone at night.” While Bangladesh faces many challenges, it has done a lot of things right on the development front, and the impact of those policy choices show up in this ranking. (I will return at a later date to a related topic—why Bangladesh has done so much better than Pakistan on development—as that deserves more focus).

Which brings me back to that phone conversation transcript. The Bangladesh government, led by the Awami League, has been in a protracted months-long standoff with the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) over how national elections should be conducted: under the supervision of a caretaker government (which the opposition demands) or without a caretaker government (Bangladesh has an Election Commission, and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has proposed an “all-party” government in lieu of a caretaker). There has been no resolution of this question, increasingly urgent given the constitutional requirement for elections to take place by January 2014. For months many have held out hope that only through direct dialogue between Sheikh Hasina and the leader of the opposition, Begum Khaleda Zia, herself a former prime minister, could a path to an agreement be reached. And earlier this week the prime minister at last spoke directly with Begum Zia. The thirty-seven minute conversation was supposed to inaugurate dialogue in the search for a solution to this crisis, one that has resulted in increasingly violent street protests. And yet the transcript reveals a conversation unable to move forward.

I can’t help but reflect that the very factors which helped buoy Bangladesh to an increased sense of prosperity, at least according to the Legatum metric, are those now under threat: grievances between different social groups, state violence, and government stability foremost among them. Continued inability to resolve this question matters not only for the immediate fact of the actual elections, but for government stability, for governance, and for maintaining the terrific development progress Bangladesh has attained.