Thursday, June 7, 2012

Budget Talk in Bangladesh

Upon completing the BRAC specific readings I was assigned for the week, I spent most of the day catching up on Bangladesh's current events. This has been an exciting week for the country, as it is in the final stages of writing its 41st national budget. The headlines brought me back to last fall semester, which I spent in Washington D.C. The Budget Control Act of 2011 passed in early August and set the tone the semester. On Capitol Hill, the Senate Agriculture Committee (where I interned) tried to push a Farm Bill through Congress before the budget climate worsened. In my classes and down time in my apartment, I couldn't escape debates on the political importance and feasibility of funding one cause over another.

Bangladesh is experiencing these same exciting (or tumultuous, depending on how you look at it) conversations. Their top priority is attracting Foreign Direct Investment. In order to do so, they must reassure investors that their development efforts are succeeding and great returns are to be expected. What I enjoyed the most about these articles was comparing and contrasting the conversations Bengalis and Americans have regarding their respective budgets. Both nations have extreme passions about where government moneys should be spent. They each consider the greater macroeconomic implications of their decisions. On the other hand, the United States and Bangladesh have very different hopes for the roles they wish their governments to play.

The Bangladeshi people are begging their government to more aggressively regulate development funds. Although the government plans and approves upwards of 1,000 development projects every year (some perspective: Bangladesh is the size of Iowa), citizens complain that projects are often left unfinished, giving investors little incentive to invest. Fly halfway across the world, and the phrase "tightening government regulations" only occurs in the most horrifying nightmares. Americans, both democrats and republicans, prefer when the government is non-invasive. Yes, sometimes lobbyists are paid millions of dollars to persuade Congress. Yes, interest groups form in order to draw our government's attention to specific causes. What I mean to say is, there is a reason why the character "Big Brother" of 1984 is so terrifying to American readers.

Bangladeshis do not want to establish a state run by "Big Brother," but they want their political body to start doing its job. I was surprised to read just yesterday that Bangladesh houses two of the most successful non-governmental development organizations in the world: Grameen Bank and BRAC. These NGOs (non-governmental organizations) have filled the gaps which Bangladesh's government has failed to provide. I read an article this morning written by a Bangladeshi man who translates Spanish literature into Bangla (a.k.a. Bengali, the official language of Bangladesh). He discussed a conversation he had with the famous Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes. When the translator referred to Bangladesh as a poverty-stricken country, Fuentes defended Bangladesh saying, "Your country is rich in natural resources. Your country is not poor; it is your politics that is poor."

American media spends the majority of its time complaining about our politics: a gridlocked Congress, too many subsidies, and a bloated bureaucracy. At the end of the day, however, I think that our government cares deeply about us. Many countries have political officials that take office for pride, fame, and riches. Maybe I am too optimistic, but I really do believe that the majority of politicians in the United States either dream or once dreamt of changing people's lives for the better, just like myself and many of my peers. These days, an American politician's career isn't nearly glamorous enough for them to pursue it for pride, fame, and riches alone.

Bangladesh hopes to enact more extensive and expansive subsidies. They want their government to follow through with its development plans. All this talk about Bangladesh's budget grabbed my attention because  the people of this country are actually calling on their political leadership to take a more proactive role in their lives. When Bangladesh won its independence 40 years ago, it was the founder of BRAC who took initiative, not the government.  The progress Bangladesh has seen in the last few decades is due largely to their NGOs. The United States has the luxury to push our political leadership away because leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt stepped up when needed. It is time for the Bangladeshi government to grab hold of the reigns which Grameen Bank and BRAC have been keeping warm.

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