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Writing our own development narratives: how dormant entrepreneurial culture flourishes

Kazi Iqbal | November 10, 2022 00:00:00

A number of books came out over the last two to three years on the eve of 50 years of independence of Bangladesh. All of these books have documented Bangladesh's economic, social and political journey over the last 50 years and also how these three factors interacted with one another to get to the outcomes that we observe now.

Two of the books, published by Springer, are worth noting - 'Bangladesh at Fifty: Moving beyond Development Traps' (2020) by MK Mujeri and N Mujeri and 'Bangladesh's Road to Long-term Economic Prosperity' (2019) by MG Quibria. There is another book, titled 'Bangladesh er Orthonoitik Unnoyaner Gotidhara: Suborno Jointeete Fire Dekha', written in Bangla and published by University Press Limited (UPL, 2022). The writers of the book are Rushidan Islam Rahman, Rizwanul Islam and Quazi Shahabuddin. Apart from these books, a few edited books also came out celebrating the golden jubilee of Bangladesh.

"The Odds Revisited: The Political economy Development of Bangladesh" by Dr KAS Murshid is an important addition to this genre. It deepens our understanding of the eventful journey the Bangladesh economy has made over the last half a century or so, by providing a comprehensive view of the core contributing factors and tracing back their historical roots. This book was published by Cambridge University Press in 2022. The book is 312-page thick, organised into 10 chapters."

Making a comparative analysis of these recently published books and how "The Odds Revisited" fares with them is beyond the purview of this discussion. But I can sense two broad common threads that weave them together at a very broader level.

First, all the authors of the books are in their '70s and they all lived through the history they have written. These authors have firsthand experiences in many important capacities to learn, interact, and contribute to the economic policies that have shaped the economies. This adds a special character to these books and makes them special. This may be the last generation of writers in economics with such professional experiences in the last 50 years since our independence.

Second, though this may sound a little overstretched or overboard, I can feel a common purpose of these recently published books - searching for our own identity in ways we see, feel and experience our journey - a conscious or subconscious effort to break away from Orientalism, trying to write our own development narratives ourselves. This consciousness may have been around for long, but I believe this has gained momentum with the publication of these soul-searching books, particularly 'The Odds Revisited'.

Despite these similarities, the book 'The Odds Revisited' stands out in a few major ways. First, in most cases, in the name of development narratives, we are handed over a long list of factors that contribute to the development of the country - a long shopping list. This leaves the readers in limbo when they try to make a relative judgment of the contributing factors. I believe the mastery of the writers lies in their ability to narrow down the long list to a few factors in a convincing way and this requires a successful marriage between scholarship and experience.

Though the author does not favour the notion of reducing 'Bangladesh surprise' to certain 'singular dimensions', the coherent story the author intends to tell revolves around the stories of the emergence and growth of RMG, international migration and remittances, agricultural growth and green revolution, donor-funded government measures in population control, and grassroots institutions and NGOs. There is detailed documentation of the public policies and fiscal supports that led to the growth of RMGs (e.g., back-to-back LC and bonded warehouse), sparked the green revolution (e.g., liberalisation of agricultural input markets in the 1980s and 1990s), and helped population growth bring under control (huge public-sector investment in both supply-side interventions such as the expansion of healthcare facilities, contraceptives, sterilization as well as demand-side interventions such as mass campaign).

The author also did not shy away to give due credit to the development partners in liberalizing agricultural market and providing financial support for population control. The book made it very clear that the governments in the 1970s and 1980s were very good at understanding the development priority of their time which was population control and food security. Without addressing these two closely related problems, the country could not have achieved sustained growth with a secular decline in the poverty rate that we experience now.

Second, the delineation in this book is not merely descriptive, but causal where micro-insights help explain macro- phenomena. While the causal interpretation of events is subject to very careful treatment of methods and data, sometimes stories, events, anecdotes, and data together can be useful in shedding light on causal outcomes. For example, consider the work of Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz's 'Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960' where they documented a series of monetary policy actions and their outcomes on real variables. While this type of work is very rare now, both globally and locally, I believe the work by Dr. Murshid will inspire many in the art of causal way of storytelling.

Third, it is argued that the class representation of the author is also very important to understand the author's work. As we know the author belongs to a unique elite class of the country that was very close to the power structure, business class as well as intelligentsia of the 1960s and 1970s. This has given the author a significant informational advantage over others which is reflected in many parts of the book. The anecdotes and personal accounts have surely enriched and spiced up the issues discussed. The examples of 'briefcase businessmen' and Group X shed new light on the process of capital accumulation right after independence.

Now I will turn to the contents of the book. As chapter-wise discussion of the book will not be very intellectually appealing, I will focus on a few issues which I think are the core theses of the book and also are close to my interest.

Chapter 2 of the book is on initial conditions -- that is -- The Beginning. But when did it all begin? This is a complex issue that is likely to depend on the type of questions asked, how far back the roots of causes can be traced, and of course the scope of the research. We all know that the initial conditions were very poor at the birth of the country in terms of human capital, physical capital, entrepreneurial capital, and also managerial capital. But how have we ended up with these low levels of capital at birth? There is a serious gap in our understanding of the evolution of these initial conditions and the book 'The Odds Revisited' is a unique attempt to fill up the vacuum.

If we want to study the land reforms or the peasants' rights on land in Bangladesh, The Permanent Settlement Act of 1793 and the Bengal Tenancy Act 1885 can be the 'right' place to start. But, if we want to trace the accumulation of entrepreneurial capital over time, there is no obvious starting point - it is not easy to link the current capital accumulation or the growth of the entrepreneurial class to any particular social strata, event, or policy in the past. Binayak Sen in his chapter titled 'Emergence of Industrialist Class' in History of Bangladesh: Economic History: 1704-1971 (edited by Shirajul Islam, 1993, Asiatic Society) argued that the low level of Bengali industrial capital can be traced back to the high rate of returns and thus high investment in sales and purchases of zamindari in the British period. However, this is still an open question and Dr Murshid contributed to this debate by arguing that the owners of capital in British, Pakistan, and Bangladesh periods are mostly different people. In independent Bangladesh, "new capital" emerged in the 1980s which is different from the "old capital". The author noted "There are not many instances of old capital succeeding in the new climate. Those who survived the trauma of 1971 war struggled initially and eventually had to yield to the younger, much more aggressive newcomers."

Apparently, it seems that Dr. Murshid's thesis on the evolution of capital in Bangladesh follows Schumpeterian creative destruction which is a continuous process of mutation of capital. But this is not the case here. The historical fact that our country was born twice -- first in 1947 and then in 1971, as the author postulates, -- created "spaces" for local entrepreneurs to thrive who otherwise had little power to grab such spaces competing with others. The spaces that were left vacant by the "British and Indians" were populated mostly by the West Pakistanis after 1947 and, subsequentlyby the Bangladeshis after 1971. It is arguably the first time in thousand years the Bengalis have had their own command over their political, social, and entrepreneurial spaces which the author warned: "should not be lost to others". The essence of the argument is that the current entrepreneurial surge is nothing but the direct outcome of our independence.

Dr. Murshid's thesis that our current entrepreneurial development is rooted in the historical fact that the country was born twice, giving monopoly space to its local people can also be viewed using some variant of core-periphery theory. The eastern part of the Delta, now Bangladesh, has always been the frontier to the invaders. The Arabs, the Persians, the Turks, and the Afghans all came from the west and they all settled mostly in and around Delhi and other north-western parts of India. To them, Bengal was not a suitable place to settle due to its geographical peculiarities and was a "periphery", good for extractions, in a colonial sense. This remains true even after the British left. The periphery can hardly be turned into a centre - a centre of capital accumulation and entrepreneurial growth. But we have observed such transformation by dint of political independence and it occurred twice - first by a stroke of a pen and the latter by a bloody war.

I believe Chapters 7, 8, and 10 are the most intriguing part of the book, revolving around a fundamental question: How a predominantly peasant economy has turned into a regime that can be characterized by manufacturing-led growth? The author nicely told the story of the evolution of Dhaka city and its role in the growth of the entrepreneurial and professional classes in Bangladesh. History suggests that among the Indians, the Muslims were less entrepreneurial than other communities. Gustav F. Papanek, in his famous book titled 'Pakistan Development: Social Goals and Private Incentives' published in 1967, argued that the Muslims inherently had the "trader's mentality" with speculative motives. But we now observe a substantial transformation or departure from this "trader's mentality".

What triggered this change in recent times in Bangladesh? Current experimental economics literature suggests that preferences are very stable and often transmit to the next generations. That is, if someone is risk-averse, it is likely that the person will remain so for the rest of his or her life and this may pass down to the next generations. If we take this seriously, the traders' mentality should not have altered in the space of one or two generations. One explanation for the current surge in entrepreneurial growth can be that the entrepreneurial ability of the local people was dormant for a lack of opportunities -- the spaces earned by the twice-born country have offered them the opportunityto flourish.

Lastly, this is the best book so far written on the journey of Bangladesh's development and is highly recommended to students of development. I hope this book will inspire others to ask big, fundamental, and difficult questions about our development narratives.

Dr. Kazi Iqbal, Senior Research Fellow, Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS). [email protected]

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