The quest for social justice in Bangladesh: which way to look

K A S Murshid | Sunday, 12 November 2023

The topic, by its nature, is controversial and difficult to navigate given the expansive and tortuous literature and acute differences in opinion amongst key, influential scholars. This writeup is focused on exploring the social-justice space in Bangladesh. It has adopted a practical and pragmatic approach, taking into consideration the wider global debate. A serious lack of progress, indeed reversal of social justice, has been noticed everywhere, especially in the West wherefrom moral standards supposedly emanate. Also observed is the use of the social justice/human rights/democracy offensives by the West as weapons of domination devoid of any real commitment to social justice.
As such, I hold the view that attempts by some scholars to establish a pure, spotless vision of social justice before embarking on reforms are misplaced. I also disagree with the notion held by others that a 'free society' cannot be constructed around social justice, and indeed, that the concept is 'meaningless'. The author believes that the way forward for Bangladesh is to take determined, incremental steps to capture certain low-hanging fruits, and gradually build up the appetite for more basic reforms.
By way of introduction, let's begin by observing whether one revisits the French Revolution or Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address delivered during the American Civil War, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 or reflects upon Bangladesh's Liberation War in 1971, the quest for social justice and equality clearly emerges as a central, recurring theme in the writings and proclamations of statesmen, philosophers, and thinkers of the time. The events referred to were momentous, shaking the very foundations of society and promising to be the harbinger of profound, fundamental, revolutionary change to social values and institutions which were to be based on a superior and transformative morality and high humanitarian ideals.
Some changes did take place: monarchies crumbled, slaves were freed in America and other parts of the world, the working classes, and later, women were enfranchised, signs of a benevolent state emerged in certain parts of Europe, while the ideal of socialism and a command economy gained momentum - leading to the emergence of many communist countries in the North as well as the global South. Where communism did not take hold, significant, often violent, communist factions emerged in the so-called Third World-in Asia, Africa and Latin America-as well as strong trade unions in countries like the UK that fought for better wages and public services. After much bloodletting and broken promises, the world has barely moved from its initial inertia. Social justice has remained as elusive as it always had been.
Sporadic gains have been in evidence, for example in post-war Britain where labour rights were strengthened, and massive public-sector investments were made in education and health. And these had a longer-run equalizing effect and gave hope to the working classes historically subservient to an entrenched aristocracy. However, the 1980s saw the beginnings of the downslide as country after country went through policy reversals, reneged on labour rights, cut-back on social-sector spending based on a revival of neo-liberal dogma. The UK was perhaps one of the earliest European countries where this took place, and later served as a model for others to follow.
The postwar British compact with Labour was in tatters. At the same time, the former USSR came unhinged under Gorbachev who ultimately capitulated, under pressure from domestic rivals like Boris Yeltsin and external machinations by the West-leading to the breakup of the USSR in 1991 and the consequent birth of 15 independent states that were part of the Soviet Union, thus ringing the bell down on the communist experiment in Europe and Central Asia.
As far as the US is concerned, social justice was never in the agenda to start with due to the ideological belief in the Hayekian principle that it is contradictory to democracy and free-market policies. Thus, the traditional marginalisation of blacks, Hispanics, and indigenous peoples has been the norm, and the onus is left to individual agency to improve their lot. The system barely acknowledges institutional biases and is reluctant to provide privileges to backward communities. What privileges exist have now come under systemic attack, including abortion rights, university admissions, and access to healthcare.
In other words, what the world sees as a public, international commitment to higher moral standards, human rights, democracy, equality before the law, and respect for human dignity and fundamental rights, regularly orchestrated by Western countries and their institutions and reinforced by their academia and the media, would barely survive serious independent scrutiny. If this sounds too harsh, we can at least believe this - that the practice of social justice, however defined, is deeply flawed - even in the West where minorities are not extended the same rights and privileges as the majority (White) community, and where institutional racism amongst the police, judiciary, health, and education services is rampant.
We have also seen country after country destroyed and reduced to shambles all over the Middle East, again in the name of democracy and human rights. The latest conflagration in Palestine has further exposed Western hypocrisy, duplicity, and double standards that have made a mockery of human rights and the rule of law.
A BRIEF LOOK AT THE EUROPEAN DEBATE ON SOCIAL JUSTICE: Friedrich Hayek proclaimed that social justice is unattainable, elusive, and any serious attempt to pursue it will inevitably lead to erosion of freedom, liberty, and democracy (Hayek 1976)1. He was convinced that what was meant by social justice was in heart some form of socialism and a near-religious belief in bringing about a 'just' change in terms of a redistribution of resources in favour of a particular group. He argued that any large-scale attempt to redistribute resources would require a totalitarian system. That is why, he argued, social justice is contradictory to a free society (Hayek 1976). He states that social justice is ideological: In a free society, agreement can never be secured as to what constitutes 'satisfactory' performance (e.g. fair price, wages, degree of inequality). The Hayekian position provides a rationale for the "Great Society" to NOT address social justice, at least in its grand sense.
John Rawls: Rawls has been inspired by thinkers like David Hulme and Immanuel Kant, and appears to have positioned himself at the opposite end of the spectrum to Hayek, proclaiming a vision of social justice that he obviously does not consider anathema to a free, liberal economic system under democracy.
His view of social justice is rooted in the concept of fairness in a context of a free citizenry that is neither altruistic nor egoistic. Such a society would be one of moderate scarcity, attempting to achieve mutual cooperation to reach a social consensus around an equitable social, political, and economic structure that would be uninfluenced by personal traits like race, ethnicity, religion, class or gender. This would ensure equal basic rights and liberties for all, as well as political liberties and fair access to key markets e.g. political, educational, health markets and access to a fair regulatory and legal system.
Rawls propounded an interesting methodology rooted in a thought experiment famously described as the "veil of ignorance" which could be used, he thought, to reach his "original position" (Rawls, xx). There is no indication anywhere that he or anyone else carried out his thought experiment before putting forward his vision of justice. I suppose that is a philosopher's privilege.
The other criticism of Rawls is that he does not address Hayek's strong objection to social justice, implying that the Great Society and its free values are not anathema to a fair socioeconomic system under democracy-an implication that most of us would be happy to accept.
Amartya Sen calls out Rawls by first referring to his vision as 'spotless social justice' and finds it problematic at a number of levels. I will turn to Sen in a little while, but in the meantime let me briefly see what Rawls meant by his 'veil of ignorance' and 'original position'.
The veil of ignorance and the original position: People living in modern, complex societies are biased in some way or other given their specific socioeconomic circumstances. This makes it difficult for society to arrive at a social contract. Rawls proposed we adopt a 'veil of ignorance' approach i.e. a state where there is no bias in any form and everyone sits behind a veil that protects us from knowing who we are. Thus, by being ignorant of our circumstances, we can arrive at a vision of a just and fair society. He proposes two principles: The liberty principle and the difference principle. The former ensures that everyone enjoys the maximum freedom possible without intruding upon the freedoms of another person. Secondly, the difference principle guarantees equal opportunity to become successful, with the worst-off being the first to be helped.
As already noted, this thought experiment was never conducted. Nor is it certain how such an experiment could be conducted as envisioned. The experiment, it would seem, would be devoid of context as the participants would have no understanding of social injustices given that injustices revolve around one's identity like gender and class. As such, it is difficult to imagine how the concept of social justice could emerge from the Rawlsian experiment.
However, even if such a spotless vision could be generated, how could it be implemented or what hurdles would have to be surmounted in the process?
Amartya Sen: Sen (2009) agrees with Rawls' idea of justice in terms of fairness, equality, and greater freedom but also views the Western social-contractarian tradition with some unease. He says simply having ideas of a properly functioning just world is not enough in bringing about the desired transformation. He further critiques Rawls for his overemphasis on institutions to guarantee justice without examining the human agency behind institutions. Sen correctly accuses Rawls of understating the difficulty of reaching a consensus around a set of social norms that will be commensurate with his vision of 'spotless justice'. He further suggests that society is far more complex than is implied, making it difficult to arrive at a consensus.
Sen is in favour of a 'realisation-focused' comparative approach, more in the tradition of Smith, Bentham, Marx, and Mill. This entails an evaluation or assessment of a particular 'social realization' (meaning the state of social justice in a particular context) in a comparative framework - so that the desirability of a specific social orientation can be compared and contrasted with an alternative, rather than painting a vision of the perfect society. In other words, Sen approaches social justice through the lens of social-choice theory to assess alternatives. The requirement is better information and evidence to improve adoption of the right social options.
Observations. To sum up, I would consider Rawls' position to be that of someone with both feet firmly planted in the air. His vision is grand, indeed too grand. The difficulty with his vision and the proposed solutions are that it can never be realized, not in the US, nor in the West, and certainly not in a country like ours.
Hayek's position has a grain of truth in it. I agree it would require a command-type economy or an autocratic society to implement social-justice goals quickly. A more leisurely but determined approach, however, can certainly overcome this requirement.
Sen's position would appear to be much more reasonable as a way out of the dilemma. There still remain serious problems in terms of finding agreement on what is justice or equality. My sense is that Sen would be favourably disposed towards an incremental approach to social justice, working from the bottom up unlike the Europeans, and avoiding the pitfalls of having to have a detailed vision on which all or most can agree. This allows us to be realistic in terms of our own concerns, traditions, and contexts and establish a few doable, practical goals in sufficient detail to be amenable to the reigning policy regime and political economy.
I would, however, differ with Sen on his critique of Rawls for indulging in 'transcendental institutionalism' without considering the need for a human agency that will ensure that institutions deliver. The human element, at least in our context, always seems to result in personalised contracts which sabotage institutional outcomes.
Sen's proposal to contextualise social justice through social-choice theory and through comparing with other contexts in a comparative framework should also allow for comparisons over time, with reference to one's own historical experience.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and new technology could come to our rescue. The introduction of AI into institutions is now a very distinct, indeed likely outcome. Such a transformation could completely overhaul the institutional architecture to ensure that institutions are run by certain clear rules (that respect social justice however defined) without having to depend upon (biased) human agency. We would, nevertheless, still require humans to formulate these rules. If society can indeed agree on rules, implementation challenges may not be as great in the age of the AI. If Sen were to revisit this problem today, I wonder whether he would change his past position.
SOCIAL JUSTICE IN BANGLADESH: The history of social justice in Bangladesh is a history of ignoring social justice at the political level. There was indeed a consensus in the immediate years leading up to the Liberation War in 1971 that social justice would have to be ensured in a free Bangladesh. The push came from the students, from the Left, and eventually saw acceptance and resonance in the top leadership of the Awami League. Both Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as well as Tajuddin Ahmed seemed committed to social justice. The political climate at the time required the government of post-1971 Bangladesh to institute 'Socialism' as one of its four pillars or foundations of the constitution.
The concept of socialism was not discussed at length nor clarified as to its key elements. It was done hurriedly to acknowledge the aspirations of a newly liberated population who wanted social and economic equality. Professor Austin Robinson (who was to later be my PhD supervisor at Cambridge) met with Bangabandhu in 1973 along with some of his colleagues who were participating in a conference in Dhaka under the auspices of the International Economic Association. The question that Sir Austin had for Bangabandhu was what was meant by Bangladesh socialism. The answer was 'socialism as we shall practice it in Bangladesh' (A. Robinson, 1973, p.52). Sir Austin went on to observe that this was not meant to be a quick and clever answer to a difficult question but reflected the essentially practical and pragmatic attitude of Bangladesh today: "They are playing it by ear and are deliberately feeling their way". This was work in progress and its basic outlines had not yet emerged.
It is difficult to know whether the floating of BAKSAL by Bangabandhu in 1975 was designed to pave the way to a one-party socialist state. The fact remains that the socialist agenda, which was weak to begin with, died with the death of Bangabandhu in August 1975.
The cries for social justice, socialism, equality, or land reforms, petered out quickly after remaining alive only in the sporadic utterances of the Left or the left-academic circles. Social justice as a political agenda failed to strike root. As an economic agenda, it stayed limited to periodic studies by poverty economists who poured over household income-expenditure data generated by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics at five-year intervals to proclaim that despite declining poverty rates, inequality in incomes is rising astronomically, and if unchecked, will lead to social disaster (Osmani and Sen, 2011).
So where does Bangladesh stand today in terms of various indicators of social justice? Despite the broad political distaste for socialism or social justice, the capitalist economic system in Bangladesh did produce some interesting outcomes:
Growth was spectacular. It was also broad-based, encompassing both the rural-agricultural sector, as well as industry and services. This led to the benefits of growth to trickle down, inducing rapid decline in the poverty rate, and more unexpectedly, a faster decline in poverty rates for the extreme poor category. No one predicted this, and no one expected this to happen.
Along with growth, there was the green revolution, fertility decline, and remarkable improvement in nutritional standards of children, women and men. There has also been significant improvement in educational outcomes, especially of women. The nature of growth led to rapid increase of women in the labour market. The work of NGOs in rural Bangladesh created grassroots institutions that served women well through services, savings mobilization and credit. These resulted in favourable progress in terms of gender dimensions.
Rural men sent back remittances to their families in villages, completely altering the rural financial markets. This along with micro-credit pushed usurious moneylenders to the margins, vastly reducing their exploitative power. Likewise, adverse contractual arrangements in the countryside like 'dadon' and tied-credit have become rare. In the meantime, the rural non-farm and the non-crop economy has taken off, turning into a dynamic sub-sector, creating employment opportunities in non-traditional areas including rural services, poultry, aqua-culture, horticulture, and dairy.
All these are positive developments that have been pro-poor, pro-women, inclusive of small and marginal farmers. As a result, rural wages have risen, narrowing the urban-rural wage gap. Despite all these developments, significant population groups remain marginalized, including indigenous peoples of the plains, inhabitants of chars and haors, as well as certain low-lying, flood-prone zones along the Teesta-Brahmaputra floodplains.
ECONOMIC INEQUALITY: Given Bangladesh's performance in accelerating GDP growth, it is not surprising that inequality, especially in incomes, has been rising to levels that many observers find 'alarming' (Osmani and Sen 2011; A. R. Khan 2005). Here one may observe that while economists like Khan have been raising the alarm in the context of rising inequality over the last fifty years, very few ideas were forthcoming in terms of ways and means to tackle inequality in a manner that would be realizable.
The problem of inequality raises the quintessential Hayekian problem: did inequality arise due to the market system and, therefore, not the product of any direct human agency? Unless the underlying dynamics automatically change, as some predicted it would, society itself would be hard put to find a solution.
This is an urgent area of concern. Predictably, policy responses to tackle this have been weak, even non-existent. The role of fiscal policies is limited due to its poor coverage and the vast size of the informal sector. However, there is one feature of the inequality aspect that is particularly interesting: while income distribution has been worsening rapidly, the same is not true for the distribution of consumption expenditure. This requires further exploration.
It is interesting to note that the positive social-sector outcomes experienced by Bangladesh over the last 50 years can be attributed to broad-based, inclusive growth and women's empowerment through education and labour-market participation. In other words, these positive outcomes were not deliberately or even envisaged but arose organically from the development process.
To conclude with it may be noted that I have not defined social justice. This was deliberate. I feel such an exercise would be futile, would lead to unnecessary debate, and result in a naught. It is virtually impossible to reach a consensus on the meaning of equality or social justice. A far better way would be to draw closer to Sen and think about 'realisations' - in other words, practical, meaningful things that we can set ourselves up for in terms of goals. Thus, just as Bangabandhu said of socialism in his conversation with Austin Robinson, today we must say the same for social justice. Social justice in Bangladesh will be defined by how we practice it in Bangladesh.
We have made progress despite being branded corrupt, despite being a weak, hybrid democracy, despite poor governance, and despite our shortcomings in terms of human rights. We have made progress because of many factors: chance occurrence, actor heroes who made tremendous contributions, role of NGOs and donors, government policies, and active lobbies that were able to nudge the government into appropriate directions at critical junctures of our history.
At the same time, no matter how flawed our political system, it still needs validation from the grassroots. This is the reason that a government like ours will want to take up popular, even populist policies, such as keeping rice prices stable, expanding social safety nets, introducing special programmes for specific groups like ethnic minorities, the homeless or the landless, and so on. Most recently, the government has announced the launch of a universal pension scheme, again to endear itself to the populace.
Whether defined or not, the government has adopted programmes that could be considered to fall under the category of social justice. How can this trend be deepened and accelerated? At one level, the approach will continue to be programme-oriented. I would argue that this is of limited value. A major difference could be made if we could create congenial spaces in certain key areas such as markets, institutions, and politics so that ordinary people can gain access without too much difficulty. This means that all vital institutions need to become de-personaliszed and de-politicised. This alone would mark a huge jump in the social -justice agenda.
At some point, society will want to go further to provide access to institutions for the disadvantaged. Thus, if one were to prioritise, I would go along with Sen and propose an inclusive health and educational sector and merit-based recruitment in public services, in the short to medium term. I am, therefore, suggesting a clear, incremental path forward, with clearly marked-out indicators to be monitored periodically, fully backed by the state. As the country makes further progress, both fiscal and the political spaces, which are needed to achieve greater social justice, will be created.
I have also said that recent technological advancements have the potential to be disruptive in a good way as well as a bad way. If as a country we are serious about depersonalising and depoliticising institutions and other key spaces, a technical solution can be envisaged. As long as AI is given a satisfactory, pro-social justice algorithm to work with, the issue of (biased) human agency can be resolved at low cost. All society needs to do is to want to do it.
As far as human rights and freedom are concerned, I believe a consensus has already been reached at the popular level that these are essential for any society and are indeed universal in appeal. The fact that the West has disabused this agenda should not prevent us from adopting these as our own fundamental values. Our route, however, must be incremental but conscious and deliberate, and amenable to monitoring and tracking. In other words, it will be our social justice made operational in our own way.

Dr KAS Murshid is the former director- general of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS).
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