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Friday, September 14, 2012

Is Britain's Aid Funding a Political Crackdown in Bangladesh?

File Photo: Sheikh Hasina meets Ed Miliband

WHAT A few weeks it has been for that Machiavellian matriarch Sheikh Hasina. She swished into London in August to bookmark the Olympic Games (opening and closing ceremony tickets for Bangladesh's premier - no messing around with an either/or scenario).

In between trips to her home in London she found time to meet her key diplomatic allies and financial backers: prime minister David Cameron, foreign secretary William Hague, opposition leader Ed Miliband, and the now former international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell. Never one to shy away from the limelight, Hasina was even afforded the privilege and prestige of a reception at Downing Street.

But while canapés were nibbled in London SW1A, back in Dhaka, Hasina's henchmen were busy disassembling the country's fragile democratic apparatus in the most sustained assault on freedom of speech in the 41 years since independence.

Last month, Bangladesh's supreme leader ordered the arrest of Mir Quasem Ali, a leading member of the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami, who also runs a charitable organisation named after the great Arab polymath Ibn Sina.

Ali's lesser crime is less his political and philosophical ideology, and more the 15 million people he reaches via newspapers like Naya Diganta, part of a Jamaat-owned media group. His greater crime though, it would appear, is his very public criticism of a war crimes tribunal set up by Hasina after her Awami League party rose to power in 2008.

This tribunal, which veers between medieval show trial and outright witch-hunt - and includes inventing witness statements, coaching witnesses, and interfering with judicial appointments - has been denounced by everyone from the United Nations to the United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues Stephen J. Rapp.

Hasina's men love the tribunal, which aims to bring to trial anyone involved in the ghastly events surrounding the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, where it is alleged that three million people were killed, and up to 400,000 women were raped. The cause is worthy but, say critics, its underlying motives are purely political. All those so far arrested are opponents of Hasina, many from Jamaat-e-Islami. Happily for Bangladesh's premier, none of those on (show-) trial are from her side of the political fence.

Ali's arrest is merely the latest of a string of concerted attacks on Hasina's opponents, including the intimidation of journalists and a sustained and unpalatable assault on Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, in an attempt to undermine and nationalise his trailblazing microfinance lender Grameen Bank.

It's strangely sad that this medieval madness is taking place just 5,000 miles away from an Olympic village whose athletes and overseers trumpet the causes of freedom, inclusivity and progress. And its ironic in the extreme that Britain's political leaders should be condoning and even championing a woman bent on denying those very human rights to her people.

But still the bullying continues on the subcontinent. Earlier this month, almost the entire elected membership of the opposition Bangladesh National Party bar its leader was arrested. A litany of charges now awaits the main opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, and her family: Zia charges that these accusations are pure retribution on the part of her political nemesis, Sheikh Hasina.

None of this bodes well for elections next year. In her meeting with Ed Miliband, Hasina stated that "all the future elections in Bangladesh will be held in a complete fair and neutral manner". Few believe that any election in Bangladesh can be either 'free' or 'fair' so long as she retains supreme power. Later, in a BBC interview, Hasina proclaimed that her opposition back home enjoyed every possible political and democratic right.

Perhaps she believes this to be true. Perhaps she believes that her opponents are indeed truly guilty of heinous crimes, while her political cronies and cohorts are above the fray, innocent and pure, garlanded with roses and perfume. Yet if this really is the case, it would seem strange that she is denying any of the accused at the war crimes tribunal access to proper legal representation. Last year, Jamaat-e-Islami's British lawyer Toby Cadman, a respected human rights lawyer practicing at London's 9 Bedford Row International, was detained on arrival in Dhaka Airport, despite his international credentials. Cadman was held for ten hours before being expelled from Bangladesh on the next Dubai-bound plane. His request for a visa to return to Bangladesh to defend his clients have been met with a steely silence. Ironically, during the previous Government when Sheikh Hasina was leader of the opposition, and faced trial herself, her defence team was assisted by the presence of Cherie Booth QC, wife of former PM, Tony Blair.

Hasina's assault on freedom is one that the British government has the financial and political resources to stop - right now. Yet both our government and our opposition are doing precisely nothing to halt events in Dhaka, preferring to stick their fingers in their ears and hold their nose.

The now former International development secretary Mitchell refused to comment on the treatment of Yunus at all - until finally putting pen to paper in a letter of reply addressed to Cadman, published in the September 7 edition of the Daily Telegraph. Meanwhile the UK High Commission in Dhaka refused to condemn the arrest of opposition politicians. The Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign Office are complicit in this crackdown on democracy and freedom of expression.

The British Government, through DFID, directly funds Bangladesh to the tune of £250 million a year, and has plans to increase this support to £1 billion over the next three years. This makes the UK the chief funder of its former colony, money that is currently handed over, directly to Hasina's cronies, with no strings or conditions attached.

So what is to be done? Firstly, the British Government must make direct-to-government aid to Bangladesh conditional on freedom of expression. In the last ten years the country has been listed last a total of five times in the annual Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. But when the British Government is providing funds unconditionally to a country with such fundamental deficiencies, then it is incredulous this comes without strings attached.

Secondly, Britain and others must demand that all trials, whether for war crimes or otherwise, are conducted in accordance with universal standards of due process with full respect to the presumption of innocence, before a tribunal that is impartial and independent of the ruling party.

Finally, the British Government has to acknowledge that its funding modus operandi isn't working. In recent weeks, the UK has withheld aid to Rwanda's leader Paul Kagame, whose administration has been linked to alleged human rights abuses, at home and abroad. In Bangladesh, the government's crackdown against human rights and freedoms are not even alleged - they are plain for all to see.

Few but the most virulent hawks would deny that international aid has its benefits, but the British coalition government is taking its liberal stance on foreign aid funding to the absolute extreme. By channeling billions of pounds of unconditional funding into the maw of a truly noxious foreign leader more interested in witchhunts and her world standing than with promoting and protecting human rights or democracy, Britain is starting to look a complicit and even active part of the awful events unfolding on the subcontinent.

We need to change how we fund not just Bangladesh, but many countries. If a country's leaders use UK taxpayers' money to subjugate their own people in the covert name of political retribution, it is time for us to make a change. Surely people of the intelligence of Cameron, Hague and Miliband should be able, at the very least, to understand this very real pilgrim's progress.

First appeared in The Huffington Post, September 13, 2012

Elliot Wilson is a British investigative journalist who writes for The Spectator, The Observer and other international publications

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Bangladesh: Troubled waters

A foreign-funded bridge is hostage to murky local politics

THE BIGGEST infrastructure project in South Asia to be paid for by foreign donors is a $3 billion bridge in Bangladesh intended to span the Padma river, which is what the main branch of the Ganges is called as it flows through its delta to the Bay of Bengal, receiving the flow from the vast Brahmaputra river for good measure.

The bridge is the stuff of donors’ dreams. Its point is to end the isolation of Bangladesh’s poor south-west, home to 30m people who are cut off by these vast waters from the capital, Dhaka, and the rest of the country. The region’s isolation is compounded, to the south-west, by a high-security fence along the border with the Indian state of West Bengal; and, to the south, by the tidal Sundarbans, where dense mangrove forests are home to tigers. The proposed 6 km (3.8-mile) bridge could be a gateway to India, tying Dhaka to the great metropolis of Kolkata. It is also a crucial piece of an even more ambitious dream of connecting South Asia with South-East Asia, via Bangladesh and Myanmar. Official estimates say the bridge could raise Bangladesh’s annual growth rate by 1.2 percentage points.

The planned bridge, some 40km south-west of the capital, is designed to carry four lanes for traffic, as well as a freight railway and a gas pipeline. Complex works to channel the Padma’s flow are planned. Alas, it is easier to train the 5km-wide river than Bangladesh’s politicians to keep their hands out of the till. In June the World Bank cancelled a $1.2 billion loan, citing alleged corruption by Bangladeshi public servants. The World Bank has identified various officials as being unable to leave the money for the bridge alone. Sacking crooked-seeming officials has, for the World Bank, become a precondition for resuming lending. Bangladeshi newspapers have said that the prime minister’s chief economic adviser, Mashiur Rahman, is in the Bank’s sights. He says he has done nothing wrong and will only resign if the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, tells him to. Regardless of Mr Rahman’s case, Bangladesh has a culture of impunity. Only one senior politician has ever gone to jail under an elected government for corruption, and that was a former dictator.

The Asian Development Bank is more ready than the World Bank to be a cheerleader for the Bangladeshi government and is keen to resuscitate the project. Like the Japan International Co-operation Agency, another backer, it has kept the door open. However, more Bangladeshi officials will have to step down before the World Bank is prepared to return. Probably the government will come back to the table, but not without hectoring its perceived enemies first. Sheikh Hasina has accused Mohammad Yunus, a pioneer of microfinance and a Nobel peace laureate, of putting the World Bank up to walking off.

The Padma bridge project has been in the works for over a decade. Western governments do not want to see it snapped up by a state-backed Chinese company (in return, perhaps, for an equity stake and for economic influence, as has happened with ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan). India, with which Bangladesh has usually had good relations, would do its best to block a high-profile Chinese involvement in its neighbour’s economy.

Sheikh Hasina says Bangladesh will “not beg” from the World Bank. A sense of injured national pride has given rise to the unworkable notion that the bridge must now be built with Bangladesh’s “own resources”. The government is mulling a levy to help finance the bridge.

The only politician openly to reject Sheikh Hasina’s obsession with self-reliance is A.M.A. Muhith, the finance minister and a former World Bank official himself. Mr Muhith is too venerable to be required to call the prime minister “elder sister”. He knows that Bangladesh needs the multilateral agencies: only earlier this year the IMF helped out with a $1 billion loan. Bangladesh relies heavily on Western aid for a vast array of projects that otherwise would not exist. Without the Bank, there can be no bridge.

Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League is livid enough that it will be unable to keep its election promise of building the bridge before the end of 2013. Yet it would be even more appalled if the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by Sheikh Hasina’s arch-rival, Khaleda Zia, took office at the next election, bagging credit for the bridge. (That prospect is real: no elected government has won a second term.) And so, in the end, Sheikh Hasina has no strong incentive, other than the country’s best interests, to mollify the World Bank.

First published in The Economist, Sep 8th 2012

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The poor aren’t poor by choice


THIS IS the belief held by many in our society today about the poor. But what possible reason would allude to the fact that 70 million Pakistanis actually want to live in such destitute conditions? Those who believe that the state of poverty is an inescapable trap, tirelessly attempt to help others break free from this vicious cycle. These people run NGOs, fundraise, and engage in various philanthropic activities to alleviate poverty in any capacity that they are able to. But why do they simply donate money to the poor instead of diverting those funds towards the setup of a self-sustaining project that facilitates greater income-earning abilities in the long-run? The poor do not want to be poor. But until recently, they had no choice but to be poor.

Thanks to Nobel Laureate, Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh, millions of poor people all over the world are now financially stable, and are rising over and above the poverty line every day. Dr Yunus founded the Grameen Bank on the basis that it would only grant loans to the poor, who, to this day, remain unrepresented in most large private financial institutions. The founder of microfinance has been able to change the face of Bangladesh by giving loans of small amounts to the poor. With the help of structured weekly meetings in over 400 Bangladeshi villages to collect loan repayment instalments, the Grameen Bank has an astounding loan repayment rate of 98 percent. One would think of comparing this figure to the big banks on Wall Street that came crashing down during the economic meltdown but there really is no comparison.

According to a recent opinion piece by Jamil Nasir in The News, poverty alleviation policies need to be formed based on careful research and analysis of the living conditions of the poor (August 11, 2012). He draws extensively from the seminal research undertaken by professors Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of MIT. They assert that the analysis of expenditure patterns, basic necessities, and economic environment of the poor, are necessary for effective policy-making. If there is one thing I have learned during my time at the Grameen Bank, it is that they know their clients. They know the lives of the people whom they serve, and they understand the limitations of the social structure in which they operate. This is why the Grameen model of microcredit is not only based on the provision of finances, but also on the more human concepts of trust, motivation, and community. These emotional sentiments stir from “The Sixteen Decisions” of Grameen, a concept that encourages and facilitates an overall higher standard of living to all of its borrowers.

When a woman is granted a Grameen Bank loan, she must promise to abide by the Sixteen Decisions to the best of her ability. These are a set of agreements laid out by Dr Yunus to help improve the overall standard of living, which include promises to use sanitary toilets, drinking clean water, and fully educating their children. The Sixteen Decisions serve as a motivating tool for Grameen borrowers all over Bangladesh, not only to better their financial conditions, but to improve all aspects of their living standards. As I witnessed in the villages of Bangladesh firsthand, the implementation of the Sixteen Decisions has had an astounding impact on the entire country. Not a single woman that I met in the village of Sherpur had more than four children, and 97 percent of the women were educating all of their children, including daughters. Each one of them owned homes made of solid tin-shed, equipped with fully-functioning latrines. Most importantly, these women owned clothing and press factories in which they had employed their own husbands.

Take a moment to note the vital difference in the social structures between Pakistan and Bangladesh, a country 24 years newer than our own. Dr Yunus has not only facilitated banking to the poor, but has also changed the way they live on a daily basis. His carefully crafted model of microcredit truly has transformed the lives of the poor, not only in Bangladesh, but all over the world. The “poor” Bangladeshi women, whom I have lived with over the last few months, are living proof that anything is possible with just a little bit of trust, organization, and guidance along the way. Amazing what empowering women can do for a country.

In order to reduce poverty, a much better understanding of the Grameen model is required. We should understand the lives of the 70 million Pakistanis currently living below the poverty line, and need to truly ascertain the basic human needs they are deprived of. We should understand their spending patterns, their job structures, and the culture of the communities in which they live. Simply distributing microloans every month will not bring anyone out of poverty, because poverty is not only determined by monetary wealth but also by a combination of sanitary living conditions, access to education and healthcare, and adequate nutrition.

A concept similar to the Sixteen Decisions is necessary to bring about any overall change, as it accounts for all of these facets of living. Perhaps, we as Pakistanis should spend more time delving into, and truly understanding, the needs of our people. Once we are able to tailor a poverty alleviation policy directly to their needs, the results will be nothing short of incredible.

First published in the Pakistan Today, September 2, 2012

Bismah Kasuri is a graduate in anthropology and economics from the University of Virginia, USA, she is also Social Business Intern at Yunus Centre

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Bangladeshi’s in India: Myth and Reality


THE ASSAM violence between Bodos and Muslims, alleged by many to be Bangladeshi infiltrators, has a long chain of repercussions. The number of dead is nearly eighty. Killings are continuing and the people who have been displaced have been over 4 lakhs. There is no exact statistics to tell us how many of the displaced are Muslims and how many are Bodos, still roughly some investigators have put the figure of Muslims 80% and Bodos 20%. The few reports which have come out tell us that the condition of the all refugee camps is abysmal, much worse of those where Muslims are living. Meanwhile many a voices have come up to express their own opinions. The BJP leaders have strongly asserted that the whole violence is due to the Bangladeshi infiltrators, whose number is estimated as per the flight of one’s imagination ranging from 10 million to 20 million or even more. It is alleged that they have encroached, taken over the land of the local natives, which is causing the dissatisfaction and so the hate for them. This hate in turn is at the root of violence. This is one case where displacement overshadows the violence.

The Election Commissioner H.S. Brahma, a Bodo himself, went to the extent of saying that these infiltrators have gone up in number and so have become aggressive and attacked the local Bodos. The other point of view is that despite the formation of Bodo Territorial Council, the Bodos did not surrender their arms, which was one of the conditions for accepting the demand of this regional council. There are voices from BJP stable that this is an issue of Nationalism, the one of Indians and the other of Bangladeshis. Some of them have voiced that these Bangladeshi should be disenfranchised and not be permitted to vote. As such already many of them are not allowed to vote by putting them in the category of ‘D’ voters, i.e. doubtful voters. As per BJP and company it is Congress, which has been encouraging the Bangladeshis to infiltrate so that they can be used as the vote bank by the Congress. Not to ignore that since major number of those in relief camps is that of Muslims, some Bodo groups have warned that the Muslims should not be permitted to return to their original places.

National Minorities Commission in its report has pointed out that there is no infiltration of Bangladeshi as such and the issue is that between the Bodo ethnic groups, on one side and the Muslims, who have settled here from a long time, on the other. Before we come to the issue whether these are Bangladeshi infiltrators, Bangladeshi migrants or the Muslims settlers from Bengal over a period of time, lets register that the Assam episode had a very painful after events. There were Hate emails, Hate web sites which warned the North Eastern people that revenge of Assam will be taken against them and this caused a mammoth exodus of North eastern people from all over, more particularly from Bangalore. The Web sites which did this dirty job, many of them have been blocked, it is said are from Pakistan, some 20% of the blocked sites are the one’s run by Hindutva groups also. Through leaflets and other mechanisms VHP and other groups are propagating that Hindus are being attacked by Muslims, the Bangladeshi infiltrators.

Not to be left behind some orthodox, fanatic Muslim groups organized a protest rally in Azad Maidan of Mumbai, in which a preplanned act by a section of Muslims attacked the OB vans of media and the police officials. The restrained and effective leadership of Arup Patnaik was not to the liking of the communal elements and those politicking on the issue within the ruling party and so Mr. Patnaik has been punished by being kicked up, As such secular activists and large section of Muslims are in deep appreciation of Mr. Patnaik’s handling of the episode.

Coming back to the propaganda of Bangladeshi infiltrators, many a researchers have proved on the basis of demographic data of last century in particular that the Muslims in the region are settlers from pre partition Bengal to begin with, later at the time of partition in 1947 and lastly at the time of Bangladesh war in 1971. Assam accord of 1985 recognizes all those living in this area as the legal setters, most of the Muslim fall in that category. Not to deny that that some small number of illegal immigrants, the one’s forced to migrate for economic reasons is also there.

The change in demographic profile of Assam has taken place over a period of more than a century. It was mainly the British policy to release the pressure from the then Bengal province that they encouraged the Bengalis to settle in Assam. The last major migration has taken place around 1971, the Bangladesh war. After that the trickle has been there but the alleged infiltration is not there. Assam accord does recognize that all those who have settled before 1971 are legal Indian citizens, which most of the Muslims in Assam are. This is shown by the pattern of decadal growth in the region more particularly from 1950 onwards. The census figures clearly point out that after 1971; there is no major increase in the population of the area. The decadal growth in India, Assam, Dhubri, Dhemaji, and Karbi Anglong from 1971 to 1991 had been 54.51, 54.26, 45.65, 107.50, and 74.72 respectively. While the same in the decade of 1991-01 became 21.54, 18.92, 22.97, 19.45, 22.72 and in the decade of 01-11 it became 17.64, 16.93, 24.40, 20.30 and 18.69 respectively. Shivam Viz in Myth of Bangladeshi and Violence in Assam ( shows that the migration has taken place over a period of time and the increase of population stops after 1971.

If we just look at the decadal growth rates of population in two other districts of Assam, Dhemaji and Karbi Anglong, we will see that their growth rates in comparison have been more than twice that of Assam and substantially higher than even the ‘Muslim’ majority ‘border’ district of Dhubri. Yet, the Muslim population in Dhemaji and Karbi Anglong is minuscule. The Hindu population in these two districts is 95.94% and 82.39% Hindu respectively. Muslims constitute merely 1.84% and 2.22% respectively of their total populations, in spite of having consistent high decadal growth rates – Dhemaji touching 103.42% between 1961-71 and Karbi Anglong having a similar high of 79.21% between 1951-61. This should be testimony enough to show that there could be reasons apart from illegal immigration of Muslims behind a high decadal growth rate of population. In Assam there is a decline in the population in Kokrajhar, which is the seat of Bodo Territorial Council. It hasthe lowest population growth of 5.19%, from the earlier 14.49 per cent in 2001.

Understanding the truth and deeper analysis of the demographic pattern of Assam is very essential to understand the nature of present carnage, which is more of a sectarian nature, a group trying to assert ethnic domination in the region. The underlying causes, lack of development of the region, absence of jobs, is creating more pressure on the land, and the ‘sons of the soil’ politics is being brought up in a very painful manner. Not only do we need to assuage the present violence, there is a need to bring in amity between different communities with proper development of infrastructure, which gives the opportunities to all the citizens of the area.
First published in Issues in Secular Politics, I September 2012

Ram Puniyani is a Professor in Biomedical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Powai. He has also been engaged in understanding global and local changes, which have resulted in communal violence. He could reached at: