Grounded by the British hartal

Naomi Hossain

In Dhaka, the Institute of Governance Studies (IGS) BRAC University/Bath University conference has finally resolved the problem of governance in Bangladesh. I really think we might have cracked it. But the real beauty of the conference is that my friend David has been grounded in Dhaka because of a hartal. It is a bit mean I know, but he appreciates the symmetry. Anyone who has spent any time in Dhaka knows what hartal means: cancelled flights, curfew, stuck at home. But this time the hartal – or strike – was not in Dhaka but in Britain: David was due to return to London on the 30th. Everyone’s on strike. That means no immigration officials, which means no immigration. So David is grounded by the British hartal.

This was perfect symmetry too, to a side argument we had at the conference. My argument was that if you look at the supposed ‘clients’ (also known as poor people) in the Bangladesh system, many of them look remarkably like citizens and people with political agency. Not (as Geof Wood has it) as prisoners of a system that fails them. There are many ways in which these citizens are taking power and transforming their lives and relationships, including with the state. The mother story is that unruly politics and rude accountability are pretty good ways for poor and disconnected people (including women) to be heard; for various reasons these tactics can be relatively powerful in Bangladesh. But this is not only a Bangladesh story: strikes and demonstrations and staged protests and so on are on the rise around the world. And that is not coincidental: small and big political conflicts are inevitably arising out of the debris of the economic and austerity crises. Nobody finds these conflicts mysterious.

The volatilities and pressures from the external environment make it impossible to predict or think of intervening in the governance of Bangladesh with any serious expectation of knowing what might emerge. Global economic risks are certainly changing the internal political calculus in Dhaka. Securing resilience to the food price spikes and financial crisis of 2008-09 squeezed the fiscal space more than is comfortable, as we know from the budget and macroeconomic work by the Centre for Policy Dialogue. A close look at official statements shows that these new global risks are making the government think differently – about social protection for instance. So the global economy is pushing in unexpected directions, and on a rising global tide of unruliness.

I don’t think David or others bought the argument that popular mobilisation and global economic risk are now important drivers of change in Bangladesh’s governance. This may be partly because the future it predicts is violent and messy and by no means guaranteed to result in fairer arrangements. But those who analyse governance in Bangladesh generally stop well short of recognising influences from beyond national borders, or of treating popular mobilisation as effective demand for change at all. Everyone knows that the problems are political, but there is a strong residual desire to avoid this problem – not generally amenable to the kinds of technocrat tinkering produced by risk-averse aid bureaucrats – by talking about building better, more rational, more formal institutions. This appetite for discussing law as a possible solution to the issues we face I do find genuinely mystifying.

I noticed just now that the opening scene from David’s new book Bangladesh: Politics, Economy and Civil Society (D. Lewis, 2011, Cambridge University Press) is one of riot: ‘the streets once again convulsed by demonstrations and a strike … blocked the highways … roads with barricades … picketed … demanding … protesters lost their lives in clashes with police … dozens were injured in the violence that followed.’ (pp. 1). That was David’s picture of Dhaka in late 2010. Yet only eight months later, in 2011, English cities were similarly in riot. And now David is himself grounded by hartal, not for once at Zia International Airport (or whatever they’ve renamed it) but at Heathrow. How long before BRAC hosts conferences on the state of governance in Britain?

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

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