Dec 23, 2022 • 1HR 26M

MUDDLING THROUGH - BANGLADESH'S DEVELOPMENT JOURNEY

A Conversation with Akhtar Mahmood

 
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Bangladesh has transformed tremendously in the last twenty-five years. Average incomes have more than quadrupled, and many of its human development indicators have improved alongside. It has also become an export powerhouse with its garment industry, and generally a shining example of development - though things are far from perfect. Five decades ago, when Bangladesh became an independent country, many were not hopeful about its chances of development. So how did Bangladesh turn its story around? Well, it turns out the history of its transformation is longer than credited - and the process is more complex than what is cleanly presented.

I could not think of a better person to help me unpack the Bangladeshi miracle than Dr. Akhtar Mahmood. He is an economist and was a lead private sector specialist for the World Bank Group - where he worked in various parts of the world for three decades on privatization, state enterprise reforms, investment climate, competitiveness, and more broadly private sector development. He has written some excellent books (see embedded links), and his column for the Dhaka Tribune is one of my wisest sources of economic development commentary.

Transcript

Tobi;

Welcome to the show Akhtar Mahmood. It's a pleasure talking to you. I am very fascinated and curious about Bangladesh, and you are my number one option for such a journey. It’s a pleasure, personally, for me to be having these conversations. I've been reading your column for about a year now with the Dhaka Tribune, and I've learned so much. They are very perceptive, and I'm going to be putting up links to some of my favourites in the show notes for this episode. Welcome once again, and thank you so much for doing this.

Akhtar;

Thank you very much for having me. Thanks, Tobi.

Tobi;

There's so much that I want to talk to you about, as you'd imagine, but let me start right at the end, which is now. There has been a lot of attention on Bangladesh, recently, at least in my own orbit, there have been two quite detailed and interesting columns in the Financial Times about Bangladesh. There is also Stefan Dercon’s book, which used Bangladesh as a positive case for what he was describing about the development process. But also, there's the issue of what's going on right now with the global economy. First, it started with COVID and how the economy suddenly stopped, and all the reverberation that comes with that - the supply chain, and now, a lot of countries are going through a sort of sovereign debt crisis and Bangladesh, again, is in the spotlight. 

So, I just want you to give me an overview, and how this, sort of, blends with countries that put so much into development…you know, in terms of policy, in terms of the things they are doing right, in terms of investment and attracting investment, and the exposure to these sorts of global economic risks and volatility. [This is] because, usually, what you get in Western discourse is that a lot of countries are victims of some of these risks because of some of the wrong policy decisions they make. But in the case of Bangladesh, at least to my knowledge, nothing like that is going on. And yet, it is usually talked about as a very exposed country in that regard. I know you wrote a column recently about this. So I just want you to give me a brief [insight]—is there anything to worry about? How do countries that are trying to get rich, that are trying to do things right, how do they usually manage these sorts of global risks?

Akhtar;

Right? I think, inevitably, we'll have to go a bit into the history of how we came here. But since you started with the current situation, let me briefly comment on that, and then maybe I'll go to the history. Right now, yes, like most other countries, we are facing challenges, but I think there has been a bit of hype about how serious the challenge is, in terms of the risk of a debt default, the risk of foreign exchange reserves going down very sharply. And I think there is a bit of the Sri Lanka effect, and then also the Pakistan effect, as people are trying to put Bangladesh in the same bracket, which I think is very, very misplaced. I think the IMF has made it clear, [not only] in its latest country report, which came out in March 2022 but also in many recent statements, that Bangladesh has both a solvency situation and a liquidity situation. As you know [that] the solvency is typically measured by the external debt to GDP ratio, one of the ratios is external debt by GDP and the liquidity is measured by debt service requirements - the external debt service requirements by the export earnings ratio. And there are these certain thresholds, and if you go beyond that, it's considered a bit risky. 

Bangladesh on both these accounts is much below the threshold. So there's already a lot of headroom in the sense that even if things get worse over the next few months and maybe a year or two, Bangladesh would still be able to manage the situation. So I just wanted to make that clear at the beginning. Now, that doesn't mean that there aren't other issues in Bangladesh, issues which have been brewing for quite some time. For example, many of us are concerned with the efficiency of public expenditures. We know of projects where there have been cost overruns. Some of it may be for genuine reasons, some of it may be related to corruption, which sadly still remains a serious problem in Bangladesh. I feel that I've written about it, and you may have read some of these articles about the spectre of rising cronyism, which, again, is not surprising; when an economy grows as fast as Bangladesh's has, there are certain people who become economically powerful. And at some stage they acquire political power as well, and then you start seeing the problem of cronyism. So we have that, we have a serious problem in the banking sector with a lot of non-performing loans. I'm not suggesting that we don't have serious problems, we do. But there is a disconnect between the typical headlines and where the real problems lie in Bangladesh.  

Now, this may be a good moment to bring up a little bit of history, and I can go deeper into it. The Bangladesh economy has certain resilience. And I just want to comment on that. One which is not discussed much, because the story often is about garments and remittances, is the transformation that has happened in the rural areas. It started with agriculture, it actually started with rice production, which is the most important crop in Bangladesh. And then it expanded into other crops, and then even non-farm activities in the rural areas, we can go into the details of this later. But agriculture provides a certain resilience. And we saw that again during COVID. Because the agricultural activities in Bangladesh were not affected that much by COVID, and that was a big benefit. 

The other is the unleashing of an entrepreneurial spirit in Bangladesh. And this spirit has been unleashed across the board, so it's not just some large conglomerates or some large government manufacturers who have become entrepreneurial. This is something which has happened across the board, from small farmers to large conglomerates. And that, I think, is a big asset for the country. Because we don't have natural resources; unlike Nigeria, we don't have natural resources. In some ways, it's actually a good thing. Because then we are forced to use other assets and latent entrepreneurship… you know, Albert Hirschman, the famous economist, wrote a book in 1956, which is a classic, on the strategy of economic development, and he made a very interesting comment. He said, in developing countries, you have a lot of latent resources. In developed countries, the task is how to allocate the resources you have; how to best allocate them. In developing countries, it is about bringing out the latent resources you have; and entrepreneurship is one of the latent resources developing countries have, but many countries have not been able to bring that out and make use of it. Bangladesh has, and that gives a certain resilience to the economy. So yes, the shocks are going to affect us, especially because our major industry, in fact, is export-oriented, which is garments. So that is affected by the shocks, but unlike commodity prices, export earnings don't fluctuate that much. And the industry has proven to be resilient over the years.

Tobi;

Yeah, I'm glad you touched on history because, really, that's where I wanted to start. But I just want to get the pulse of the moment and how to make sense of all the headlines that we're seeing around. So usually, and I’ll refer to the two pieces I've read in the FT [Financial Times] recently that I referenced in my first question. The development trajectory of Bangladesh is usually dated as something that started around 1990. But Bangladesh became an independent country two decades before that. So my question then is: that intervening period before that sort of consensus about the takeoff point, what were the things that were brewing in the background that culminated in that takeoff? I know a lot of things went down, and just to mention that one of the reasons I’m very interested in Bangladesh is that it sort of defies some of the seductive examples of development and progress - the Asian tigers, you know, so to speak - where things seem to be very clear, the prescriptions are very precise, you need to do this and do this. 

Bangladesh seems like a regular country - like Nigeria, with its history, its complexities, its problems like every other country in the world, but that has also managed, despite a situation that has seemed hopeless, at first, to people who look at these things in terms of hard boundaries - that has emerged as this fantastic example of economic growth and development. So what were the major things that happened before 1990 that sort of made this takeoff possible?

Akhtar;

Now, one may debate on whether 1990 is the point of the takeoff. In any case, it's very difficult to pinpoint. But anyway, it's good. So 1990, twenty years after independence and also a transition to democratic rule after fifteen years or so of military or quasi military rule. So that's another reason people take that as a counterpoint. But it's a good counterpoint to start discussing these things. Professor Stefan Dercon, whom I think you had on your show recently, who wrote this book Gambling on Development; he has been saying that actually, in some ways, it's a Bangladesh experience which may be more relevant for many developing countries than the East Asian [experience]. And one of the reasons he mentions is, I think, what you just alluded to - that there is a certain messiness, and yet Bangladesh developed. So countries which think that they are also in a somewhat messy situation, or whatever dimensions, say in governance or other dimensions - whether it's possible for them to develop. And that's why the Bangladesh example may be more relevant and encouraging than the East Asian, where one common characteristic has been the strong capabilities of the state. In China, it has been there for hundreds or more,  thousands of years. In East Asia, yes, I'm sure they also have that but they certainly acquired that quite fast. So how do you develop in a country context where the state capacity, the governance quality are not that great, and then you have many other problems as well. So you're right. In that sense, Bangladesh may be very relevant. 

I think I'd like to first start with, um, even deeper history, because if you look at the region which now constitutes Bangladesh, it used to be part of a province in British India. So it was East Bengal, and then you had West Bengal and then together it was Bengal. Now there was a time in history when Bengal including East Bengal was supposed to be reasonably rich, perhaps the richest province in [the] whole of India before the British came. But if we go back to the beginning of the twentieth century, East Bengal was actually quite backward economically and in many other ways. And if you look at the political discourse in the first half of the twentieth century, before the British left, the political and intellectual discourse in what is now Bangladesh, you’ll see there's a lot of talk about peasants being exploited. We were a very peasant dominated economy and society. In many ways we still are, although there has been a lot of urbanisation and industrial activity. At that time it was very much peasant dominated, and the theme which dominated the discourse was exploitation of the peasants. And the aspiration that the leaders whether political or intellectual had is how can we improve the conditions of the poor people. And that sort of got ingrained in the minds of the leaders, and that continued during the time when we were a part of Pakistan. Because you may have heard that there was a lot of disparity and there was a lot of discriminatory treatment by the Pakistani establishment. 

So that theme was there. When we became independent in ‘71, you could think of the political leadership, you could think of the professional leadership, the bureaucracy, the intellectuals, the media, this theme of doing something for the poor, was actually very strong. So right at the beginning, and, I heard somewhere that our first prime minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was asked by a foreign journalist: what is the number one problem of your country? And he said, I actually have two number one problems. One is food security, and one is population. And we need to take care of that. So right from the beginning, even in the midst of all the turmoil in the first few years, and all the challenges of relief and rehabilitation, work had started on ensuring agricultural growth and food security. And we were fortunate that the HYV rice, the high yielding variety of rice, had been introduced just before independence, so we had something to work with. So that was very important. And there was a strong program to bring down the rate of growth of [the] population and we succeeded on both counts. So by the time we come to 1990, agriculture is taking off. Rice production had taken off significantly, farmers were diversifying into other crops. And we had started to see the beginnings of a rural non farm sector. So agriculture and non agriculture together. And, Bangladeshis had been going out as migrants, and they're sending back remittances, most of it going into the rural areas. So there was a vibrancy in the rural area by the time you come to 1990. 

Secondly, sometime in the late 70s, the government decided that not only should we move away from the early talk about socialism, [but] towards a more private sector-oriented or market-oriented economy. They also understood that industry has to grow to absorb the surplus labour in agriculture, and export orientation has to grow, because the market in Bangladesh is simply not large enough. So there was an early emphasis on exports. And of course, fortuitously, you know, the South Koreans were running out of their garment quota, so they wanted to relocate some of the production to Bangladesh, but we were ready to take advantage because by then the government and let's say the elite of the class had decided that we need to industrialise and the major driver of industrialization is going to be exports. And then throughout the 80s, we saw the takeoff of the garment industry. The third thing which happened was the liberalisation of policies, mostly in the 80s. So, privatisation was done, the banking sector was open to the private sector. The agricultural input market, which was previously dominated by the government, was gradually liberalised and towards the late 80s, there was a significant liberalisation of that. And finally, as remittances started coming in, our foreign exchange constraint was relaxed. So that also gave government some comfort that we can decontrol certain things. And we can allow industry to move ahead without too many controls. So all these things coming together sort of created the context in which we entered the 1990s. So a lot of the preconditions - the population growth rate had fallen significantly by the time it came to the 1990s, agricultural growth had taken off, industry was taking off, especially the labour intensive garments, which is export-oriented, that industry was taking off.

Tobi;

That was such a loaded answer, which has preempted some of my further questions. But let me quickly make one digression on agriculture, because over the past seven years or so, in Nigeria, there's been this debate. There's been a huge debate about agriculture, the current administration sort of prioritised agriculture and a lot of resources (capital) was allocated to that sector. And there's been challenges and there's been critics, sometimes I've found myself on the critic’s side of things. Now, what I want to know from you is that,the link between agriculture, especially investment and the agricultural productivity that is necessary for the vibrance of that particular sector, how was the Bangladeshi experience? How did Bangladesh achieve food security, especially in terms of improving yield and productivity?

Akhtar;

Right, so a few things. Firstly, as I said, the high yielding variety of rice had been introduced in the late 60s, and then just after independence, government continued, but more vigorously with a model of… it was more [of a] public sector driven model, where the public sector would import the major inputs. One is irrigation equipment, because this rice needed irrigation, and the other was fertiliser. So, they're imported by the public sector, then they're distributed by the public sector going all the way to the farmers. Maybe at the last mile, there were some private traders who act as dealers on behalf of the government. So, the government took that responsibility. Later on, as I said, in the 80s, they started liberalising it. We'll come to that later. Second is, there's been quite a bit of investment in agricultural research. Now the HYV rice came from abroad, but as it was being applied in Bangladeshi farms, in many cases, we realised that there was some adaptation needed, because the conditions were not always well suited for this variety. The crop conditions varied even within Bangladesh, even though it's a small country, lots of variation. Later on, for example, salinity became a problem, because a lot of water was coming from the Bay of Bengal into Bangladesh. So there are all kinds of problems - there's flooding also. There were many areas where after floods, the waters don't recede that fast, so they remain underwater for a long time. 

So the agricultural scientists in Bangladesh, and they were all in the public sector, they came up with innovations to come up with rice varieties and later other varieties like maize varieties or vegetables, which are better suited to the conditions in Bangladesh. And then the public sector effort was also complemented, supplemented by NGO efforts. You may have heard about BRAC [Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee], which is the largest NGO in the world, and we often talk about their activities in the health sector, in education, in microfinance. They were actually doing a lot of work in the economic sphere as well. R&D in agriculture was one of the things that we're doing, in collaboration with the government often, so there was R&D. Another thing happened, which I forgot to mention, when I mentioned sort of the run up to the 90s. In the 80s, the government started a massive program to build rural roads, connecting the rural areas to the small towns and the small towns to the bigger towns. So,a huge rural road network was built starting from the late 80s. And it continued into the 90s, which broadened the markets of the farmers. So in all of this, the core player was the small farmer. As I said, Bangladesh is a peasant, small farmer dominated economy, so it is remarkable that these farmers were willing to innovate, they were willing to move away from what their parents and grandparents had done for many, many years, and adopt these new varieties. So the combination of the government with some NGOs and the farmers, I think that created the basis for productivity improvements in agriculture. And that was sustained because the market was sustained. There were lots of public policies. And at some point, when the government thought the public sector delivery model was not working that well, they allowed the private sector to come in.

Tobi;

I don't want to infer anything, but from your answer, I can tell what Nigeria is doing wrong, but maybe we'll get to that later. So let's talk about the conditions, which you've also sort of answered for me but I want to know if there is more. Dercon in his book, I'm talking about Professor Stefan Dercon, talked about elite consensus that sort of becomes the bedrock of deciding to pursue economic development. So this broad consensus amongst the Bangladeshi political elites to improve the conditions of the poor, and, which, I'm speculating sort of enabled an ecosystem of policy consistency, even if there are deviations at the margins, how did it emerge? And how was it sustained?

Akhtar;

Okay, as I had mentioned to Professor Dercon ‘cause I also had a conversation with him for our Bangladeshi group. And I said that – and, he agreed that, it's really difficult to define if there was an elite consensus because it's not that the elite are sitting in a room discussing and bargaining and one day they come out and say, okay, here is an agreement, we have agreed on these three things, it doesn't happen. And there is a bit of tautology in his book as well. And he agreed with that, that in his country chapters, he says, these countries had an elite bargain. And then he says, Okay, this is how the countries grew. And if they have grown, therefore, they must have had a bargain. So there's a bit of tautology there. But coming back to this, I think, I started giving you a flavour of that when I brought in history, even before the British left and how in East Bengal, there was this deeply ingrained feeling that something has to be done for the poor people. And then just after independence in ‘74, we had a big famine. And that sort of strengthened this feeling amongst Bangladeshis. And you know, you mentioned the word elite and it's a bit difficult to define the elite. I would say that it's a broader… I'm talking about people who can influence policy, both the formulation and the quality of implementation. 

There are a lot of people in the bureaucracy who may not, in that sense, be called part of the elite, but they do have some authority. Now, most of these people, they actually are not too far away from the poor people of Bangladesh. Many of them still have very strong connections with their villages. They go back regularly. They know what the conditions are there. And in a densely populated country like Bangladesh, you see poverty all around you. So all these things, I think, have ingrained in the minds of the elite, however you define it, this commitment to doing something to safeguard the interests of the poor, but that is the security side - food security, [to] address the vulnerability. But somewhere down the line, people started recognizing that Bangladeshis also have an entrepreneurial potential. And there was a feeling that we should try and help unleash that potential. So, as I said, it's difficult to pinpoint a particular period where there has been a consensus but in a subtle way, there has been this consensus that to achieve food security, to help take advantage of the latent entrepreneurship of Bangladeshis, we should be focusing a lot on growth and more generally on development. And that has survived the transitions in administrations, from one government to another, that common element has been there.

Tobi;

It's not exactly a push back, and I should note that there is a lot more; there's vastly a lot more to Bangladesh than Dercon’s book. So, and I don't want to be caught in debating his book. But, why I find that particular line of thought relevant is that, from what you have described, it's amazing to me, so maybe you can help me understand the difference. Now, how a country can set out to do some of these things; invest in agriculture, agricultural R&D, and all these other support programs with big macro effects. Whereas a Nigeria can set out to do those same things and then you find divergent outcomes in their implementation, particularly the inability to execute. You know? There's always a plan. We want to improve the lot of the poor. We want to invest in agriculture. We want to improve productivity. We want to build infrastructure, you know, this, that, they are always so nice and interesting. But the difference is always at the end of the day, countries often don't do these things, right, they never stay true to these things. And of course, we can talk about various reasons why it fell astray - corruption, state capacity, and all that. But what I… which you mentioned in your last sentence [is] how policies survive, even though there are political transitions, election cycles come and go, the particular direction that policy goes, survives this transition, I think that's really what I'm trying to get at.

Akhtar;

Okay, so I don't know that much about Nigeria. Now, people say that the fact that you have natural resources may have been in some ways a curse, I don't know if it's true or not, but certainly, that sometimes gives governments a sense of complacency and therefore, even if they start on a certain course, they may not have the discipline to stay that course. Now Bangladesh, we never had the advantage of having natural resources. Nowadays, certain things have improved, you know, foreign exchange reserves have been at comfortable levels for several years. So, that may induce a certain degree of complacency, but for a long time, the government knew that we were operating with very narrow degrees of freedom. So that was the context in which Bangladesh had to operate. Which also meant that we were somewhat dependent on donors and that certainly imposed an additional set of disciplines on Bangladesh. But later on, I may come and comment on exactly the kind of relationships I think existed between donors and Bangladesh. But maybe the best way to answer your question would be to say a little bit about the way in which policies have evolved in Bangladesh. And in a sense, it's a bit of a “muddling through” process. And I wrote a blog for the Brookings Institute a year ago, where I said that Bangladesh did it, alluding to that famous song of Frank Sinatra - “I did it my way.” So what was that “my way?” 

We all know that the Bangladeshi Government has never been tremendously competent, there's always been corruption problems as well. So the way it has happened is the following. Things happened in the economy, let's say agricultural productivity is improving. But then it hits certain constraints, and the economic actors, or people acting on behalf of the actors; like academics, donors, journalists, will bring up those issues. And they will probably say that, “here are ten things which need to be done.” Now what the governments in Bangladesh have done, successive governments, [is] they have responded to that, not by doing all the ten things. No. They may have picked up two or three things. And they may have done a little bit. Why a little bit? Because they were risk averse. They wanted to test out what would happen in the market, how the market players respond. [As the government], if I do just three or four things and not everything, and then see the response…and here comes the entrepreneurial side - the response was usually quite good, and when the response was good, the government felt encouraged. And then the government said “okay, let's do a few more of the things that were demanded.” The other thing which happened was, as the response came, newer constraints were revealed, or constraints which were not binding before became binding. 

For example, initially when the agricultural growth was not that great, when production wasn't that huge, the fact that we did not have a good rural road network connecting the rural areas to broader markets wasn't that big a constraint, because you're not producing enough to go out in a big market. When you started producing a lot of marketable surplus, you needed a broader market. And that's when you started feeling the constraint. And people started talking about the need to build up the rural road network. And to the credit of the government, they responded. So, this is what I call the sort of back and forth, policy dynamics - things happen in the economy, government notices it or it is brought to their notice, they react not in a grand way, just doing a little bit here and there;nd then the market responds, may be much more than in many other countries, because of the entrepreneurial spirit, and then the government responds. And that process has gone on uninterrupted throughout the last fifty years. And so, once you accumulate, even if these are modest steps, once you accumulate all of that, you'll see a tremendous result. And that's what we're seeing here. So, what it means is countries – the governments don't have to be very competent, they just have to pick the signals. So, you know, you have this phrase called “picking the winners” and a lot of people say, no, governments should not be in the business of picking winners. I say, in Bangladesh, that what the government just does is pick signals. They’ve picked signals from the private sector, from the farmers, and they have acted accordingly. And I think the accumulation of all these, the synergies created by all these is, I think, what has made the difference.

Tobi;

That's interesting. So, generally, the usual story with development is structural transformation. That is, for you to grow rich, the economy has to transform from a largely agrarian, low productivity economy to preferably an industrial high productivity economy. And, I mean, to an extent, we've seen the same process also in Bangladesh. Manufacturing, particularly the garment industry, is eighty or so percent of exports and employment is largely created also in that industry. Now, what I want to ask you is, the role of foreign direct investments in that cannot be understated. You talked about South Korea earlier, and how it played a role in that. For South Korea, so many other scholars would cite the role of Japan in kickstarting the South Korean garment industry; garment and textile industry itself. So, my question then is, is there a link here? I mean, also in your columns, I've read about the role of Samsung, and the electronics industry in Vietnam. Right. So the role of FDI in development, and especially getting industrialization started, what are the favourable conditions? To what degree is it external and internal? I guess that would be my question.

Akhtar;

Okay. Well, you use the term kickstarting, because in Bangladesh, in the garment industry, a foreign investor helped kickstart that industry, but didn't do much beyond that. So, Bangladesh’s Government has been largely domestic…[it is] a case of domestic entrepreneurship leading the sector to the heights that it has achieved now. Yes, we have some Export Processing Zones where we have a number of foreign invested garment factories, but the bulk of it is domestic entrepreneurship. But you're right. The initial thrust came from this partnership with Daewoothe IU. It was a five year partnership. Daewoo trained Bangladeshis, (they) took them to their plants in Korea, trained them. They obviously had the market connections and market knowledge, all that was very useful. But what many people don't know is that the Bangladeshi partner actually quit that agreement just one year into that five year period. So after one year, he thought that he had learned everything that needed to be learned. Now, if he hadn't done that, I believe Daewoo had other plans of coming into other sectors, which we may have lost. But then we did end up with this vibrant mostly domestic-owned garment industry. But foreign investment had a role in jumpstarting that. If you go a little beyond industry, think about sectors which facilitate industry. The entire mobile phone development in Bangladesh, which is also remarkable, was foreign investment led. So, foreign investment played a major role there. 

So, I agree that foreign investment can play an important role in kickstarting industries, and that is something very important now that we want to diversify our exports, make them more sophisticated, we can come to that subject later. Now, you asked me about what are the conditions which are conducive for foreign investment. And this is where I would say that in Bangladesh, the conditions are still not that conducive. In the case of garments in the late 70s, it was the exhaustion of the South Korean quota of garments, which was the major inducement for them to come in. But also, as I said, the new government, which came into power in ‘75 was talking a lot about export promotion. So, that was there. But the most important constraint that Bangladesh faces, and it's true of many other countries, is policy and regulatory uncertainty. So, Bangladesh often says that we have got a policy regime which is very friendly to foreign investors. And that may well be true. But the execution has problems. And there are a lot of case by case decisions which are taken, which affect the foreign investors adversely. And that creates uncertainty. And those stories are told to other prospective investors. And when they hear those stories, they get discouraged. And the World Bank where I used to work, in fact, the last unit that I worked on, they did a survey of CEOs of multinational corporations just a few years ago, asking them about what are the factors which are very important for you when you decide to invest or not invest in a country, and policy and regulatory uncertainty was top of the list. So that is where Bangladesh still has got a lot of work to do. It is attractive in many other ways - very large domestic market, relatively cheap labour, the labour is quite fast at learning, a lot of good things there. But I think the policy environment, particularly the implementation, the certainty, that has to be ensured.

Tobi;

I have a further question, particularly on that point, and referencing another one of your columns, I think I'll just stick to your columns today for all my questions. For example, in Nigeria, I'll give you an example. In Nigeria, recently, foreign airlines are threatening to quit. Over the past three, four years, foreign investment (FDI) has plummeted. It's barely a billion dollars, currently, one of the lowest even in Africa. And of course, a lot of these things you mentioned are the problems that investors and business people talk about - policy uncertainty, especially around the control of the exchange rates and inability of companies to repatriate their capital, and to fund their operating expenses, and so forth. 

So, I mean, that's one constraint. But one distinction you made is like the types of FDI. There are different categories of FDI; market-seeking FDI, natural resource-seeking, efficiency-seeking [FDI]. And the reason I'm asking this is that there seems to be one problem, which, to my mind, Bangladesh has solved, it's not perfect, that Nigeria is struggling with, which is this inertia to get things started, you know, once you start on a journey, you can muddle through, but the inertia to get that process going is still something that Nigeria struggles with, in my opinion. So, now talking about FDI, if I were a policymaker today talking to you; advise me, what kind of FDI should I prioritise in trying to lure investors into my country, for them to create jobs and [create] a nest of high productivity manufacturing industry? So is it market seeking? Is it natural resources seeking? Is it efficiency seeking? Which one is the best in terms of the necessary incentives for sustainability?

Akhtar;

Okay, so one of the articles, not as part of the regular column, I think, but I wrote for the same newspaper a few years ago, was titled “investment for what?” So that's a question the governments have to ask. Because everyone talks about attracting FDI. It's a mantra all over the developing world. But governments need to ask why exactly do we want FDI? How is it aligned with our development aspirations and development programs? I wanted to just emphasise that because often governments just go blindly trying to attract foreign investors. And whoever comes in, we welcome that. That's not necessarily a good strategy always. For example, in Bangladesh, if we now have a lot of foreign investors coming in, to make jeans and T-shirts, using the same technology as before, we don't really need that, we can't afford to give our scarce land and utility and other things to do things which our domestic entrepreneurs have become reasonably good at doing. So it has to be something new that comes in. Now, at the same time, we also have to recognize that the foreign investors also have their own interest and their own calculations. So we have to come to a balance between the two as well. Now, it's difficult to say a priori that we prefer market-seeking or efficiency-seeking. On a natural resource, it's a slightly different issue if you have natural resources, and if you don't have the capacity to develop them yourself, you may need foreign investors. And obviously, we all know why foreign investors are often very attracted to that. But let me confine my answer to the choice between market-seeking and efficiency-seeking. 

Now, let's take the case of Bangladesh. We are now talking about diversifying our exports. And we are talking about going into more sophisticated products like electronics. If that is our objective, we may want to target some people who come and make electronics. Now they may come for two reasons. Bangladesh has a huge market, our per capita income may not be that high, but our total economy size is actually pretty large. We are amongst the top 40 economies in the world. And if you look at the size in the purchasing power parity terms, we're actually in the top 30. That's a very large economy. So, naturally foreign investors would come in looking at the market as well. But if our objective in this sector is to make a breakthrough in the global value chains, and not just serve the domestic market, then we'd like to have foreign investors come in with an efficiency-seeking objective that, in Bangladesh, we can make these things more efficiently, at lower cost, than in other places. So that Bangladesh then can ride on the backs of the foreign investors, who know the markets, who have the brand recognition and show the world that things can be made efficiently in Bangladesh. And, then once we have shown that with the help of foreign investors, maybe Bangladeshi entrepreneurs can also start doing it. So here you see I give you an example, where you have a strategic objective, and you attract foreign investors of a particular type. 

Now, there are also many needs in the domestic market. Bangladesh needs to develop a very good logistics system. And we may need foreign investors to come in and invest there, but will be more market-seeking. I mentioned the case of mobile telephones, that was not an export-oriented industry, although it may have facilitated exports, that was domestic market-oriented. And we encouraged foreign investors to come in, who were obviously coming in as market-seeking investors. So the answer would vary depending on the sector or the activity. But that brings me back to my first point, the government should have a clearer idea of what is the role of foreign investment in implementing the various dimensions of your development strategy. And accordingly, you're going to target efficiency-seeking investors in some cases, and market-oriented investors in other cases.

Tobi;

So, now, from a policy perspective, because really, that's what's sort of dominating this conversation. One thing that keeps coming up is the role of government, the strategy it pursues, you know, this, that. But inevitably, that leads to the question of what… in terms of economic development, what role does the government play by itself? Now, China, and, of course, other East Asian economies are very, very popular in the development discourse and these are largely autocratic governance. Right. And, to an extent the gospel of state-led development has travelled far and wide, sometimes in contrast to what is generally called the neoliberal or the Washington Consensus-type policies. But at the same time, at the nexus of all this is the role of markets, how the economy is regulated, liberalisation. How does a government approach regulation and policymaking generally, with the right incentives for the government to take the lead in areas where, maybe because of access to market or not seeing the prospect of returns, private actors are reluctant? And also at the other end, this sort of control, excessive control, that you see in so many developing countries, like Nigeria, and so many others in Africa, where government sees itself as the primary player in the economy, right? What is the balance? What is the heuristic generally, in trying to, [or] should I say, make policy and regulations to encourage economic development, and, of course, your Bangladeshi experience of that?

Akhtar;

Okay. So, when you say state-led, there are many ways you can define that. One is the direct participation of the state in productive activities. And in China, that is still pronounced, there are different models of state-owned enterprises, including public private partnerships, but the state plays a dominant, or at least an important direct role in the production of activities. That's one thing. The other is playing a direct role, not in production, but in things that facilitate production. So I had mentioned the case of research and development in the agricultural sector of Bangladesh, which was there right from the beginning. It was largely a private sector activity, but that was meant to facilitate productive activities by the private sector, in this case, thousands and thousands of farmers. So, the whole spectrum of things that the government does and, of course, there is the whole regulatory function of the government. And I think in choosing the balance, and the balance itself may shift over time as the economy develops. And I give an example of that, again, from the agricultural sector of Bangladesh, how the government moved away from the direct import and distribution of agricultural inputs, giving more and more space to the private sector over time. So initially, in the 70s, maybe that was the right thing to do. And then later on, the right thing to do was to withdraw and create space for the private sector. So the balance, (a) has to be thought of carefully, in terms of the capacity of the government, that's very important. And, again, if I [could] mention Stefan Dercon, he talks about the self awareness of [the] government. Are governments aware of what they can do and what they cannot do? And that answer would vary by country. Often governments make the mistake of thinking that they can do a lot of things, and therefore they; (a) go into productive activities themselves directly, and (b) also controlling too much the activities of the private sector. Controlling is not that easy. It requires a lot of skills, and many governments actually don't have the skills of doing that. 

The thing that may have happened in Bangladesh is the government has been more or less self aware, not always, but more or less self aware of what they can do and what they cannot do. And that has led to a certain division of labour between the government and the private sector, and the NGOs. With that division of labour also changing over time. That's very important. So the government needs to be aware of where its capacities are, and they need to also have some faith that the private sector, if given the opportunity, can come and do certain things. Because governments often say, okay, but if we don't intervene, the private sector is not going to come in. Or we have a big factory, if we close it down, then a lot of people will lose their jobs, and the private sector will not be forthcoming to create jobs for them. If you want, I can give you a good example of that kind of thinking. In Bangladesh, we had the world's largest jute mill called the Adamjee Jute Mill, and it was bleeding like hell, and every year the government had to subsidise. So there was lots of debate on whether the factory should be (a) privatised, and there was no taker, then the question is whether it should be closed down. Then, about 20 years ago, exactly 20 years ago, a very bold decision was taken to actually close down the factory. It was a controversial decision. About 26,000 workers lost their jobs. Some of them were ghost workers, maybe 20,000. Now the story of what happened after that is very interesting. That land was converted into an export processing zone. And now the latest figures are that about 65 to 70,000 jobs have been created there. So you had lost about 20 [thousand jobs] and you have created so many. These are all private sector firms, they're all export oriented firms, the government doesn't need to subsidise them. So you can see once given the opportunity what the private sector can come and do. So you don't have to hold on to a loss making enterprise just because you're worried about job losses.

Tobi;

Let me sort of ask you a big picture question on this particular point, which is the role of democracy in development, generally. Democracies have been taking a beating recently, so maybe you can speak up for it, somewhat. Do you think democracy has some kind of unique weakness in terms of trying to engineer economic development, particularly because of elections? I mean, to cite the example of the jute mill you mentioned, some regime that is sensitive, maybe in an election year, or maybe that wants to appeal to a particular constituency, or, maybe workers Union or something might actually kick the can down the road. An example is (fuel) petrol subsidy in Nigeria, which the bill keeps increasing, but I mean, each government promises to remove it or reduce it, and then kicks it to the next government because nobody wants to annoy the workers union, nobody wants to lose votes, the party wants to remain in power, you know, and these incentives that are common in democracies. So, do you think this makes democracies weak in a way, in trying to develop the national economy? Because a lot of people will say that's why China has developed much faster than India, for example. What's your take?

Akhtar;

Okay, let me start by giving you an anecdote. So this is from about I think it was 2008 or so, 2007 maybe. Bangladesh then had a quasi military government, it was called a caretaker government, whose major responsibility was to conduct free and fair elections. So they were in power for about two years. And I was actually working in Bangladesh at that time. And we had, I think we had a natural disaster, or maybe we had floods. So conditions were pretty bad. And one of the… well, they were called advisors, but they were de facto ministers, who was having to deal with this problem of getting food to poor people, dealing with rising prices [and] all that; he said to me, “I can feel a certain handicap being part of this kind of government.” What is the handicap? Right now what I need a lot is information from the grassroots, I need to know what is happening in different parts of the country, and I need that information very fast. I need it right now, about what's happening earlier today, or what has happened yesterday. Fortunately, I have some connections in the NGO world, this gentleman was an academic. I'm getting some information. But if this was a political campaign, I would rely on my political network, my workers, my small town leaders, and within a few hours, I'll be getting information from all over the country on what the conditions are. Now, why do I mention this anecdote? Because in a democratic system, your feedback mechanisms may work very well. Yes, there can also be a lot of noise. But otherwise, the feedback which is very, very important for government, they need to know what's going on throughout the country with different groups of people, with different localities etc. That is something that autocratic governments lack. Yes, information flows, flows from lower level bureaucrats, but I'm sure they are modified on their way. Because, the boss often doesn't want to hear certain things. It may happen in political democratic setups, but generally, the flow of information is much better for politicians. Now, how they act upon that information is another issue, but that's very important. Secondly, politicians operating within a democratic setup, (a) they develop a lot of empathy, because of their interactions with people, [b] they also get a good idea of what the trade-offs can be. And these are very, very important in decision making. So those are the good sides of democracy. Now, yes, in democracy, you also need to cater to your political constituencies, and that may lead to certain decisions, which technocrats may feel are sub optimal. But that is the price you pay for democracy. Compared to the gains for having a democratic system, that is sometimes a small price to pay, although sometimes that can get out of hand. But if it gets out of hand, it’s usually where you may in name have a democracy system, but in practice, you don't. So the kinds of disciplines that democracy imposes on the government are lacking there. So that is my answer. Now, as you can see, implicit in my answer was some definition of democracy. It's not just about electoral politics. It's not just about having regular elections and free and fair elections. It is the monitoring mechanism. Are governments picking the signals, are they getting the information? How wide is the information that they're getting? That's a very important characteristic of development.

Tobi;

So another one of my sort of big picture questions to you, and in this case, using the Bangladeshi experience and example, is, in the last couple of years, there has been this big debate in development over, oh, do you prioritise the big things or the small things you can measure? You were with the World Bank, I'm sure you have some familiarity with the so-called empirical revolution and how it has sort of taken over the field of development economics where, yeah, there is a lot more preference in terms of international aid funding for interventions, things that you can measure. So, the RCTs, or, whether it is conditional cash transfers, and all these things – and the atmosphere with which this debate happens sometimes, personally, I find it frustrating because it makes it seem like a zero-sum kind of thing. Like, you can either have one or the other. You either pursue growth, or you forego that and choose to do all these small scale, local and domestic interventions. But Bangladesh, like you mentioned, the issue of BRAC and also people like Naomi and co. have written about – Naomi Hussein [that] Bangladesh managed both. There was a sort of productive combination of both frameworks, that is, the role of non governmental organisations who were able to provide some support for the rural communities. And of course, there was the big macro policies that were explicitly designed to pursue economic growth, get businesses going, create jobs, you know, and all the other things that happen in the private sector. 

So, my question would be, how did that sort of synergy happen in Bangladesh? How was that cooperation, so to speak… I mean, you talked about the role of BRAC in R&D and agriculture, you know, how did that happen? How did, perhaps, it wasn't intended, but in practice, how does it work?

Akhtar;

Okay. Let me start by recounting something I heard Abhijit Banerjee, the Nobel laureate, who got a Nobel prize for his work on RCTs, said something about the rationale for going into RCTs. And he's saying that the kinds of interventions that we talk about in the context of RCTs, they're not the only interventions that bring about development. In fact, the most profound development impact may come from other kinds of interventions and policies, and other factors. But his point was that, let's say, as a development practitioner, we are not able to influence these big things. So I'm going to focus on the things that we can influence. So I'm doing a project here, a project there, and we can change the parameters of the project in certain ways that we achieve the most significant impact. And how do we change the parameters or what parameters we choose or how do we design the project? That's where randomised control trials can give us very useful insights. And we can get more bang for the buck from the development expenditures in those kinds of projects. Now, he never said that that's all about development. There are many other things that need to be done. And governments, in their collective wisdom, may have a better idea of what those things can be. And that's different from a particular project team trying to do a project. They won't have all that knowledge, which can lead them to think about much bigger things, but governments can; not perfectly, but governments can. Or large organisations like BRAC can within certain spheres of operation. So, yes, I agree with you that this is a false dichotomy, that you either completely forget about RCTs or you get completely immersed into RCTs. So, one has to find the right places where the randomised control trials, which are after all an instrument, one of the tools in your toolbox… which is the best time and place to deploy it. 

I would say in Bangladesh, yes, the scope for applying them is more than the actual application so far, which means that we have a scope to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of public spending by using these techniques judiciously in certain areas. Now, coming back to, I think you mentioned the question of BRAC in the context of R&D, but also BRAC has played an important role in market development through their social enterprise world. So, as I said before that the part of BRAC’s work which is not discussed much is the work on the economic sphere. So what happened there? I’ll just give one or two examples. I think giving concrete examples is the best way to illustrate this. So, they got into, let's say, they got into dairy [farming]. Actually, the way BRAC started most of these activities was from a livelihood concern. They wanted to create livelihood opportunities for the poor people in the rural areas of Bangladesh. So they said, okay, we have dairy farmers whose incomes are limited, we want to do something to help enhance their inputs [output]. So they came up with certain small interventions, which helped improve the productivity of their dairy farming, and they ended up with more production, then they had a problem. Now, milk is not something that you can preserve for a long time, you need to have some cold storage facilities, some refrigeration facilities, and that was lacking. So a lot of these increased output was actually being wasted. That led BRAC to start thinking about what else it needs to do. So then it went into refrigeration plants. So, they set up refrigeration plants, where the dairy farmers would come from adjoining villages and store their milk. And that led to other things also down the road. So there are many examples of BRAC where they went into a certain activity, they went into poultry, for example, and then discovered that there isn't a good supply of day old chicks, which is an important ingredient in poultry. So they went into that. And the interesting thing is, in many cases, BRAC was the first one to go into that, later the private sector came in and came in in a big way. And when they did, BRAC withdrew. Because BRAC thought, okay, we have played the role of a pioneer, we have catalysed the entry of private enterprises, we can now withdraw and attend to certain other things. 

So what's going on here? What's going on here is, you have value chains, which are underdeveloped - there are gaps in the value chain. And one aspect of development is to make the value chains more complete. And here you have an actor, BRAC, which has entered the market… [enters] one part of the market, trying to do something, discovering that there is not much it can do unless it intervenes in other parts of the value chain. Well, it can do something but the impact will not be that great, so then it intervenes. But at one point, it realises that other players who are better at scaling this up have entered the field so let me withdraw. So judicious entry, and judicious withdrawal. And that is also true of the government. It's also true of BRAC. I think that's the kind of dynamics of development which is very important. And somewhere there, yes, you may have some trials, which may be randomised control trials, it may be just informally observing from your own experience of what is working, what is not working, but this idea of learning by doing, learning by doing, the government has done it in Bangladesh, BRAC and other BRAC-type institutions have done it. The private sector is also doing it.

Tobi;

The last of my big-picture questions to you is– Another dichotomy that I have observed is the business cycle concerns of an economy and policy and these sorts of other long-run development growth policies. For example, in Nigeria, it's a common refrain that we had growth in some years, but we never really had development. Income didn't grow as fast as GDP, and growth has been cyclical, it's not sustained. And some of the issues that really plague governments and policymakers is that even in trying to make policies that are tolerant and favourable to long-run growth, there are short term issues that you have to deal with [like] foreign exchange policy, inflation, and sometimes I've heard people say that, Oh, as a developing country, you have a lot more tolerance for inflation than developed economies. I think you’ll have to tell me whether that's true or not. Because inflation does not happen in a vacuum, it affects the purchasing power of people, poor people even more so. Right. So how do policymakers in growing countries manage these tensions in terms of – and, I'm working my way through your book with Gustav Ranis on this – how policymakers mine through these everyday concerns of the economy, versus the long-term prospects and the projects you are trying to put forth as a government?

Akhtar;

Okay. Well, since you alluded to that book, I will first briefly mention the main theme of the book, and then come to this specific [question]. The main theme of the book, which we illustrated through a comparative study of East Asian countries and Latin American countries, [was that] we talked about the East Asian pattern of government behaviour and the Latin American pattern of government behaviour. And the period covered was from the mid 60s to the mid 80s so things may have changed after that. And in any case, it's difficult to talk about (a) East Asian pattern, and (b) Latin American pattern. But what we were talking about is that during the course of a business cycle, or terms of trade cycle, as your terms of trade improve, your foreign exchange reserves go on increasing, obviously, growth accelerates. The question is what does a government do when things are good? Do they let growth accelerate according to some normal – “normal trajectory”, or they get excited, and they try to push growth beyond the “normal trajectory”-- making it higher than what the good times normally would make it? So, in the “Latin American” scenario, when things were good, growth was happening, government wanted to have more of it. So they went for expansionary fiscal policies, expansionary monetary policies to push growth beyond what the natural trajectory is. And then inevitably, because we are talking of cycles, inevitably a time came, where things started going down. And conditions were not as conducive as before. At that time, what the East Asian countries did– but first– they never tried to artificially push growth above the natural level. When the downturn came, they allowed the growth to fall. So they went for contractionary policies, they allowed the growth to fall. But in the Latin American scenario, having pushed growth beyond the natural path, it's almost like being intoxicated, you could not get rid of that habit. So, you try to artificially maintain growth even though the signs were all pointing downwards. And then the time came when things just crashed. And you fell into a deep crisis. Whereas the East Asians, they had their ups and downs, but they didn't have a serious crisis at that time. They had later, but not at that time. So that was the main thing about how you conduct your policies during the upturn, and then also during the downturn. 

Now, coming back to the specific situation like the one we observe now, when there are many economic challenges facing countries, and what can governments do to ensure that the course on which they had been before the crisis started, or the challenges started, and hopefully it was a course of development, how can they stay on that course as best as they can? First is, governments should look for existing inefficiencies. For example, in your public expenditures, there may be a lot of inefficiencies, and if you can identify those and get rid of those [inefficiencies], then you can bring things under control in the context of the challenges without sacrificing growth. Most developing countries, including Bangladesh, do have inefficiencies in their public expenditures. So the question is, do you target those inefficiencies and curtail them? Or, do you target those parts of expenditures which are actually very useful? So that's number one. And that's why we often have this phrase, “don't let a crisis go to waste.” Because a crisis can often focus attention better than good times can. And a crisis can also create the political and social consensus to take some tough decisions. So that's one thing. Second is the importance of social protection. And we must remember that for people at the margin, and in our kind of countries, Nigeria, Bangladesh, a lot of people are still at the margin. Even a small shock which takes them below the threshold is not a temporary damage that after some time they can come back [from], often it's a permanent damage. They have to sell off their productive assets, which means even when things start improving, their conditions won’t improve. So that's why it's very, very important to have good social protection systems in place.

Third, coming back to a point I made earlier, it's very important to have good monitoring systems. ‘Cause we really want to know what's going on, how the lives of different people across the country is being affected by the tough conditions in which you are, without that your policies will be suboptimal. So that monitoring is very, very important. And it's very important to engage different stakeholders in society. And for two reasons. One is part of the monitoring, because economists, business people, journalists, and others, would know a lot beyond what the government knows and it's important to tap into that knowledge, but also to build consensus about some of the tough decisions that need to be taken. So, at the end of the day, it is a lot about governance. It's a governance challenge that countries face when they're facing an economic challenge.

Tobi;

My final question to you, I have a couple of other questions, but… from a policy-making perspective, how do you then make knowledge count? Because from everything you have talked about, the role of knowledge… which takes me back to where we started, you know, talking about agriculture. The role of knowledge is actually very important. But you have situations where you can have knowledgeable people in government, world class economists, and the government itself might be making policies that are clearly wrong, which means there's a disconnect somewhere. And I mean, in Bangladesh, it's often talked about how there is a policy knowledge ecosystem that informs the public and shapes their accountability and expectations, and also informs policymakers at the other end of that spectrum. How does a country build and nurture that? Especially, how does knowledge of, whether it is knowledge of economics, whether it is knowledge of society and other programs, how it transmits to the key decision makers, and influence some of the actions or policies, or regulations, that are taken? How does that happen?

Akhtar;

Okay, so you mentioned the sort of the ecosystem linking policy and knowledge in Bangladesh. We have an ecosystem, I wouldn't say it always functions very well. And we do have many instances where people in government feel that they know the answers to all the problems. They know the problems, the issues, and they know the answers to the problems. The question is whether they will do something with that or not. That depends on various calculations. So that happens, we have that problem. And some would say that problem may have become a bit serious in recent years, especially because the economy is doing well, and when the economies do well, governments often suffer from a certain degree of complacency. But it is true that we do have a good system. We have some good research institutes [and] think tanks who work on economic issues, and they have a very good tradition of doing surveys where they go and get information from rural areas as well. We have had that tradition for a long, long time. And that has informed the policy debates. 

Now, how do those insights enter the arena of policymakers? This is where the role of policy intermediaries is very important. So the researchers themselves may sometimes be able to play that role. Or if they're part of an institute, there may be some people in the Institute, who are particularly good at taking the findings of their researchers, their colleagues, and taking it to the government. So you need to have that kind of capacity. There can also be specialised institutions. In Bangladesh, we have an institution called the Center for Policy Dialogue, which is created with that objective - that they will pick up the research being done by other think tanks, and they will create platforms where policymakers, politicians, journalists, and researchers can come together, donors as well and discuss these issues. And that has been going on for more than 20 years. They get a lot of publicity in the media, so the role of the media is extremely important, and the quality of the reporting in the media - is it data based? Is it logic based? - that's also very, very important. But one important thing for people outside the government to understand is that politicians will seek out advice from experts when they have a strong need to do so. If they don't have a felt need, you can still try and create that need, but that requires a lot of creativity. Otherwise, you can invite them to seminars, they will come out of politeness, they will say the nice things, they will listen to you, but then they will go back and forget that. So the first thing to do is to identify what is keeping the politicians awake at night? What is the need that they feel? They may not have articulated that very well, but once you understand that, then see, what do you have in your knowledge base, which will be useful for the politician? (b) What is the best way to transmit it? So what is the language that you're going to use? Because the language of the politicians is different from your language. And third, you have to understand, in fact, let me mention an anecdote here. 

Many years ago, Sheikh Hasina, who is now the prime minister, but was the opposition leader came to Washington and there was a meeting with a group of Bangladesh economists. And there was a World Bank macro economist who started talking about the importance of trade liberalisation - the usual World Bank mantra of trade liberalisation. She stopped him midway and said, look here, there was a time when I was living with my husband, who is a physicist, in a border town, the border of Yugoslavia in Italy. Three days a week, the borders were opened up. And I saw people from this part going to the other part, and the other part coming to this part, exchanging goods. So I saw firsthand the benefits of trade liberalisation. But if today we liberalise trade, some industries may go down under, what will happen to their workers? The workers are going to come to me, they're not going to come to you in the World Bank, but they will come to me, whether I'm in government or opposition, and say, what do you do about us? Right? So the interesting thing is that the politician had reached the same conclusion, like the technocrats, that trade liberalisation is good, but she has come from a different route, and she had different concerns. And technocrats need to understand the concerns that the politicians have. They need to understand the world views of the politicians. They need to understand that there is a method in the madness of politicians, and only then you can communicate well, and only then your knowledge will be taken seriously by politicians.

Tobi;

On that note, and this is a bit of a tradition on the show. What's the one idea that you feel most passionate about, it may be recent, it may be in the past, it may be from your work, or any other field that you would like to see spread everywhere?

Akhtar;

I think the idea of, as I said, the notion of picking signals. If I'm talking about the government, so if I'm in the government, the idea of picking signals from the people, and then acting upon it, and then seeing the reaction of the people and then acting upon it again. So this idea of synergy of interaction between the government and the marketplace, and continuing that over time, is an important idea. I don't know exactly what you meant by an idea, or what kind of idea you're talking about… 

Tobi;

It could be anything.

Akhtar;

I don't know if this satisfies it. But for my own study of the history of policymaking in Bangladesh and economic transformation in Bangladesh. This is, I think, [an idea] I have found to be at the core of the success of Bangladesh. Which is this kind of interaction between policymakers and economic actors, and the repeated playing out of this interaction. And that is, I think, one idea that I'd like to leave behind.

Tobi;

That's a fantastic idea. In your experience. I mean, Bangladesh gets talked about a lot. What are the common misconceptions about your country?

Akhtar;

Okay, so I often see notes on Bangladesh. And we saw a lot last year when we had the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh's independence. So people talk about the good things that have happened in the economy. And they will often say, despite the government, and I know The Economist had an article about two or three years ago, “Bangladesh has done well, despite the politicians.” And I think I've made it abundantly clear in the conversation, Tobi, with you today, that the government had a role. And I've given you many examples of what the government did, including the withdrawal. Now, withdrawal also is important because it's not easy to withdraw. We may think it's easy to withdraw. But when you have had a system for many, many years, withdrawing is not that easy. So, the government has done so. And in many, many ways the government has played an important role in Bangladesh's development. So, the development has not happened despite government, that's a big misperception. And that's why we need to know what exactly was the role the government played? And that's why, as I said at the beginning, maybe, that has more relevance than the East Asian experience for many developing countries, because the government in Bangladesh, the initial conditions, were probably similar to that in many developing countries. So if Bangladesh can do it, others can do it. So that's one thing. The other misperception is that it was all about garments and remittances. But as I said, agricultural transformation in Bangladesh has played a very important role. And the third could be a smaller misperception that NGOs like BRAC, their contribution is limited to the social sectors - of course, [a] very, very profound contribution, but limited to the social sectors. As I've said, I've given examples of how they had also operated in the economic sphere, and how that has also had profound implications.

Tobi;

What are you most proud of when you think about Bangladesh’s journey in the last 50 years? What are the things that you're most – I visited Dhaka about 10 years ago, I love the food, but the traffic congestion reminds me far too much of my own city, Lagos.

Akhtar;

I went to Lagos about 20 years ago, and Lagos reminded me of Dhaka. I think the thing to be proud of is the thing I mentioned earlier, the fact that Bangladesh’s in general have become entrepreneurial. And in some ways, there’s an audacity, which I'll say it's a sweet audacity. The audacity that yes, we can do it. We can do this. Whether in Bangladesh or abroad. You know, the writer Amitav Ghosh, he said in an interview that Bangladeshis are probably the most globalised nation in the world, because anywhere in the world you go, maybe with the exception of that in America but that may also change, you will see Bangladeshis there. So there is a certain degree of audacity that yes, we can do it. I think that's what we should be proud of as Bangladeshis - that we have shown that we can do it against tremendous odds. So that confidence, that audacity, which I think is very sweet, is what we can be proud of.

Tobi;

Fantastic. Thank you so much, Akhtar, for this conversation. I enjoyed it so much.

Akhtar;

Thank you so much for inviting me. It was a pleasure talking to you.