Media is critical to good governance in Bangladesh

Despite the continuing efforts of Bangladesh and its partners to enhance the quality of governance in the country, it is still suffering, among other things, from numerous and diverse governance related insufficiencies and complexities

The Daily Star
Friday, December 5, 2003

Dr. M S Haq

Despite the continuing efforts of Bangladesh and its partners to enhance the quality of governance in the country, it is still suffering, among other things, from numerous and diverse governance related insufficiencies and complexities, both structural and non-structural. At present, one of the key challenges of good governance (hereinafter GGN) in Bangladesh is: how to ensure a continually meaningful participation of rural Bangladeshis including those at the grassroots level and the poor (hereinafter the GGN stakeholders) in local, national, regional and global economics, politics, peace, security and right based development?

Although the GGN stakeholders still hold a numerical superiority in the country's electoral mass, they have little say in the affairs of their political parties and those of post-election governments. Further, the role of civil society in supporting their effort towards promoting and sustaining a GGN friendly people's power base in Bangladesh is yet to gather the required momentum.

The country's philosophy of governance appears to be highly bureaucracy centred, almost linear and less friendly to constructive pluralism, to mention a few problems. It has been instrumental in promoting in the country a type of governance paradigm that is yet to recover fully from the colonial mindset. The paradigm's strong affinity towards the country's bureaucracy is limiting its governance related choices. As a result of these and other factors, when a political party or a coalition of political parties comes to power, it perceives the bureaucracy as the only timely and handy power tool vital for implementing their agenda through their tenure in government. Interestingly, as the perception cycles through each of the successive governments against the backdrop of a fragile base of the people's power, the continuance of the perception in the country's governance domain is legitimized and the dependence of ruling political parties on the bureaucracy for nearly every pertinent thing is increased. In the time bound 'games' of dependency and interdependency per government cycle, the bureaucracy is politicized and polarized in varying degrees and relative to time and space. At the end, the departing government leaves behind a more powerful but relatively less competitive bureaucracy. The bureaucracy centred power perception could be one of the reasons why the political parties that could not come to power or otherwise through the election wait for their chance in the next government.

A powerful bureaucracy should be good for Bangladesh if, for example, the country can promote and maintain a GGN environment conducive to facilitating inter alia a cross fertilization of the people's power and the power of the bureaucracy in purposeful and sustainable manners for ensuring affordable and quality public services for all Bangladeshis on a continuing basis, per se. But the bureaucracy mentioned could be detrimental to the welfare of the majority of Bangladeshis, if it, let us say, fails to meet their expectations and service needs, changes its role from their service provider to a role of being served by them and compromises its commitments to nation building. The above events could be outcomes of several things, like a partial or a total loss of the people's power in the local and the national grids of governance; and an increasingly weak regime of top-down accountability. The events have the potential to help sustain and promote an aggressive culture of divide and rule in the country. A wind fall from the above developments can hamper and marginalize the effort of the bureaucracy to promote its neutral character, achieve professional excellence, build upon its capacity in a sustainable manner and others.

The absence or the weak presence of balanced and constructive pluralism in local and national governance can, in varying degrees and relative to time and space, isolate a country's bureaucracy and the ruling political party(ies) from the rest of the country's population. As the degree of isolation (I mean, the gap in governance) increases, it pushes up the direct and indirect costs of governance at local and global levels, so much so, the rate of upward progression may attain a geometric rate relatively quickly due to an increasing global interdependency. The above developments have negative effects on the future of both the present and the future generation. Further, due to the gap in governance, the resources, structures, processes, tools and controls of governance come under an increasing pressure and they become more and more stressful as the gap widens.

Once the degree of stress crosses the normal tolerance limit, a 'full scale' (based on a comparative approximation) outbreak of the governance related disease occurs at local and national levels in the forms of, for example, deterioration of law and order, rampant corruption, disruption of social pace, peace and harmony, religious and other intolerances, degradation of relationships, values and good will at individual, family, collective and societal levels, loss of the people's trust and confidence in their political parties, escalation of anti-peaceful activities like, hartals and strikes; an under utilized national parliament, idle parliamentary opportunities, lack of aggressiveness on the part of political parties to resolve disputes through peaceful means or postponing their resolution until at least the next government, an increasing dominance of na´ve realism over the political mindset and decision, an increase in local and national wastage, and a declining return on tax payers' money, to mention a few.

Bangladeshis and the political parties are still trapped in a transitional cycle of development in the areas of politics, democracy and governance and bypassing the cycle would require, among other things, the creation and promotion of a solid interface of democracy between its political and governance dimensions. It implies Bangladesh would need inter alia a more enabling environment wherein each and every Bangladeshi (irrespective of their religion, social standing and political affiliation), the political parties, the bureaucracy, civil society and others could enjoy their rights, as well as privileges and discharge their obligations in a manner that would promote a popular, as well as affordable democracy, GGN and constructive politics in the country with a view to optimizing progress and prosperity at individual and national levels for their own benefit and the benefit of world people at large.

For promoting and sustaining a real demand for the GGN stakeholders in the country's market of governance, several things need to be ensured. For example: a continuous access of the GGN stakeholders and relevant institutions including civil society organizations to timely, useful, affordable and user friendly data and information; a capacity of the GGN stakeholders for transforming those into cutting edge knowledge for individual and national gains. In this respect, the role of Bangladeshi mass media (hereinafter: the media, unless mentioned otherwise) is critical. It is further pronounced by the fact that the information technology (IT) revolution in the contemporary period has inter alia brought media to the centre of GGN related development. The media is yet to harness the above opportunity to the extent that would allow it to assume its full role as an influential partner in the development effort of the GGN stakeholders, per se. The media needs improvements. Here are a few suggestions.

The media coverage for the GGN stakeholders should be enhanced with a view to striking the right balance between the coverage pertaining to the state, as well as urban matters and the coverage on rural Bangladesh plus the GGN stakeholders. The media products should be fair, balanced and user friendly; they should be more wholesome and result-generative. The quality of newspaper commentaries (etc.) on national issues should be such that they could be instrumental in promoting constructive discourses and debates between and among the GGN stakeholders and others on pertinent issues. It could help the GGN stakeholders to internalize the issues that affect them, form their opinion and develop their expectations in pertinent areas. Further, the rural focus of the media products should be enhanced. The media should be able to present to the GGN stakeholders just-in-time new bill of rights, breakthroughs, innovations and other changes that have potentials to affect positively the latter's quality of life and the means of livelihoods, among others.

The number of newspaper and magazine readers particularly among the GGN stakeholders should be increased. The ability of the GGN stakeholders to read those and comprehend the contents (at least at a basic level) should be part of the success criteria of the country's literacy programme. The print media should work closely with the political parties, civil society and others for promoting what I would call 'newspaper literacy' through the respective constituencies. They can even elect a day in a year as 'newspaper literacy day' for public awareness and promotional purposes.

The rural market for the media products should be enhanced. The electronic media (radio, TV, etc.) should afford the GGN stakeholders, perhaps through the representatives chosen by them from each of the 68,000 villages of Bangladesh, an opportunity to discuss their visions, challenges and opportunities with the representatives of the political parties and the bureaucracy, donors and civil society, among others. Bangladeshi films, dramas, poems and other products of arts and culture should depict more vividly and frequently the successes and failures of GGN stakeholders and their effort towards to overcoming the failures. The intra and inter media transaction at local, national, regional and global levels should be improved for promoting a media alliance for GGN in Bangladesh.

Finally, could Bangladesh increase, in a progressive manner, the per capita ADP spending for the GGN stakeholders and encourage private sector and others to increase their share in the development of urban Bangladesh at an increasing rate?