The recently-concluded budget season had to play second fiddle to the cricket season. And why not? Cricket is about passion, budget rarely so. The new finance minister has a foot in both of these worlds holding, as he does, the Comilla Victorians franchise. Mr Mustafa Kamal was not wanting in trying to infuse some passion into his maiden budget document. He quoted Colbert, the finance minister of seventeenth-century French king Louis the 14th, in referencing the paragraphs on tax policy. He quoted the nineteenth-century Emperor Meiji of Japan in referencing the paragraphs on quality education. He revelled in soaring rhetoric and heroic can-do assumptions even though such heroism in the past failed to translate into credible accelerators of transformation. No wonder, while people have tended to endorse the aspirations of progress, the passion index on their assessment of actual economic prospects is comparatively far lower. The gas “punch”, the very day after the budget was passed, loomed larger in household budget imaginations far more than the “rosy” GDP statistics.
There had been expectations that with a record number of cabinet and cabinet-level positions occupied by persons with businessmen CVs—finance minister, commerce minister, advisor on private sector, textile minister and so on—the budget might have marked a departure from the bureaucratic incrementalism of recent years with bold and credible new signals on policy reforms and growth strategies. Alas, that has not been the case.
The economic numbers making up the budget have been one part of the recent budget story. The more revealing story has been in the underlying “sociology” of the budget. This has been a three-step affair. First, there are the over-ambitious revenue and deficit-financing targets poorly related to realistic and credible assessment of their likely fulfilment. Second, there is a political reluctance to violate the fiscal prudence limit in terms of fiscal deficit-GDP ratio (of 5 percent). Third, the inevitable financing shortfall is “managed” during the ensuing financial year through expenditure cut-backs that tend to favour patronage considerations over any coherent economic justice or growth incentive considerations.
This underlying “sociology” has transformed recent budgets into a sterile two-part politico-bureaucratic document. The first is a “literary” part of soaring rhetoric coined by the political component of the economic management leadership. The second is an “accounting” part prepared by the bureaucrats that is essentially a continuation of “business as usual” with a few new, small initiatives such as the Tk 100-crore start-up fund in this budget. Missing in action have been the burning questions of expenditure efficiency, inequality, new growth drivers, investment stagnation and deficits in quality human capital.
The new economic management team of businessmen-ministers appear to have posed no challenge to this budget sociology of recent years. Instead, the rhetoric got even loftier while actual allocations broadly adhered to bureaucratic continuity with token new gestures as mentioned earlier. The finance minister took office in the middle of the financial year and, understandably, his leeway to be bold was perhaps limited. Dramatic changes in allocation were not to be expected. But what about strategic and policy boldness? On the urgency of reforms? On sectoral re-thinking to expedite new growth drivers? On specific and credible policies to address the overarching challenge of quality, particularly in health and education?
I had eagerly looked to the MTMPS (Medium-Term Macroeconomic Policy Statement 2019-20 to 2021-22) for new departures in strategic thinking. Unfortunately, though very well-written, the MTMPS had more of a “background paper” feel rather than of a policy vision signalling a more credible strategic intent. The disappointment has not been limited to the critics. Even the government’s own agency BIDA came out strongly with specific observations highlighting the budget’s likely drag on the investment climate (Prothom Alo, June 26).
The budget commentary season has drawn to a close as it always does but what of the strategic challenges on Bangladesh’s path towards its middle-income aspiration? An encyclopaedic listing of sectoral priorities is hardly the issue here. Vis-à-vis its needs, everything in Bangladesh is a priority. The real challenge lies in how well we are reading the ground realities and how efficiently we are adjusting our long list of priorities.
The priority is not just about “what to do”. It is as importantly about “how to do”. The size of budget is important. But efficiency of expenditure is equally important. Huge expenditures have been made on road infrastructure over the last decade. But budgets have been stingy on maintenance allocations. There are reports galore on the unusually fast depreciation of these infrastructures as a consequence. The GDP calculations were boosted by the expenditure data. But what of the data on outcomes? The editor of Dainik Purbokone in a recent dialogue captured the conundrum well—“drisshoman unnayan, drisshoman durbhog.” The new planning minister is reportedly considering setting up field offices of the Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation Division (IMED). It is a welcome move if only to signal a new concern for outcomes as opposed to only the narrow focus on expenditures.
The efficiency of expenditures also lies at the heart of a more meaningful battle against institutionalised corruption in today’s Bangladesh. The infamous “baalish” episode of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant project is but a comic instance of how inflated and irrational costs are weaving their way into project budgets. These are not isolated instances. Projects without adequate feasibility assessment, inflated costs, cost overruns, procurement unrelated to well-assessed needs—these are threatening to become the norm rather than the exception across departments and ministries. Do not such inflated expenditures eventually call into question the veracity and meaningfulness of GDP calculation itself? Whose money is it after all? Can this burning issue be swept under a complacent mind-set that argues that “we have to think big”?
Where it matters, the people of Bangladesh have never hesitated to think big. This is how the country gained its independence. This is how ordinary men and women of Bangladesh have created the foundations of a resilient and aspirational economy. The people are astute enough to distinguish between boastful and self-serving “big thinking” and big initiatives whose transformational potential they can identify with. Efficient expenditures and indeed the planning goal itself cannot only be about mega-projects but, equally and transparently, about mega-outcomes also.
The coming and going of the budget season has also failed to put a sufficient spotlight on two other strategic priorities critical to Bangladesh’s economic aspirations. For nearly three decades now, the growth story of Bangladesh has walked on the shoulders of RMG and remittance. There is a candid admission in this budget too that this year’s growth has also essentially been driven by these proven war-horses. The global economy landscape is changing. For the next phase of its growth journey, Bangladesh needs urgently to facilitate the coming-of-age of new and additional growth drivers. It is here where perhaps the need for strategic insight and intent is most urgent. There is no lack of willing sectoral candidates arguing for their share of the subsidy budget and favoured policy attention to be the next growth drivers. However, this is where strategic policy thinking is most dramatically missing, especially so in this year’s budget document. Where does Bangladesh have the next comparative advantages? Where will the potential transformation be to scale rather than being limited to niche market segments? Can Bangladesh’s agriculture discover a new, hitherto untapped growth destiny? Can the business of creating human capital itself become a transformational growth driver? These are the questions that should keep the ministers, planners, economists and entrepreneurs awake, not merely for the budget season but for the economic journey ahead.
At its birth 48 years ago, economics had seemed the more difficult challenge for a poverty-stricken Bangladesh. Almost five decades later, the economic foundations are strong but the social foundations are fraying. Inequality was a common refrain in this year’s budget commentary. Indeed, the budget document itself recognised the issue. But having accepted the issue, there is then a twist in the official reasoning which sees the problem merely as a transitory one. The famed economist Simon Kuznets has found a new popularity amongst Bangladesh’s power circles who cite, with alacrity, the “Kuznets curve” whenever the issue of inequality is brought up. The issue, however, is not inequality itself but the specific drivers of inequality. In today’s Bangladesh, inequality is neither natural nor inevitable. It is being driven by the quality divide in education, by the banking sector where deposits by common citizens provide the funds but the loans go to the top, by the allocative discrimination which keeps local governments dry of funds and creates a new reality of Dhaka-versus-Bangladesh, by the entry barriers to lucrative sectors which keep the benefits for favoured groups. These have nothing to do with Kuznets but are an outcome of the politico-economic governance that prevails. It is time to recognise these truths.
Hossain Zillur Rahman is Executive Chairman, Power and Participation Research Centre.
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