I was trying to manoeuvre my way through a small gap between a security barricade on my left and the moving trail of vehicles on my right, when a speeding car almost went over my foot. Hugely relieved to have avoided it, I murmured a little prayer.
The pavement, meant for pedestrians like me, was stocked with bricks, while concrete and rods occupied a good part of the road. Being a regular user of the road, I knew that this had been the status quo for more than six months. With no other alternate feasible path, thousands use this road everyday, putting themselves at risk. Amongst the pile of construction materials was propped a signboard with details of the ongoing project and a "sorry for the inconvenience" note at the bottom. This is a common scenario, particularly in urban Bangladesh and understandably so, given the fast-paced urbanisation taking place in the country.
However, one questions, is this the right way to go about it? Does that "sorry" note suffice for the imposed restrictions on one's freedom of movement for a prolonged period? Could the contractor have done his job in a more responsible way, generating minimal inconvenience for fellow passersby?
For most of us in Bangladesh, there seems to be a rush to get over with one's committed task, never mind how it is done but as long as it is done. The municipality man who sprays for mosquito control, the road cleaners, store-keepers, pharmacists, doctors, school teachers and other professionals and administrators are all doing their respective duties, but how responsibly so? Is the mosquito spray a genuine one or are the cleaners working sincerely and at the right time? Do the pharmacists make sure that customers are informed about the expiry dates of their drugs? Is the school teacher ensuring full comprehension of the students so that they don't need private lessons after school? Are patients being prescribed the right tests and referred to the right doctors? Are authorities adequately and sensitively addressing public woes?
We, very often, refer to duty as being synonymous with responsibility. However, there is a fine yet a weighty difference between the two. Duty is a certain task that one has committed to perform as a part of one's job. Responsibility refers to the state of completing the task in an accountable way, taking the onus of any consequence—positive or negative—that may emerge in the process. In the construction instance cited above, the contractor would have been executing his duties responsibly if he had ensured the least infringement of his activities beyond the boundaries of his site. Duty without responsibility can bring about disastrous consequences. To cite a recent example, the setting up of a separate ward for Covid-19 patients by a private hospital without adhering to safety and security norms, led to the tragic death of several patients, when a fire broke out in the ward.
Given the ramifications of one's actions on others' lives, a critical path to achieving sustainable development is to make informed choices that balance both personal and social objectives. This involves taking into consideration the rights and freedoms of others and how they will be affected by our actions. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen's discipline of consequential evaluation talks about the need to take responsibility for the consequences of one's choice. If we can practice (or at least start with) taking responsibility for our choices and actions, the development efforts will get substantially magnified.
That said, it is also true that the reach of responsibility stretches to a multitude of actors and cannot be narrowed down to a single line of individual liability. One's actions are contingent on a maze of underlying causes and existing conditions. For instance, in our construction case, the contractor's actions would be dependent on a host of actors and conditions including, among others, building material suppliers, transport owners and availability of skilled labour. While there is little that can be done in the short run about existing conditions such as the availability of labour, the actors do have a critical role to play by way of delivering responsibly. If we take the case of the transport owners, they must exercise utmost caution, discipline and consideration during the transportation and delivery of heavy construction materials.
In our daily interface with many actors in development, we are often subject to a boorish demeanour—as if to say that we should be grateful for the work they are doing for a better future for us. While we all look forward to a better life, there is no reason to think that they enjoy any kind of immunity on account of that. It must be remembered that the public expect these actors to perform their jobs with utmost responsibility.
Unfortunately, the values and institutions that have developed in Bangladesh have a colonial flavour, with the masses accepting things the way they are. With a greater focus on outputs rather than outcomes, we have fallen into the trap of path dependency, wherein the past trends have continued and determine the current state. This path dependency has yielded preconceived notions and unwritten rules of the game at the cost of the overall welfare of the nation.
Every society has its own norms of behaviour. What is acceptable in one society may not be so in another. It is easy to overlook something that is not right, be it out of convenience or compulsion or just plain indifference. Leaders can choose to ignore, law enforcers can turn a blind eye and citizens can opt to remain mute spectators, but eventually that leads to a point when the wrong becomes right. It is then that we face the harsh consequences of not owning up to our responsibilities. We can evade responsibilities today but we will have to face the consequences someday.
The ability to perform assigned tasks with due responsibility cannot be drilled into individuals overnight. It has to be instilled in a person through developing a sense of ownership and accountability for one's actions. And to inculcate these values, the key element is ethics. It is through ethics that one learns the values of integrity, honesty and discipline. Ethics teaches a person to think critically, to put oneself in others' shoes and to contemplate on the practical consequences of personal and collective actions. Ultimately it boils down to sound and proper education. The essentiality of education in fostering development is well-known and ethics must form an integral part of that education. This is imperative if we want to produce better citizens—citizens who have the ability to differentiate between what is right and what is wrong. In delivering our responsibilities, both the means and the ends are equally important for a sustainable tomorrow.
Firdousi Naher is a professor of economics, University of Dhaka.