New Hope for Democracy in Bangladesh

WITH virtually everyone focused on the unfolding drama in the Persian Gulf, a new world order based on democratic values is taking shape in a seemingly unlikely place - Bangladesh. Elections scheduled for Feb. 27 promise to be the first peaceful transfer of power ever in this poor, Muslim country where it would take the annual incomes of over 9 million people to support the allied war effort for one day. Even during this time of crisis, when a nation of some 114 million people makes the transition to democracy, everyone should take heart. Having spent a year working in Bengali villages with a program called Grameen Bank, I take particular joy in this political breakthrough, the result of a popular uprising against the military government of President Ershad last December. But it will be important new world order architects to remember that free elections allow for the possibility of democracy; they do n ot define it.

Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has persuasively argued that democracy is neither the absence of dictatorship nor the mere presence of elections. Rather, it is a process of political empowerment of the poor majority. This more subtle definition is as relevant to Bangladesh as it is to Peru.

Establishing genuine democracy in Bangladesh will require political and economic reform. Politically, it is time to go well beyond the slogan ``one man, one vote'' and guarantee a meaningful role for women in politics. And the practice of allowing landlords to speak for their laborers in the political arena will have to go as well. The political agenda for Bangladesh in 1991 must include decentralizing government, strengthening the independence of local political institutions, and reserving places on vi llage councils for women, the landless, and possibly youth.

Economically, democracy will require wide access to productive resources, such as land and credit. Economic as well as political benefits would accrue because poor people in Bangladesh, as elsewhere, have surprised economists by their capacity to utilize productive resources more efficiently than their well-to-do brethren.

One need look no farther than the 98 percent repayment rate of Grameen Bank loans (which average $67), or the high per-hectare production of small and marginal farms across the third world. Throughout history, wide access to productive resources has always been critical in establishing de facto democracy.

Take the case of Morium Begum, a former beggar woman from the district of Norshingdi in Bangladesh. A widow, Morium remembers often being shooed away when she tried to beg in front of the house of the local porishod (council) chairman. But within five years she had received five small loans (all under $150), with which she started a successful mat-making business. She emerged as a leader within her borrowing group and was called in by the chairman to discuss politics. Morium told me how the chairman extended a stool for her to sit on, respectfully asked about her concerns, and made a bid for her support in an upcoming election.

While access to credit assisted Morium and those in her borrowing group, access to land could help thousands of other Bengali families. This could be done by initiating a program of land redistribution, an essential part of successful development strategies in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Indian state of Kerala. The case for Bengali land reform was made forcefully by University of Texas professor Tomasson Jannuzi who, in a 1977 study commissioned by the US government, cited the maldistribution of land as a major constraint on rural progress in Bangladesh.

The recent events in Bangladesh must be seized upon as an opportunity for genuine political empowerment of the majority, not just so-called free elections. Bangladesh could be the place where a world order based on true democracy - democracy worth making sacrifices for - begins to take shape.

In times like these, we would perhaps do well to celebrate advances such as those in Bangladesh even as we denounce dictators like Saddam Hussein. Furthermore, breakthroughs like these should provoke us to embellish our understanding and practice of democracy, so that one day it can fully justify all the sacrifices made for it - whether they be made by students in the streets of Bangladesh, law enforcement officers in Los Angeles, or young men and women in our armed forces.

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