A Discussion with Dr. Kamal Hossain of Bangladesh

If there is a single politician in Bangladesh about whom people have the least qualms, it is probably Dr Kamal Hossain. His resume is loaded with achievements that include presenting the new nation of Bangladesh its first constitution in 1972 as chairman of the constitution drafting committee. He was educated at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, and he holds a Doctor of Philosophy Degree in International Law. He was the Minister of Law (1972), Petroleum & Minerals (1973) and Foreign Minister (1973-75) of Bangladesh.

Dr. Hossain has been actively involved in politics for almost four decades. He is currently president of the Jatiyo Oikyo Mancha (National Unity Forum) that aims at finding common grounds to unite various political parties. He is a human rights advocate and founder of Ain-O-Shalishi Kendra (Center for Law and Justice, a human rights organization in Bangladesh). He has chaired Advisory Commission of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative for a number of years.[1]

Recently Dr. Kamal Hossain visited New York and gave a two-hour long speech on June 11, 2005. The meeting was arranged in the ATN Bangla office in Queens. I could not participate in the meeting, so had to rely on published reports about his speech. Dr. Hossain discussed the current political situation in Bangladesh. In spite of all the negative things that portray a very troubled picture about Bangladesh, he sounded optimistic. When asked about what made him feel so optimistic about Bangladesh, he said, “Common people of Bangladesh have always stood against oppression and injustice. And they are the people who have been working hard for the progress of the country without the hope of any personal level reward.” There is much truth to his statement. During my recently concluded trip to Bangladesh, I witnessed firsthand how many of my friends in the private sector have been working from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., six or seven days a week. These are the people who have contributed to the positive economic growth in the country, in spite of the corruption and thievery that goes almost unchecked in the public sector.

Last year, I met Dr. Hossain at the Zia International Airport (Dhaka), when he was coming to the USA for attending the Democratic Party’s national convention in Boston, and I was returning to Philadelphia. We had quite a bit of time to waste in the waiting room before our flights were to depart. Having left Bangladesh some 27 years ago, I don’t usually get too many chances of meeting a dignitary like Dr. Hossain. So, I introduced myself.

In spite of all the high-rise buildings that have been trying to fill the emptiness in the sky over Dhaka, a visible sign of economic development, I complained about the level of corruption, insecurity and lawlessness in the country. He argued that things would become better had the talented and educated folks returned to Bangladesh and contributed – much like what the expatriate Indian community had done for India. He had a point there that I agreed to. We discussed the fact that the top 15% of the brains in Bangladesh now live overseas. (In science, medicine and engineering, the number is probably closer to 40%.) They had left Bangladesh for higher studies, and opted to settle in the more prosperous West and the Middle East. So, what has been happening, especially since Bangladesh’s emergence as an independent state, is a very dangerous “brain-drain” phenomenon. The experts that Bangladesh would require to make the necessary transition from its unhealthy third (or fourth) world economy to a better one in the 21st century are mostly living outside the country. Even the few that are inside Bangladesh are often looking for opportunities to leave. This phenomenon is pushing mostly (not all) the second or third-rate individuals to leadership roles, responsible for running or managing important organizations. Without the technical experts (more specifically, the scientists and engineers), Bangladesh cannot become a Malaysia or South Korea. His point was: how can you expect better when things are like this with mediocre and less-than mediocre people involved? Talented and honest people ought to come forward to make things better, not just in education, business and industry, but also in politics.

I pointed out that good and honest man like him (Dr. Hossain) could not even get elected in Bangladesh; they usually have their security deposits frozen. For a city mayoral election, tens of millions of Taka are needed to be spent. How many people can afford such large sums of money? What will they do to make-up their “expenses” from an election and the next one to come? No wonder that most MPs are absent from the parliamentary sessions! They are doing their “business” when they ought to discuss national issues.

Dr. Hossain did not have good answers to the above points that I had raised. He nonetheless sounded very optimistic saying that things would become better. It is the people who will force the change in Bangladesh. It is they that matters and will perform their historic duties when push comes to shove.

We then discussed what would take for professional experts to return and/or contribute to Bangladesh. I asked could Bangladesh government do something similar to what the Indian government has been doing since the days of Rajiv Gandhi? Obviously, there are good and prudent methods that Bangladesh can follow to attract experts to return. I further reasoned that most ambitious people look for scopes and opportunities to grow. Sometimes such scopes and opportunities are unavailable in third-world countries like Bangladesh. Those who have developed expertise in a technical field can even create opportunities for themselves and others provided investment opportunities (over hurdles) make sense to them. And that is where government regulations play some important roles.

At this point, we discussed Board of Investment’s (BoI) role to attracting foreign investment in Bangladesh. I informed him that the current executive chairman was a classmate of mine, and that I was impressed with the transparent nature of activities around BoI. He commented that transparencies alone in a government agency like the BOI would not cut the ice: the problem was much more complex; does the right hand know what the left hand is doing? Translation: the government bureaucracy is downright corrupt and inefficient; one branch of the organization may do something good but another branch may stall it for years. Well, it did not require any debate there to agree with him.

Going back to the subject of what would motivate professional experts, esp. in the technology sector, to return to Bangladesh, I opined that the most important need of an otherwise satisfied human being is that of security. I told him that someone could provide all other basic (and secondary) needs, but if it couldn’t guarantee security, nothing truly mattered. People can devise plans to create opportunities even in an unfriendly terrain, but everything would collapse like a sandcastle without that vital thing –” security. It is in this area, I argued, that Bangladesh had failed miserably. I told him that in our next-door Kolkata, a young woman could return home safely walking alone from the Hawrah station at 11 p.m., something that may seem unthinkable in Dhaka. Why do Bangladeshi people feel so insecure? Is not there a bigger role that the government ought to play to secure people’s lives and properties? Who would invest in a country where there is little security of life and property?

Dr. Hossain agreed that security was an important factor for enticing expatriates to return and contribute to making Bangladesh a more prosperous country. He agreed that the situation there was not conducive enough to attracting expatriates. But as an optimist and a dreamer who genuinely believes that things can become better, he urged that professional expatriates must return to Bangladesh and get involved in bringing about a better society.

Well, without optimism, nothing new could be tried or built. Mixed with the right brand of realism, it can perform miracles. And who knows one day the expatriates – the sons and daughters of Bangladesh – who once came to the West to enrich them with knowledge and in that process developed themselves as experts, shall return home!


[1]. http://www.humanrightsinitiative.org/publications/chogm/chogm_1997.pdf; http://www.humanrightsinitiative.org/publications/chogm/chogm_1993.pdf; http://www.humanrightsinitiative.org/publications/chogm/chogm_1995.pdf