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  • Writer's pictureSyed Akhtar Mahmood

Sheikh Hasina's economic management - the great balancing act

I first saw her in the mid-1980s. I was then studying at Oxford and one day, got a call from Dr. Gowher Rizvi, now one of the advisors to Sheikh Hasina and then a teacher at Warwick University. Dr. Rizvi was himself a student at Oxford about a decade before I went there and still had some links with England’s famous university. He said that Sheikh Hasina, who had recently taken the helm of the Awami League, was coming to Oxford and he had arranged a small public meeting followed by dinner at a Bangladeshi restaurant. He invited me to both events.


The meeting was in a small room, and I was sitting near the front. At one point I heard Sheikh Hasina tell Dr. Rizvi, “You handle the questions, if any”. At first I thought she was perhaps hesitant to take questions. Later, as I saw her answering questions with confidence, I realized that she was just being humble. That evening we had a nice dinner at a Bangladeshi restaurant. While the rest of us were busy relishing the food and the company, I saw her quietly slip away to the kitchen where she spent a few minutes personally thanking all the cooks and waiters. She did not have to do it, but she did!


Fast forward to the early 1990s. I had by then moved to Washington D.C., and had come to know Mr. Nurul Islam Onu, a former civil servant who was then living in the area. Mr. Islam, Onu bhai to us, had a small business but much of his time was spent running the North America Awami League. It was possibly in 1991 or 1992, I don't remember exactly when, that I got a call from Onu bhai. He said, “Netri (leader) is coming to town, and she wants to have a meeting with a group of economists on the mechanics of the market economy.”


The meeting was in Onu bhai’s small office near the Farragut North metro station in downtown Washington D.C.. Sheikh Hasina was quick to get to her point and told us quite candidly, “Our party had espoused socialism and my father wanted to build a socialist economy. There were good reasons for that. But now the world is changing. The Berlin wall has fallen, and the countries of the ex-Soviet Union and other socialist countries are slowly embracing a market economy. We also need to go that way. But I have a challenge. How do I explain to my leaders and party workers the rationale of a market economy? I also have some concerns myself. You all work with market economies and understand the rationale and nuances well. I would like to discuss this with you.”


One of the people in the audience was Prof. Nurul Islam who, as Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, had been tasked by Bangabandhu to draw up a blueprint for a socialist economy. I remember at one point Sheikh Hasina pointed to Prof. Islam and told him rather bluntly, “You need not apologize for working to help establish a socialist economy for Bangladesh. Perhaps that was the right approach at that time. Perhaps there was a good reason why we wanted to go that path then. Thinking about the market economy now doesn't mean that we think a socialist approach at that time was a wrong one”.


I had an opportunity to be with Sheikh Hasina in another small-group meeting again after about three or four years. Once again there was a call from Onu bhai. Now with elections around the corner and a good possibility of the Awami League coming to power, he wanted to arrange another such meeting of economists with Sheikh Hasina who was about to arrive in the American capital. “If the leader becomes Prime Minister, she will have to deal with many complexities of economic management. I think she found the earlier discussion quite useful, and I'd like to arrange another such meeting.” – he said.


It was the month of Ramadhan, and the meeting was after Iftar. The leader already had several meetings that day while also fasting. We expected her to be exhausted and were thus prepared for a short meeting. The meeting actually went on for 3-4 hours, punctuated by a short dinner break. Sheikh Hasina was very engaged throughout the meeting, listening intently, asking provocative questions, all the while taking notes in her diary.


At one point, a fellow-Bangladeshi, a macro-economist at the World Bank, started giving a lecture on the importance of trade liberalization. Hasina politely interrupted him and said, “You do not have to explain to me the rationale for trade liberalization. Some years ago, I was living with my physicist husband in the Italian city of Trieste (where the Nobel laureate Dr. Abdus Salam had his International Centre for Theoretical Physics). Trieste is on the border with Yugoslavia. Three days a week, the border would be opened and people from both sides would cross the border, buy things from the other side and bring them home. I saw first-hand the benefits of free trade. So, you don't have to convince me about free trade, but I have a question for you. If we liberalize imports today, many Bangladeshi factories may find it difficult to survive. If these factories close down, the workers would not come to you, but they will come to me, whether I am in government or in opposition, and ask for help. Please tell me how other countries have dealt with such problems.”


Fortunately, we had some one who had worked on social protection issues in many countries. As he started talking about what other countries had done to help workers displaced after factory closures, Sheikh Hasina started taking copious notes on her diary and asked for further details to be sent to her later. After she left, the noted economist Binayak Sen, who was then in Washington DC and attended the meeting told me how lucky we were – that we could have an uninterrupted meeting with her for 3-4 hours, something unthinkable in Dhaka.


Sheikh Hasina came to Washington again a number of times in her first stint as Prime Minister in the second half of the 1990s. On one of these trips, there was a meeting with Bangladeshi professionals, which I had the privilege of moderating. It was held in the late afternoon in a large auditorium in the World Bank. Our ambassador to the US, Mr. K.M. Shehabuddin, had asked me to ensure that the meeting was over least 45 minutes prior to Maghreb. The PM was going to offer her Maghreb prayers before going on to attend a reception at the embassy. A few of us made short presentations before she spoke. I once again noticed her taking detailed notes.


Then, she rose to speak. About fifteen minutes into her speech, she put aside the officially prepared speech and said she would rather speak extempore and respond to the presentations. She brought out her notes and started responding. She talked about small things – joking about how her son was teaching her the many technicalities of computers – as well as the profound changes going on in the economy. She took some pride in telling the audience how Bangladeshi farmers were going into exotic things such as strawberries and asparagus. We got an early glimpse into her dream of a digital Bangladesh. We even got a flavor of her mischievous retorts. When someone in the audience asked for tax concessions for NRBs, he got a gentle but firm rebuke: ““ভালো রোজগার করবেন আবার ট্যাক্স দেবেন না, এটা তো হয় না!” She was relishing the question-answer session and it could have gone on for hours, but I remembered the ambassador’s instructions to finish before Maghreb.


Sheikh Hasina’s contributions to making our economy one of the most dynamic in the world today is recognized even by her critics. As I think of her economic management, my thoughts go back to these meetings. To me, the defining moment was that intervention in the mid-1990s when, in one breadth, she revealed her excitement about the benefits of international trade and her sensitivity to the owes of a factory worker who may lose his or her job due to trade liberalization.


Today, as I wish her on her 75th birthday, and reflect on her approach to economic management, I realize that, throughout her long tenure, Sheikh Hasina has deftly carried out a balancing act, balancing the dynamism of a market economy with the social consciousness that had inspired her father to think about a socialist economy, of blending the lessons she has learned from a global world with the ones she had learned from the grassroots of Bangladesh.




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1 Comment


ahashem
Sep 29, 2021

An interesting perspective of Hasina's leadership and economic philosophy. Going to the kitchen to thank the people who prepared her food reminds us of her father Bangabandhu.

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