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  • Writer's pictureSyed Akhtar Mahmood

The Ginger Trader and the Ocean Liner: Remembering the man who understood both

I don't remember exactly how the connection was made; must have been through mutual acquaintances in the greater Washington DC area. I was then in England, winding up my doctoral studies and he had come to attend a conference at my university. A Bangladeshi economist at a well-known international think-tank in Washington DC, having already made a mark with some pathbreaking work on agricultural markets, evoked in my mind the image of a somewhat arrogant, perhaps aloof, intellectual who at best would treat a young graduate student like me with benign condescension. But he surprised me. He appeared more like an amiable college professor from small-town Bangladesh, with a small dose of endearing rusticity, and a sincerity, which allowed him to tell me with ease that he was tired after a long journey and that he needed to see me at a later time. Just one request - well, actually two. There was a book he wanted and could not find in the US. Could I get that for him? And, yes he wanted to treat me to lunch the next day. Was there a place in Oxford which served good fish? The quintessential Bengali, Dr. Raisuddin Ahmed, had already started missing his favourite meal!

That was a beginning of a relationship that lasted almost three decades, cemented in the social gatherings in the greater Washington DC area after I moved there about 25 years ago. It was always an endearing "Kemon acho Tipu" to which, in recent years was added the phrase, "onek din dekhina tomake", a reminder of the increasing mechanization of our lives and the distances it has created. Dr. Ahmed had spent this early career in government working with the agricultural marketing department of his country. There, as he wandered in the haats and bazars of Bangladesh, engaging, in his inimitable style, with poor farmers and small traders, with big aratdars and low-level officials of the food and agricultural ministries, the young Raisuddin Ahmed acquired a knowledge and intrinsic understanding of agricultural markets in developing countries that was to stay with him for the rest of his life. Later, as he combined that grass-roots knowledge with the modern techniques of economic analysis, Dr. Ahmed produced his incisive work that has shaped our understanding of how markets work in developing countries. There is a saying that all Bengalis are familiar with; which, roughly translated, means that the petty ginger trader should not be concerned about the comings and goings of large ships. Dr. Raisuddin Ahmed knew the pulse of the ginger trader and could keep track of ocean liners. This ability to blend the big picture with micro-realities was a hallmark of this eminent economist. Raisuddin Ahmed believed strongly in the power of the markets; this was not an ideological belief nurtured in western ivory towers but born out of his first-hand experiences of markets in a developing country. That experience also taught him about where markets can go wrong and why good public policy was needed to address the weaknesses of markets and unleash their potential. No wonder that this was the subject to which he devoted most of his research career. To those of you who are not economists, I would urge you to find some time to read Dr. Raisuddin Ahmed's articles. This may not appear to be your subject at first glance but as you dig into his writings you will find that he is taking you on a journey that you had always wanted to be on. For he will tell you about things that are dear to you too, the people and institutions at the core of our country, the dynamics that shape our nation and the real story of how a country once dismissed as a basket case is now giving notice to the rest of the world!

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