Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Networking: Bangladesh to Asia

Daily Star reported on June 16 that PM Hasina’s Cabinet supports signing the Asian Highway Network agreement (AHN) and its proposed routes.

According to the Daily Star the three proposed routes (to be depicted later) are:
A1: Benapole-Jessore-Dhaka-Kanchpur-Sylhet-Tamabil
A2: Banglabandha-Hatikamrul-Dhaka-Kanchpur-Sylhet-Tamabil
AH41: Mongla-Jessore-Dhaka-Kanchpur-Chittagong-Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf-Myanmar

PM Hasina has indicated that her support for the agreement is dependent on whether or not the Government can renegotiate the proposed routes, which it can if it becomes a member of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN-ESCAP).

With this decision a bill will be drafted and submitted to Parliament.

As PM Hasina noted, Bangladesh can no longer “remain aloof in the age of globalization. We have to go forward with the network in the interest of socio-economic development.” Specifically, the third route will be a boon for Bangladesh. With the inclusion of Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh’s southeast will hopefully be able to enjoy some of the economic benefits that the western areas will enjoy. If done properly more equitable development should be achieved through the AHN.

Then there’s the point of governance. The AHN will not only provide a newly constructed and (hopefully) more effective means of supply and transportation for businesses but will also allow the government to extend its reach throughout the Khulna, Chittagong, and Cox’s Bazar divisions. Improving access to the road’s hinterlands will not only benefit all levels of government but the residents in the hinterland as well. A new roadway will serve to increase local residents’ access to markets, healthcare, education, employment, and security.

While the AHN will create these opportunities in the future, many are dependent on the successful implementation of the project. The biggest problems will be commitment and governance. Each level of government must commit not only to the route but to the idea of the AHN. This means committing to free trade and free markets, equitable economic development, and increased opportunities for all. This commitment will cost time as well as financial and political capital. The Government must be open and transparent with the route, the costs, and the actual timeline of the road. In another sense the AHN will be a test of the new government and the new democratic system since the Caretaker Government.

For governance, the project must remain grounded in the economic considerations of the country and the local areas. Corruption, mismanagement, and petty politics will need to be kept in check throughout this project, and with the amount of money involved in the construction of three national highways these vices will be all the more enticing.

In fact the AHN is no stranger to these plagues. As reported by the Daily Star on June 16, a former communications minister from the mid-1990s has been accused of manipulating the route for political reasons. In 1993 Bangladesh offered two entry/exit points in the country at Tamabil (the current) and Astagram (both in Sylhet division). However, when retired Col. Oli Ahmed assumed the minister position in 1995, he scrapped the latter.

An independent study by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN-ESCAP) found that the Astagram route would have been more suitable. Allegedly, the reasoning behind this change was purely political; a former transportation director of UN-ESCAP recalled to the Daily Star “I heard some communications ministry top policy makers saying: since India had offered the route, it must have had some vested interest in it…, so we couldn’t go for it.”

Retired Col. Oli Ahmed denies any wrongdoing and blames the UN-ESCAP and World Bank for playing favorites with India.

This is simply a taste of the mismanagement and misappropriation that the project could experience if the government is not held accountable for its actions. Moreover, this article also exemplifies the sensitive relationship between the Bangladeshi and Indian governments. On the one hand, Bangladesh is aware that it is dwarfed economically, demographically, and is almost surrounded by India. For its part, India has not always treated Bangladesh (or its other neighbors) fairly and with respect to their situations.

There are many benefits that the Asian Highway Network would bring to Bangladesh. The successful management and implementation of the network would not only ensure these benefits to a larger constituency but may even bring India and Bangladesh closer together. It is for these reasons that the U.S. and India need to play a positive role by supporting Bangladesh with technical advisers (if requested) and financial commitments, if possible. A clear stipulation of this support would be transparency and accountability. If the U.S. and India are slow to realize this opportunity, China would be willing and able to provide the needed cash, expertise, and without commitments to transparency and equitable development.

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