Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman did never forget to raise his voice, at all international summits or conferences he attended, for the economic emancipation of the people of the world. He knew well that without economic strength, even hard-earned independence would be meaningless. Political stability would never be established if a society fails to have a stable economic base. The economic policy of a developing or underdeveloped country, like Bangladesh, as he understood, was to be aimed at bringing out its people living in poverty and provide them a decent life. That’s why Bangabandhu had always given equal importance to world’s economic affairs as he gave on the political agenda. He was one of those world leaders who spoke for the countries facing challenges of poverty, hunger, illiteracy, disease, unemployment and economic constraints.
Bangabandhu, at the Commonwealth Summit held in Ottawa in August 1973, said that the poor countries or the developing world had been deceived for centuries from economic freedom or social justice. The advocate of the poor countries, mentioning the challenges faced by the newly born Bangladesh, had said that the challenge was more formidable when solutions to those problems had to be found within the framework of a working democracy, when economic freedom had to be secured without sacrificing political freedom, and economic growth had to be achieved without sacrificing social justice. As he said, those anxieties and problems had been in the developing world, and would continue to be in those countries. He mentioned that the time had come as the developed world had started to share those anxieties. However, he urged the developed nations to recognise that they had a common interest in reversing the process which threatened to turn the world where a few islands of prosperity were surrounded by oceans of misery.
At that time, the Committee of Twenty of the International Monetary Fund was about to reach an advanced stage in negotiations regarding the future of the international monetary order, multilateral trade negotiations under the auspices of GATT were under way, and the EEC was engaged in negotiations with the developing countries regarding preferential access of their exports into the Common Market. Defining that situation as ‘an appropriate moment’ for the Commonwealth to make a positive contribution to the solution of those problems towards the creation of a healthier international economic environment, Bangabandhu hoped that the rich and poor members together would thus adopt an enlightened common approach in this regard. Therefore, he said, “We would urge Britain to exert its maximum influence to safeguard the interests of the other members of the Commonwealth. This should extend to- a) Ensuring that existing preferential arrangements are maintained until negotiations are completed with the countries concerned; b) Helping to obtain the best terms in negotiations; and c) In general, securing liberalisation of the generalised scheme of preferences to be extended by EEC.”
That was a period when the economies of many developing countries of the Commonwealth were dependent heavily on one or two rawmaterial exports, which were facing increasing competition from synthetics items in developed countries. Citing the example of jute of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu said, “If the export earnings of such countries have to be expanded, with a view to promoting self-reliance, it is necessary that the rich countries help them to meet effectively the threat of substitutes. This calls for research, for development of new uses of raw material, and for increased productivity and technological innovation.” He added that Bangladesh, along with India and other jute producing countries, had already taken the initiative to establish an International Centre for Jute with a view to promoting technological research and development of new uses of jute manufactures.
Since the cost of imports from developed countries was increasing, the poor countries had to expand earnings from their traditional exports. But it was not easy. That’s why Bangabandhu urged the rich countries to provide preferential access of semi-processed and processed primary products and labour-intensive manufactures of the developing countries to the markets of the developed countries. In this context, he mentioned the requirement of adoption of various domestic measures by the developed countries, including reduction of non-tariff barriers, which restrict the demand for such products in their domestic markets. He expressed his expectation that the developed countries of the Commonwealth would lead the way in undertaking necessary structural adjustments in their domestic economies with a view to enabling poor countries to attain economic growth on the basis of their comparative advantage. He said, “We appreciate the arguments advanced for the formation of a common market among the rich countries of Europe. We in the developing world must exploit similar opportunities for cooperation and specialisation, including trade liberalisation, among ourselves with a view to expanding exports to each other’s markets.”
At the same time, Bangabandhu expressed his disappointment for not meeting the target for development assistance set by UNCTAD and the OECD Development Assistance Committee at 0.7 per cent of GDP of the rich countries. He hoped that the rich Commonwealth countries would realise the target. He said that to combine private investment with official development assistance as a measure of a rich country’s efforts to develop the poor was unjustified and had failed to take into account the nature and the terms of assistance which developing countries had required to overcome their poverty.
In the context of international economy, Bangabandhu suggested the principle of ‘equal opportunity’ for the developing countries. He said, “What is needed to achieve this is political will; what is needed is recognition by the rich countries of their responsibility towards the poorer countries. We recognise that disparities between the poor and the rich countries cannot be eliminated overnight or indeed for a long time to come, but what is imperative is that the international community should recognise the responsibility of ensuring a critical minimum rate of growth of between 6 to 7 per cent per annum in the poor countries. The accomplishment of this objective does not require a substantial transfer of resources from the rich to the poor countries. One might argue about the pros and cons of various methods of accomplishing such an objective, but none can argue against the objective itself.”
Bangabandhu also highlighted the need for development of technology, uses of science to harness human sufferings and to stop developing destructive weapons. He opined that an ‘Action Programme’ based on the two fundamental principles, which were highlighted at Lusaka and Georgetown, namely, 'self-reliance’ and ‘effective economic cooperation among the non-aligned countries present' could meet that challenge. However, he said that necessary socio-economic changes could be brought about and the potentialities of science could be harnessed to bring about a real social revolution in the societies if people could be organised and mobilised. As it needed a political will and a common determination to bring that social revolution, Bangabandhu urged the non-aligned countries to cooperate each other by sharing their resources, knowledge and experience through proper coordination and concerted efforts. He suggested formulating a comprehensive strategy to overcome the common problems.
At the UN General Assembly in September 1974, Bangabandhu said, “Today, the nations of the world are faced with critical choices. Upon the wisdom of our choice, it will depend whether we will move towards a world haunted by fear of total destruction, threatened by nuclear war faced with the aggravation of human sufferings on a tremendous scale marked by mass starvation, unemployment and the wretchedness of deepening poverty, or whether we can look forward to a world where human creativity and the great achievements of our age in science and technology will be able to shape a better future free from the threat of nuclear war and based upon a sharing of technology and resources on a global scale so that men everywhere can begin to enjoy the minimum conditions of a decent life. The great economic upheavals which have recently shaken the entire world generate a sense of urgency about building a just international economic order.”
Mentioning the global inflation situation, he said that balance of payments in the developing countries was in a miserable condition with a gap of hundreds of millions of dollars. He pointed out that people with a meagre annual per capita income of less than a hundred dollars were facing with the prospect of a severe reduction in even their current subsistence level of living. Bangabandhu said that the people, who were consuming less than the minimum considered necessary for mere survival by the World Health Organisation, faced starvation. He further said that as a result of global inflation, the countries already faced with grinding poverty and massive unemployment were also threatened with dire possibilities of cut backs in their modest development plans envisaging growth rate of five to six per cent per annum. Even, he cautioned that unless the nations of the world could concert their action to meet that situation, human misery would be aggravated on a scale known in history.
Appreciating UN’s initiative, Bangabandhu said, “No greater challenge has been faced by the United Nations than that of marshalling the forces of reason to bring about a just international economic order. This order must not only ensure the sovereignty of each state over its natural resources, but would also seek to establish a framework of international cooperation based upon recognition of the over-riding common interests of the countries of the world in a stable and just economic system. This is the moment when we must reaffirm in unequivocal terms that there is an international responsibility to ensure that everyone everywhere shall enjoy the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for the dignity and the free development of his personality as guaranteed to him by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This responsibility, according to the universal declaration should extend to ensuring to everyone the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family.”
While addressing the opening session of the Commonwealth Conference held in Kingston on 29 April 1975, Bangabandhu called for the creation of a new economic order to eliminate the growing economic disparity between the rich and poor nations. He also emphasised the importance of taking comprehensive programmes for rural development and increasing food production on a priority basis. In this context, he mentioned the importance of inter-Commonwealth cooperation.
Bangabandhu said that if the existing economic crisis in the world continued and the unemployment and living standard in the developed countries continued downward, it would undoubtedly have a devastating impact on the developing countries and consequently, developing countries like Bangladesh would have to suffer from starvation and famine. Therefore, the rich countries of the Commonwealth must provide immediate short-term assistance to the developing countries. He also mentioned that the assistance might be done through supply of equipment to increase agricultural production.
In his speech, Bangabandhu also emphasised the importance of the formation of the Commonwealth Capital Investment Bank. He said that through it, the resources of the developed nations could be utilised also in the activities of the developing nations. He also emphasised the need for enhancing the technical cooperation among the Commonwealth countries.
At the evening session of the Summit on May 2, Bangabandhu called for full utilisation of the resources and manpower of the developing countries under a meaningful framework of world cooperation to accelerate the development of the developing countries. He said that the countries having surplus resources must share their resources with the developing countries in order to increase economic cooperation. Bangabandhu noted with concern that the increase of global inflation rate and the continuous trend of trade deficit and uncertainty in the currency system, had increased the disparity of the developed and developing countries.
Regarding reinvestment of surplus funds of the oil producing countries, Bangabandhu said that if the surplus funds were reinvested under a global cooperation framework so that the technology of the developed countries could support to increase the economic resources and to explore the natural resources of the developing countries, then the interests of the world would be much more protected.
Bangabandhu said that the developing countries were keen to increase export and stabilisation of raw materials and to get fair price of those products and to take an arrangement for balancing the prices of the products and the prices of raw materials acceptable to each other. Drawing the attention of the conference on the plight of the current global economic crisis, he urged the Commonwealth leaders to show their determination and political foresight in undertaking important decisions. He expressed his hope that such decisions would be taken to lay the foundation of a new international economic order based on justice and inter-dependency before it was too late.
We lost Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the advocate for economic freedom of the world’s poor, in this month of 1975. Immortal Bangabandhu always remains in our heart, mind and works. His philosophy and ideals will not only lead the people of Bangladesh, but also the freedom and peace-loving people of the entire globe towards their political liberation as well as economic emancipation. May Allah grant the Jannatul Firdaus for him and other members of his family, assassinated on the black-night of 15 August!
The writer is a former Ambassador and Secretary