An amazing story from a doyen of Bangladeshi economists

September 8, 2018

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I had finished reading Professor Nurul Islam’s An Odyssey: The Journey of My Life quite some time back. But I always hesitated to write a review of this autobiography of the brightest economist of the country who was a lifelong teacher of many generations of economists in Bangladesh. I was never his direct student, though of course he was a teacher of most of my teachers.

Even so, I have had a special relationship with him since my student life, which later cemented during my days in BIDS of which he was the founding father. I saw him from a distance in 1974 at the Teachers Students Center (TSC) of Dhaka University when we were participating in the Bangladesh Economic Association Conference on the First Five Year Plan. I was then a third year honors student at the Department of Economics. Our then Chairman Professor MN Huda involved some of us as volunteers to help run the conference. I remember I had to bring Professor Mazharul Huq from his house. He gave a very critical speech on the First Five Year Plan. Professor Nurul Islam heard him patiently. I too spoke quite critically when the conference organizers opened the discussion for participants from the floor. I did not know that he had noted my discussion as well until I met him at the Athens Airport after a month or so. Professor Islam immediately spotted me and started a conversation with me on the First Five Year Plan. This was my first foreign tour and naturally I was quite nervous about it. But he reassured me like a father and encouraged me to remain critical on economic development issues even though I was only a student at that time.

Later I came to know him more intimately when I joined the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies which he used to visit whenever he happened to be in Bangladesh. Moreover, he always had a special inclination for interacting with young scholars. I was fortunate enough to catch his eyes while I was a young professional. I still distinctly remember two events, one at Unnayan Shamannay, the think-tank which I founded in the 1990s, and the other at Bangladesh Bank where he exchanged his thoughts with many young professionals. He thanked me for organizing these events and said he was more at ease with these young minds than his peer groups. Later we organized a couple of other similar events under the banner of Bangladesh Economists Forum where he discussed at some length his favored themes of contemporary economic development and the state of related policy research plus advocacy. His major focus was always on how to improve the quality of economic research along with improving the quality of national statistics (please see the last chapter of Odyssey to know more about this).

I was lucky to have honored him with the Bangladesh Bank Award during my tenure as a governor. He, of course, deserves much more from the nation which was born out of the far-sighted leadership of Bangabandhu with whom he too worked so closely both as an informal adviser in pre-independence days and as well as formal Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission in independent Bangladesh.

Professor Nurul Islam

In both capacities he played instrumental roles in shaping the economic thinking of Bangabandhu and his co-leaders, before and after the war of liberation. He was also actively engaged in the United States, particularly at the World Bank and other centers of economic research and policy advocacy, during 1971, in pushing the cause of Bangladesh’s independence. So we were not at all surprised when Bangabandhu placed him as the Deputy Chairman of the newly formed Bangladesh Planning Commission to help him design the socio-economic policies needed for rebuilding the war-ravaged country.

It should be noted here that he joined the Planning Commission ignoring his prior appointment as the Director of World Bank; in fact, he was the first economist to be appointed in this position from the developing world. Professor Islam along with his colleagues from Dhaka University, BIDS and other academic institutions responded whole-heartedly to the call of Bangabandhu and worked closely with him in shaping the course of the economy of a newly born country with insurmountable challenges. The strong foundation of the economy was laid by Bangabandhu during those early years of Bangladesh with deep support from Professor Islam and his peers. They all demonstrated their highest level of commitment for building a country which was born out of their labor. Although the conspirators did not allow Bangabandhu to reap the benefits of the economy whose foundation was so carefully laid by him with support from professionals like Professor Islam, the fact remains that he was the architect of a strong economy of Bangladesh which is now flourishing under the leadership of his able daughter despite many challenges.

The Odyssey by Professor Islam covers a great deal of his interactions with Bangabandhu in addition to his early years of education in Chittagong, Kolkata and Dhaka followed by his higher studies at Harvard, teaching at Dhaka University, leading Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), shifting PIDE to Dhaka, passage to India and USA in 1971, joining the Planning Commission and building this new institution despite many challenges, working at FAO of the United Nations and, of course, reflections on his retired life in Washington.

I find him still very active and there is hardly any indication that he has retired. Every time I go to Washington DC I find him as agile as he always has been, forcing me to engage with him on contemporary development thinking. He is still unbeatable on development policy discourses and we have so much to learn from him. If we read his Odyssey with his another great work Making of a Nation Bangladesh—An Economist’s Tale only then we can figure out the full story of Professor Islam’s checkered professional and personal journey of life.

He was born to a father who was a lifelong educationist and a post-graduate from Dhaka University in English Literature. So it was natural that his father would encourage him to remain in academic sphere even though the trend was to opt for the Central Civil Service of Pakistan that came with considerable power and prestige.

After finishing his intermediate college course he enrolled in Calcutta Presidency College which used to attract the best and brightest students. He was one of a handful of Muslim students in this iconic center of higher education at a time when tensions were brewing up for the partition of Bengal and, of course, India. Despite a good start there in the first year, he wrapped up his studies in then Calcutta and got admitted to the Department of Economics at Dhaka University due mainly to severe communal riots which left the country divided. He did equally well at Dhaka University and was awarded both BA Honors and MA degrees where he stood First Class First. Professor Islam, with encouragement from his father, applied for and obtained the Pakistan Government scholarship to obtain higher education at Harvard. Bypassing all the lucrative offers of joining IMF as a young professional or working with world famous economists like Leontief as a Research Associate in research projects at Harvard, Professor Islam came back to Dhaka and joined Dhaka University as a Reader/Associate Professor at the Department of Economics.

This was possible mainly because of the uncompromising support given by Mr Jenkins, an Englishman and his teacher Dr Mazharul Huq. Again, he became a Professor along with his teacher Dr MN Huda during the tenure of Justice Hamudur Rahman who was not from the academia. In both of these appointments he faced stiff opposition from his colleagues for his so-called “intellectual arrogance”. Apart from facing this usual professional hazards he turned out to be a very successful teacher and researcher. He, in fact, brought fresh air in the teaching style and course content by updating the syllabus and curriculum. He then established the Bureau of Economic Research to promote research among faculty members and encourage the tradition of good research.

The story of his life, first as a student and then as a professor, provides a window to the social, cultural, and academic traditions of the premier university of the country. This in turn reflects the social and cultural values of the emerging middle class of that period. The present generation may find it instructive to learn how they have changed and grown in the last six decades or more for better or worse.

There is always something to learn from the past since the present grows out of the past and leads to the future. He was involved in research and debate and discourse on the economic disparities between East Pakistan and West Pakistan shortly after his return from abroad and was member of successive Finance commissions of Govt of Pakistan arguing the case for East Pakistan’s economic justice much to the chagrin, opposition and unhappiness of members from West Pakistan.

I will now focus on a handful of selected issues handled by Professor Islam as a policymaker during his tenure as a Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission and later as a UN high official.

Let me start with his sojourn with Pakistan in the later part of the 1960s as the Director of PIDE. This leadership opportunity of running a reputed research institute provided him an excellent opportunity to interact with iconic economists like Austin Robinson, Jan Tinbergen (Nobel Laureate), and Just Faaland who were members of the Advisory Board of the Institute. The leadership demonstrated by Professor Islam in improving the quality of research during his tenure was highly appreciated. The West Pakistani political and economic establishments were very unhappy with Professor Islam as he allowed the publication of academic articles on economic disparities between the two wings of Pakistan by reputed economists even though these were duly reviewed by peer reviewers. Also, Professor Islam’s past record of fighting against disparity in Finance Commissions must have annoyed those economists and their political masters. As a consequence Mahbubal Huq, then chief economist of the Planning Commission and a member of the inner circle of Pakistan’s political establishment, launched a frontal attack on him in a meeting of the foreign advisory board by stating that the quality and focus of research deteriorated under Islam’s leadership.

These remarks prompted vigorous rebuttals of Islam’s work from the advisory group. Yet, Islam continued to work for the interests of the Eastern Wing, and hence was able to shift the PIDE Head Office to Dhaka in 1970. He was offered the position of Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission of the government of Pakistan in charge of East Pakistan’s affairs but refused to accept the offer on the ground that by then he was convinced   that “… a point of no return had been reached in the East-West Pakistan relations within the conventional political framework.” (Page 122).

In fact, he was by then deeply involved with Bangabandhu and his team on the elaboration and modality of implementing the Six-Point Program as a framework for the future constitutional development of the country. In the middle of the negotiation between the Awami League and President Yahiya’s team on constitutional arrangements during those tumultuous days of non-cooperation came the military crackdown on the night of March 25, 1971 and Professor Islam marginally escaped the Pakistan Army and managed to land in India with the help of his students.

He stayed some days in India and met his economist friends like Amartya Sen, Ashok Mitra, Arjun Sengupta and his classmate at Harvard PN Dhar. He later found himself in the company of his colleagues from Dhaka University. Together they started working for Bangladesh keeping close touch with the Government in Exile in Mujibnagar. He was advised by the Government to go to the United States, a country which he knew better, for lobbying the cause of Bangladesh. Later his family joined him via Paris, thanks to the help of PIDE Adviser Daniel Thorner who was still in Dhaka. Based in Yale University, Professor Islam worked closely to promote the cause of Bangladesh’s independence with his academic friends who had deeper relationships with US policymakers.

He did not spare a moment once Bangladesh was liberated and returned to Bangladesh via India. He had reached Dhaka a few days earlier than the day when Bangabandhu returned to Bangladesh on January 10, 1972. By then he’d met Tajuddin Ahmed and his colleagues of the Mujibnagar Government. When Professor Islam met Bangabandhu very shortly after his return, he was offered the position of Deputy Chairman of Bangladesh Planning Commission which had to be built literally from scratch with strong support from Bangabandhu.

It was not an easy job at all. There were tensions all around. Yet he managed to navigate with considerable difficulty through the drifting currents and cross-currents of governance at a crucial juncture of our national life. His contribution in providing economic content to the fundamental state principles of the constitution and subsequently his strong leadership during preparation of the First Five Year Plan have been simply stunning.

Simultaneously, he participated deeply in laying the foundation of bilateral economic relations with India, which was based on great friendship between the Prime Ministers of the two neighboring countries and we are still benefitting from this mutual understanding. Most of his colleagues went back to their academic institutions after completing the task of preparing the First Five year Plan which provided farsighted guidelines for emerging economic policies.

By late 1974 the Commission lost most of its glamor and he too went to Oxford with a fellowship. There were frustrations among professionals due to strong opposition from the bureaucracy and a section of political elites. Bangabandhu understood this very well and wanted to make him an elected Planning Minister by persuading him to contest in the 1973 election. Professor Islam politely declined this offer and Bangabandhu accepted his refusal. But he had to promise Bangabandhu that he’d come back to join him in taking the country forward. However, destiny had decided otherwise as Bangabandhu was killed in mid-August next year.

He remained engaged in research at Oxford, and was looking for an opportunity to get an international assignment. Finally he got one. He was offered the position of Assistant Director General of FAO in 1977, thanks to his foreign friends who made strong recommendations to the Director General. However, this required the existing Bangladesh Government’s clearance which was not as easy since he was a very close adviser to Bangabandhu. But he was a very well-known professional and there was also this perception that a high position in the UN system might provide some leverages for the food aid to Bangladesh, which acted in his favor. He finally got the clearance from the Military Government of General Ziaur Rahman.

Again, he did very well as an ADG of FAO and left his professional footprints in the UN system. He also wrote about some interesting anecdotes about Saifur Rahman and a few others. Late Saifur Rahman was a close friend of Professor Islam from the early years of Bangladesh as Rahman worked as a consultant to the Planning Commission. As a Finance Minister he was in Rome to attend a program organized by the IFAD.

Suddenly, Mr Rahman left his hotel to stay at Professor Islam’s house to avoid Rashid, one of the killers of Bangabandhu who came from Libya to meet him. Despite the fact that Rashid was a relative of him from his wife’s side, Rahman left Rashid unattended and took refuge in the shelter of Professor Islam. Mr Rahman left for Bangladesh directly from Professor Islam’s flat, giving Rashid no chance to catch him. On the contrary, he was shocked to hear from Justice BA Siddique, Bangladesh’s Permanent Representative to the UN, about the better potential of Bangladesh’s economy if it were part of Pakistan. Professor Islam reminded his readers that this was the same person who once had refused to conduct the oath-taking ceremony of Tikka Khan as governor. Similar anecdote has been shared about Ambassador Kaiser Rashid. There are also passing shots about Professor Yunus and a few others.

Professor Islam’s observations about the role of expatriate Bangladeshis living in Washington in influencing the US policymakers about Bangladesh, as opposed to those from India or Pakistan, are indeed pertinent. Also, he finds the lack of serious interest among the educated middle class to obtain a deep understanding of the history of Bangladesh quite frustrating. He raises very challenging comments on the state of research and public discourse in the country which needs serious attention from both the professional community and leaders of thought and action. His comments on two ‘taboos’ i.e. the lack of critical discussion on religious issues and defense expenditures are, indeed, well taken.

What attracted me the most in reading this colorful story of Professor Islam’s journey of life is his candidness with which he attempted to narrate it. The concluding lines speak for themselves: “Thus, I might have appeared as arrogant without my realizing the impression that I created while, at the same time, I believed that I was quite polite and reasonable.

Therefore, I do have some regrets about the way I lived my life. Yet, there is no way to relive it.” (p. 275). I could not shed much light on his frank observations on his family as I was keener on focusing on his professional life. His regret for giving not much time to his wife and children for being always overwhelmed by professional excellence is very well taken. Many of us have been doing the same. If, at the least, we can take this lesson from him that we ought to balance our personal and professional lives, then this could be a great service to young professionals.

This book is highly recommended to all, especially to the younger generations who will get an insight into the social, economic and political landscapes and developments in the past decades of Bangladesh before and after independence, and also the transition from one period to the next. Uniquely, this book for the first time depicts the life and work of a Bangladeshi in a policy-making job at a UN Organization and his interactions with his country. He records many episodes bearing on his long career in relation to individuals as well as incidents which would be of considerable interest to the general readers as well as the specialists.



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