An open letter for public leadership

Joanna Lovatt

For there to be any kind of lasting, systemic change, leadership must belong to your people

Dear Bangladesh,

When I first landed on your soil from Scotland, only six months ago, it was January 3. Dhaka was in a hartal chokehold, and although I could sense the muted frustration of my Bengali friends, they were resigned to the state of affairs. Mostly, they feared that the deadlock would halt your progress, and stunt your economic growth.

Despite the critical situation, I was confused by what I initially perceived to be complacency amongst my friends and colleagues. I soon realised, however, that there was little they could do. Although 507 people were killed in the political violence of 2013, life had to go on, and so it did.

Times are more peaceful now, but the cynicism remains – about the traffic, the health system, and the brain drain – just to name a few. It chips relentlessly against the spirits of those around me. In a country where 47 million people live below the poverty line, the scope of the problem is clearly immense.

International aid is being used to build bigger hospitals, to sponsor revolutionary agricultural programs, and to inject your intellectual borders with foreign experts and professionals. There is no doubt that you are now at the cutting edge of global development research, but, if we really want to shift the status quo, these efforts feel inadequate.

The first thing I learned when I started working with Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center, an educational leadership institution, is the difference between technical and adaptive approaches to challenges. If you want to address illiteracy, you don’t just build a library, you also ask what is preventing children from learning to read. When 33.3% of adults, and 21.3% of your youth are illiterate, the situation warrants more than mere bricks and mortar.

In reality, governmental bodies have a limited capacity to address problems like this, and at a certain point, someone else must step up and account for the shortfall. The adaptive response to this would be to tackle the root cause. What is the root cause of the traffic? What is the main reason behind the poor public health system? Why is there an exodus of your most talented citizens? And for those that stay, why are they choosing the private sector?

I can answer my first two questions with the last two, and the answers to those are obvious – money, security, and safety. Everyone has the right to desire these things, because, after all, life must go on.

The irony is that I encounter the entrepreneurial spirit and strong sense of national and civic duty of your youth every day, but the best and brightest have a habituated aversion to the civil service. I can’t blame them – selection is based only 45% on merit, with the remaining 55% being decided by a narrow and elitist quota system, and it is no secret that rampant corruption, inefficient bureaucracy, and a lack of transparency and accountability plague your public institutions.

Inevitably – and especially in this context – young people will care about their careers first, and their country second, and entering the private sector seems like the practical and smart thing to do (at the end of the day, they might say, there’s always philanthropy). I’m not saying that they’re wrong to do this, but it becomes a problem when the perceptual connection between authority and leadership prevents change on the ground level. The mayor should widen the roads, they might say, while riding alone in their car to work.

Everyone is so aware of the problem, but what is the point of understanding it if no one’s taking any action? Where is the value in education without application? The youth’s perception of public service is not wrong, but it acts like a reinforcing loop – in their minds, leadership belongs to authority, but those who are in positions of authority are rarely in the position to exercise effective leadership.

For there to be any kind of lasting, systemic change, leadership must belong to your people, not be confined to your institutions. Adaptive change is limited without the participation of active citizens in the change process. Building a library won’t help a child learn to read, if he must beg on the streets to save his ailing mother.

This generation already knows why they should engage in public leadership – you are ranked 137 out of 177 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception – and there are plenty of educational institutions in place that can surely teach them how. But the most crucial task that lies ahead is to inspire them to want to. Life will go on, but does status quo need to stay the same?

Source: Dhaka Tribune

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