Bangladesh’s heavy dependence on foreign aid in those early years made us vulnerable to pressure from aid donors. This was particularly uncomfortable for those of us in the Commission who had for many years criticised the hegemonic influence of the USA and the World Bank in the politics and policy agendas of the Pakistan state through the 1960s.
In the immediate aftermath of liberation, we discovered that Tajuddin Ahmad was even more strongly inimical to restoring any form of aid dependence on the USA and the World Bank.
When Bangladesh was liberated on 16 December 1971, the World Bank had every expectation of capitalising on the positive position it assumed during the war and hoped to establish ready access to the political leadership and decision-makers in Bangladesh. In early February 1972, Nurul Islam received a message from Cargill that the Bank president, Robert McNamara, was keen to use his official visit to India to visit Bangladesh. He offered to fly from Kolkata to Dhaka by helicopter to discuss the Bank’s possible contribution to reconstructing the war-devastated economy.
The mood in post-liberation Bangladesh was, however, far from receptive to the imperial benevolence of the World Bank.
The political mood at that stage was highly nationalistic and animated by suspicion towards the USA. The Bank’s president was regarded as a card-carrying member of the Washington power elite even though he was no longer serving the government.
Furthermore, the Bank had as yet not formally recognised the sovereignty of Bangladesh by accepting us as a member. There was some suggestion led by Tajuddin Ahmad, who was then minister of finance and planning and was particularly hostile to any idea of restoring Western influence over Bangladesh, that we have nothing to do with the Bank or the USA. Bangabandhu, however, took the position that this would be a gratuitous discourtesy but that no great event should be made of McNamara’s visit.
The one day spent by Robert B McNamara in war-devastated Bangladesh must rank as one of the more uncomfortable events of his distinguished career.
He, the president of one of the most powerful international institutions in the world, was coming personally to this destitute, war-shattered country as an angel of mercy anxious to put Bangladesh under the Bank’s bounty. He expected the overwhelmed government to lay down a red carpet for him and his Bank.
In their long-standing relations with Pakistan, Cargill as vice-president of the Bank had always been received on arrival by none other than the deputy chairman of the Commission and was royally feted by him. The Bank, at the least, expected similar treatment by Nurul. Cargill hoped to renew relations with me on as cordial terms as when he had hosted me at the Royal Monceau hotel in Paris in 1971. Sadly for the Bank, we were both advised to avoid any direct contact with the Bank.
The main message to the Bank president was that Bangladesh would appreciate assistance, but first demanded sovereign recognition from them and was not overwhelmed with the need to establish the Bank’s presence in Bangladesh.
Whilst the encounter was a major blow to McNamara’s ego and reflected poorly on the public relations skills of the new regime, it certainly conveyed to the Bank the political mood in Bangladesh and the awareness that Bangladesh at that stage was unwilling to open itself up as a pasture to donor influence.
In this world, I found no socialists and my idealistic attempts to invoke notions of socialist fraternity in negotiating terms were contemptuously disregarded. We should have learnt from our experience, as we are learning today in our dealings with the Chinese version of socialism, that socialism as we understood it was largely a product of the romantic imagination of the Third World and Western intellectuals of a Left-wing persuasion.
It was virtually impossible on visits to socialist countries to find anyone, apart from leaders of the Communist Party, who was at all inclined to discuss the issue of socialism as it applied to their country or as a general concept. The disintegration of socialism in Europe did not come as a great surprise to me though the speed and totality of the process were beyond my imagination.
I imagine that quite a few of the officials who I negotiated with evolved into private entrepreneurs who appropriated control over the very public sector enterprises which were engaged in delivering projects, often of indifferent quality, to Bangladesh.
In Dhaka, we had already noted how some officials from the economic sections of the various embassies from the socialist countries were making private business deals with Bangladeshi middlemen, usually with political connections, and accumulating small fortunes before they returned home. We noted that some of the principal suppliers to stores in Gulshan of duty-free canned provisions, stores and under-the-counter alcoholic drinks originated from the staff of these embassies.
In those early days, those on the Left entertained the belief that because the West had colonised us and was the principal hegemonic force in the world, they must be challenged at all points. The corresponding notion that openings to the socialist world would provide us with compensatory benefits was founded on our imperfect reading of literature. It was only when we came to do business with them that we learnt of the gap between the imagined and the real world in these countries.
Excerpted with permission from Untranquil Recollections: Nation-Building in Post Liberation Bangladesh, Rehman Sobhan, Sage India.