Innovation's 'ugly duckling': Resource-replete Bangladesh

| Updated: October 24, 2017 14:56:14

Innovation's 'ugly duckling': Resource-replete Bangladesh

It could not have gotten any worse. Out of 127 countries tabulated in this year's Globalisation Innovation Index (GII), Bangladesh was at the basement of all Asian countries in the 21st Century. Ranked 114th, Bangladesh was only ahead of 13 African countries. More depressingly, since the accompanying report reiterated "the growing need for advances in agriculture and food value chains," our historically predominantly farming country could neither stand nor deliver.

Two critical questions beg urgent attention: What is not working? How do we make the desperately needed change?

Before proceeding to address them, it is useful to recognise some of the other 2017 observations. The typical pattern of middle-income countries leading the charge (so as to enter the high-income bracket), is not happening outside of China (and even China's economic growth for 2017 thus far has begun hiccupping): investment and productivity growth are at 'historical lows', with R/D (research and development) growth actually lower than when the world came out of its Great Recession in 2011. Matters are so pathetic that in a neo-liberal age, the report earnestly yearns for greater governmental involvement, particularly "to provide funding mechanisms," given the current accent on farming "to stimulate innovation in agriculture and food production."

In fact, all five of its recommendations harp on this sector: (a) prevent market failure by supplying information along the entire food chain; (b) expand digital technology usages; (c) enhance entrepreneurship and venture capital; (d) transfer attitudes, such as from the information-and-communication-technology sector, to lubricate the innovative process; and (e) reform regulations, reduce bureaucratisation, and balance traditional and advanced farm technologies.

Clearly these are five areas where Bangladesh can make a start to answer the 'how' question. Given this year's monumental flooding and enormous food imports, surely pre-emptive initiatives can be taken, knowing how, especially with rice, we have registered noteworthy innovations in the past (for example, 72 high-yielding modern rice varieties have been developed in the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute at Comilla since 1970). Given the growing reaction against genetically modified food, our farmlands can still turn into laboratories where, with new technologies to expand production, breakthroughs are still very much possible. This is true not only for rice, but also wheat, sugar-cane, tea, a variety of fruits, and a string of fishes, including shrimps.

Another farm area of interest has manufacturing consequences: jute. Over the past few years, the slow and steady return to naturally produced fibres over synthetics has just given this fibre another lease of life. This time, with more technological assistance, new products or improved versions of prior outputs can still be targeted to not only activate so many idle jute mills, but to also harness the more technologically savvy citizens. Combining the fibre with some other environmentally-friendly equivalent of plastic opens a huge arena of massive export potential. It has been part of prior discussions on the future of jute: that future has arrived.

Given the huge governmental commitments to infrastructure-building, reactivating jute mills is unlikely to receive as much attention as it should. Yet, the vacuum can easily be filled in by the private sector, especially since the country's stunted investment sector could do with meaningful long-term stimulation: invoking domestic investors would be the clarion-call to inviting foreign investors; and particularly with Chinese and US investors hungrily searching for opportunities, a small Bangladesh gesture would reap large harvests.

In other words, we have the wherewithal to climb that GII ladder, and enough sweeteners in the cupboard to accelerate the start. Ultimately, it boils down to breaking the logjam that could continue to be our Achilles' heel: our instinct to imitate only gets sharper and invoked more frequently than that to innovate.

This is evident in all (and every) walks of life. For example, with the growth of educational institutions, we have an Oxford, Cambridge, Berkeley, and just about every prestigious global name being used here in Dhaka to identify them (though not necessarily with the same spelling as in the original), when a more unique name would indicate that at least we are thinking aloud and with originality to be able to generate something new, even if but a name. This is only an eye-opener to just about everything we do today, particularly as compared to 20-30 years ago: imitation might be intended to show the westernisation or upward-income mobility of a hitherto backward country, and therefore, consistent with our income-improvements, but it is killing the very thinking processes that innovate, explore, and, in short, compete. To move out of RMG and low-wage industries, we must return to the drawing-board for new names, processes, and products since trademark violation cases also get more stringent. Even before worrying about the lawyer, we need salespersons capable of finding new markets.

At its worst, stepping into classrooms we will find the rapid rise in copying everything: the mobile (cellular) makes it  easier to click a picture at any given time (from a book, blackboard, and so forth), while access to the Internet helps us download some version of any subject the instructor assigns the student to research. Unchecked, this resort to 'below the belt' tactics grows, and, over time, institutionalised as a habit. In the final analysis, if one person gets away with it and finds the rewards, lots of others will follow suit, and if that person does not, s/he will try some other approach.

All of these kill the innovative instinct. Granted, these bad habits are happening the world over. But not every country is ranked as abysmally low as we are; or has become a new middle-income country (the group that climbs the most), but a group in which we are locked without a game plan beyond rhetoric; or boasts having one of the top-40 economies of the world. Bangladesh does not have any other option but to battle this bug, just to find its way back to the right track before embarking on the recommendations the GII report makes. Particularly when we possess the potential, for example, the spiraling growth of educational institutions, to not actualise them would be a tragedy.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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