The Financial Express

Bangladesh: 'Weak power' climate-change leader

| Updated: October 24, 2017 19:30:03

Bangladesh: 'Weak power' climate-change leader

Alice Baillat, who coined both highlighted title terms in her doctoral dissertation in Paris's Sciences Po (Institute of Political Science, a university), believes Bangladesh's climate-change leadership exposes two features of broader relevance: the idea of 'first-mover advantage' that Bangladesh employed in battling adversities; and how this permitted a 'weak' country to "transform its vulnerability into comparative advantage" ("From basket case to test case: Bangladesh as 'weak power' climate leader," NewSecurityBeat, August 03, 2017; and also see the Ph.D. thesis, "Weak power in action: Bangladesh climate diplomacy.").


In tracing Bangladesh's progress from a 'basket-case' to a 'test-case' of development (see Financial Express, August 22, 2017, 'Scopus' article), one might recall Wolfgang-Peter Zingel positing how Bangladesh's odds-on success pitted it favourably to tackle the toughest challenge of them all, climate change. Baillat, too, walks that same pathway to propose how the once-impoverished country's 'Southern expertise' could convert it into an unbeknownst global leader. She notes how (a) the country, along with Mauritania, was the first to submit its National Adaptation Programme (in 2005) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFPCCC); (b) Bangladesh's oft-repeated vulnerabilities have combined to crown the country with a global 'moral leadership' accolade; and (c) adding both of the above to the country's 'first-mover advantage' of greater global visibility and authority, Bangladesh is well poised "to put pressure on industrialised countries to consider [its] special needs and vulnerabilities and to legitimise [its] claims for finance and technological transfers."


Coalition-building must be the mainstay of such a 'weak power'. Baillat notes how Bangladesh's initiatives in forming the LDC (less developed country) Group and Climate Vulnerable Forum (helped no less by the Small Island Developing States?SIDS), culminated in the 1.5 centigrade 'safe threshold' target that the COP21 Paris Agreement adopted. Because of the size and nature of its vulnerabilities, Bangladesh has itself become the world's best test-case of surviving climate change by century's end. If this densely populated country, whose population would be over 200 million by then, can hold back rising ocean levels, global gains would be immense, the ecological battle could shift from defensive restoration targets to creating offensive pre-emptive measures. It would encourage in no small way the 'if Bangladesh-can-do-it, we-can-do-it-better' mindset. If climate change actually becomes the battle cry of the century, as it portends to be (and should become), by virtue of its 'weak power' status, Bangladesh has what it takes to build and wield soft power globally.


That unfinished test will last long. Among the tasks would be crossing the MDG (Millennial Development Goals) and SDG (Sustainable Developmental Goals) thresholds. Although some of their targets do not directly address climate change, just by sheer numbers they collectively constitute a second line of defence against climate-change threats. If defensive approaches yield to offensive onslaughts, then that second line could prove pivotal. Growing weather vagaries during 2017 may already be hastening that outcome. Gender, literacy, even education, among other MDG/SDG goals, cannot but be thoroughly immersed in any climate-change threat-reversal campaign. We have first-hand knowledge of that.


Against the worst flooding in recent memory, Bangladesh has not thus far faced any commensurate-level disaster during the 2017 monsoon season. More than a quarter-century ago, disaster was so inevitable that it became our middle name. Not just that, the way all villagers, officials, and relevant relief personnel have built up a repertoire of 'first-mover advantage' exemplifications could also serve as a model to upper riparian India and Nepal, which had not been as abysmally tagged, as Bangladesh used to be, as a lost hope (or gone case). Since every input has helped build soft power capabilities, Baillat's 'weak power' identification creates a platform that provides a viable alternative to the hegemony of military power in determining the planet's fortunes.


These do not represent the first time Bangladesh has caught the imagination of the world. Again, had it not been the width and depth of our poverty following the country's birth, microcredit innovation and dissemination might not have become as associated with the country's name as with others. Both Fazle Hasan Abed and Mohammad Yunus made a big name on the world stage. The former was knighted for his work, ranging from resettling returning refugees in 1972 to stemming poverty, then creating what became the world's largest non-governmental organisation, BRAC (based on local needs, the nomenclature shifted sequentially: from Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee to Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, thence Building Resources Across Communities). The latter won the 2006 Nobel  Peace Prize (among other noteworthy awards) for extending credit to the country's rural masses though Grameen Bank from 1983, thus opening upward-mobility passages for the very poor to take. Both energised the rural grassroots in unimaginable ways, unwittingly constructing and strengthening that second line of counter-adversity defence. How both these streams liberated women set the stage for the country's ready-made garment (RMG) industry to blossom globally upon a low-wage women workforce.


Both streams will no doubt continue into the climate-change crusade, although we must be careful not to think we are fully out of the woods. Poverty remains as stubborn as ever, irrespective of its diminishing size; and the forces preying upon us have hardly eased, let alone ceased.


Apprehension, under these circumstances, could also creep up from complacency, both in the trenches and headquarters. With displaced people in the trenches packing into cities, two new problem-sources may be emerging. First, the diminishing number of first-line defenders left to hold the proverbial fortresses against natural calamities across the countryside poses a long-term threat should mass urban-migration continue: the 'first-mover advantage' scope diminishes with this out-migration. Second, since hitherto the attention focused on building a rural paradigm against natural calamities, creating a similar bailout mindset and infrastructure for unplanned cities opens a Pandora's box of new and unknown challenges.


Addressing these must be intimately connected with the campaign towards the middle-income ladder climb: how to galvanize the infrastructure-building imperative, but to recalibrate along more 'green' lines; what to do to not neglect the country's corners and crevices when designing and implementing big-picture projects; and why to not ever forget that the dot that Bangladesh represents on the world map is the very reason why both out trials/tribulations and rewards/royalties may be too intertwined with the rest of the planet to think individualistically.


Just as the country's weaknesses have historically demanded external support, a leadership role reverses the flow of that imperative by paving the way and providing the model for other countries to follow and adopt. Alice Baillat's observations/expectations only elevate the need to put our thinking-cap back on, and reaffirm that the climate-change gravity is as potentially deep and damaging as any we have faced before. Though our cards have been played reasonably well thus far, it is helpful to keep in mind the game has only just begun.


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


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