Brand-building is not new; but never before has it become so much of an imperative as it has in the 21st Century. From pyramids to statues to favourable inscriptions or publications, pharaohs and emperors, tyrants and tycoons, as well as philosophers and politicians have always yearned to leave some long-lasting image of themselves (or others) as soon as they walked out of the proverbial jungle: representing beauty, rebirth, or just a new beginning, Greek mythology epitomised this drive's prototype in Narcissus, as much for the self as for beholders. Progressive human civilisation has created an incrementally competitive field out of that yearning, be it at the peak social echelons or the plebian, motivated by that same self-enhancing instinct, so long the image depicted delivers an enhancing version. As more 'emerging' countries simultaneously line the global firmament today than ever before, and within each a booming pool of emergent youthful shakers and makers, the Internet-driven, technologically savvier and selfie-craving 21st Century citizen takes brand-building to a wholly new level.
Blending Bangladesh's predicament at this juncture of its existence into this repertoire may be one fitting idea. As another New Year dawns, the country yearns to wake up looking more middle-class than ever before. Becoming so necessitates substituting well-established trademarks. Wittingly and not, we have built quite a few of them, in addition to others imposed upon us from our very 1971 birth.
For example, when we probe into whatever the typical 'Bangladesh' image conjures in the informed person's mind today, some or all of the following invariably becomes a part of the framework: ready-made garments (RMG), with all that it means, from embarrassing low-wage women working tirelessly and sleeplessly to stylish haute-couture spin-offs; micro-finance, less for the methodology or instrument that the term entails than the symbol of elevating the proverbial 'huddled masses' out of poverty in farmlands or cottage or small/medium enterprises; floods and the mixed images of both disruption creating a healthier version of those 'huddled masses' and greenery abounding, particularly the smiling tea-pickers protruding from an ocean of lush leaves; metropolitan congestion that would make sardines pale by comparison in the packing industry; or even the ostentatious lifestyles of our spiralling millionaires embedded against shanty-towns, slums, and other poverty-related types of sufferance.
A future historian might dub this a transformative society, shedding its impoverished skin. That would be a fairer interpretation than what historian made of a 1971 image: skeletal freedom-fighters carrying a disproportionately bulkier rifle; George Harrison's cover picture from an album he dedicated to this country; a resource-less society; helplessness; even hopelessness.
Of course, none of the above will do for a middle-income country image. As the new year begins, we must return to the drawing board and decide how we will brand ourselves to that competitive world as to avoid being begrudged by future generations. Acknowledging the luxury of getting this opportunity is a start: in 1971 we did not have access to as many drawing boards as we do now, at least there were not many, if any, buyers in the image market; instead, the image drawn by others, like George Harrison, defined us. It may just be time to step out of the fabled box boldly.
What do we want our future generations, even ourselves, to remember the country by? Middle-income dreams serve only as starters. Included would be a positive bank balance, informing we are capable of looking after our daily square meals, decent education, ample healthcare, a roof over - not just above - our head but in a well-decked abode, and some form of transportation media helping us travel to wherever our mind wanders within the community. They extend from attaining economic self-sufficiency (the hallmark definition of a middle-class), to forging politically comfortable zones within dependently elected representatives depicting neither fear nor favour, yet actually performing more of their duties than not, and living within respectable rules effectively and efficaciously rather than through cronyism, nepotism, and politically peddling means. In turn, these must be professionally, and not politically, administered, not just on the streets and in public spaces, but also across workplaces, in reward distribution, collective celebrations, and even private homes, if needed.
Outside that fabled box, the RMG trademark would have to be replaced, perhaps by a more tech-savvy counterpart as a more educated job-pool would demand an income-escalator and skill-acquisition opportunities. So too must the 'huddled masses' image be replaced by hotel-lined beaches and sun-bathers, congested avenues by rapidly-flowing mass transit along tree-dotted promenades, slums and shanty-towns by brick-built living quarters, and rules-defying pedestrians, policemen, and politicians by law-abiding and penalty-fearing citizens.
Materialising those middle-income images could not have come at a more opportune moment. Not only does 2018 lead to an election year, which can be so instrumental in shaping brands and making trademarks, but it is also a year when we can demonstrate how our commensurate capacities could easily branch out in multiple directions. These include: (a) the dignity with which we treat the almost million ravaged Rohingya refugees, thereby exposing our more polished diplomatic machinery, given the power-play associated with the influxes that it will be up against; (b) not just living up to the RMG reform-seeking Accord/Alliance terms, but actually going beyond, since by 2021 we must not only export $50 billion from this sector, but also climb on to an alternate services-based production thresholds and arenas; (c) standing out in treating minorities with the same mainstream respect and opportunities in a South Asia that is beginning to disturbingly falter along these very lines; (d) fulfilling every agreement we have signed up for, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and COP-21: not only that, but also stepping up as a leader in the process, given our Ground Zero climate-change disposition; and (e) opening those future windows that our potentially frontier-scraping youths must grapple with to create that Digitalised Bangladesh we currently seek, then to utilise that platform to influence the image-building tasks their own youths will replace their own hand-me-downs-with over time.
There is less grandiosity in this approach than in those that typically accompany a new year: they are feasible, doable, and, most of all, increasingly and urgently needed for the adolescent country on the threshold of its adulthood. All of them will be real if we can cross the most crucial step of a peaceful power transfer. We hope we have matured from paying the heavy costs of 'oborrodhs' and hartals after the last election, especially as we plunge into infrastructure-building projects to position the nuts and bolts of a middle-income society. Others will build our brands for us, as in 1971, if we stop to blink at the crossroads now. However, what we can extract as propellers from 1971 may be two of the very principles the country fought to institutionalise them: democracy and secularity. They are proven ingredients of globalising successful images, socialising commensurate values, incentivising brand-builders, and detoxifying both naysayers and a huge population constantly living at the edge of their gloom and pessimism. Any rendezvous with destiny must begin with them.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.