Halfway through an interview with the Planning Commission, Planning Minister MA Mannan is questioned about the logic behind the disproportionate number of projects being implemented at any given time.
He pauses, momentarily: “We are a nation in a hurry. We have wasted a lot of time. We have been colonized. We had nothing of ourselves – we started from almost zero. We have 160 million people screaming for a better life. “
But, he recognized that doing things in a hurry can lead to higher expenses.
“When you’re in a hurry, you waste a lot. You are spending more than you would have done if you had done it coldly. But I much prefer to do it in a hurry.
Because he sees procrastination as more damaging.
“A lost day can never be recovered. A taka lost today can be recovered by working twice later, but the time lost is gone forever.
This sums up Mannan as Minister of Planning: philosophical and yet pragmatic.
He is aware of the poor implementation of development projects and is somewhat resigned to the reasons behind it.
“Implementation is a long-standing problem. We are not as dedicated to work as a nation as the others. Our employees are shy at work – they are reluctant to show up for work on time after their leave, ”he told the Daily Star in a freewheeling conversation.
Even in the case of daily presence, they relax: they do not respect the universal 9-5 working schedule. They arrive at 11 a.m. and leave at 3 p.m. They find various excuses not to work, he told the Daily Star in an interview earlier this month.
“As a nation, we don’t take work as seriously, as responsibly as the Japanese, as the Germans, as the Western nations. It is a question of culture.
In addition, the country’s equipment is outdated, so thanks to depreciation, their productivity has declined. “We never had the foresight to upgrade our equipment like Western countries and Japan – it was always an afterthought for us.
Then there’s the issue of funds, said Mannan, who was previously minister of state for finance.
“We never get funding according to our plan. We start projects with great optimism about obtaining funds, but more often than not our hopes are dashed. I can plan whatever I want, but the reality is different.
When his attention was drawn to the fact that projects in Bangladesh end up costing more than other countries, ”he instantly questioned the cost of land.
Land in Bangladesh is much more expensive than in India and China, he said, adding that a third of the cost of the project is spent on land.
“Another reason is our habit. When the project is in progress, we realize that the plan needs to be changed. We’re revising it halfway, so the costs go up. “
Corruption and waste are also to blame.
“There is corruption all over the world, more or less. Corruption in our country was previously at a moderate level, but our values have changed over the years. “
Before, people felt embarrassed to fly.
“But now they don’t – they think it’s something normal,” he said, adding that the Awami League government headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has a zero tolerance policy. with regard to corruption.
He went on to cite the formation of the Anti-Corruption Commission, which was previously an office, and the Police Investigation Bureau and the amendment of various laws as examples.
“Yet there is corruption. Taking risks has become a habit of people. Seeing that only 2-3 are penalized out of 100, they think they will get away with it too, so they take risks. “
In absolute terms, corruption is less relative to the size of the economy, he believes. But the number of incidents has increased.
When asked about some of the free spending that takes place in the name of project implementation, he seems to have resigned himself to the long-standing habit of officials.
The format of the development project proposal, which has been prepared with input from foreign experts, is well presented and provides for a detailed breakdown of all costs.
“I get a breakdown, but when I start to scrutinize the form, they get impatient. They don’t give me time. And I don’t have the patience to go through them all either, so they’ve passed. Later we read in the newspaper that a pillow had been bought for 10,000 Tk. “
But these are classic problems and they happen everywhere.
“In England, MPs are pushing. In the United States, there is a term called pork barrel. Members of Congress are lobbying the federal government for grants to their constituencies. “
However, it is quite suitable for overseas travel in the name of collecting knowledge for engineers, doctors, microbiologists, economists as Bangladesh does not have the research level, for example, of the ‘Germany. The problem is when the training is for an engineer but an accountant leaves.
“It is impossible for me to keep an eye on the hundreds of civil servants spread across the country. We can’t keep tabs on everything. “
But for 70 to 80% of cases, the choice is good; the rest is a favor.
“We’re all human beings here – friends do this for each other. These are human failures – we cannot stop them.
He also has a philosophy on waste.
“What is my waste may be your gain. I am a citizen of Bangladesh and you are also a citizen of Bangladesh. When our outputs are added, they become part of Bangladesh’s GDP. If I lose a taka here, you win a taka there.
The net balance is the same.
“I am not justifying wrongdoing. Arithmetically, the two are identical. “
It is also not prepared to shift the responsibility onto the Implementation, Monitoring and Evaluation Division, which has been tasked with overseeing project issues.
“It’s not well equipped. The number of employees is too low – and it is absurd for them to do both supervision and control. “
And they are not trained for the job they are assigned to do. Thus, they go to the project sites as a team, leaving an official at the Dhaka office, and examine the work at the surface level.
“They can’t go any further,” he said, adding that empowering IMED is one of his two missions as minister of planning.
He plans to set up IMED offices in 8 divisions during this year and already has the PM’s approval in principle.
“If I survive here, or if the government has time, I would like us to go to the district level to sit and work there.
He then left the project managers to tear for their nonchalant attitude, which is why the implementation is always slow.
“They are the weakest link in the chain. They have the highest responsibility and they have the least commitment in most cases. They are the father of the project and they delegate the work to their number 2 or 3 and call from time to time to the project site. “
But, all megaprojects are one-off, except for the Padma Bridge, he said. Mannan’s other mission as planning minister would be to strengthen the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.
“I am working to increase its credibility,” he said, adding that he was considering setting up a statistics training and research institute.
The plan will be presented to the PM for approval in principle.
“People should be able to trust him. This is essential because we plan on this basis. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund are using our statistics now, which they had not done before. “
He also said that funding was not an issue for Bangladesh at this point.
“People come to my office every day to offer me easy loans because they have nowhere to spend. And they don’t get any return on deposits. In England, you don’t arouse any interest. Rather, they subtract money for service charges. “
But, it’s always good to spend your own money, he said.
“I’d rather spend my own money than accept so-called help. They have many conditionalities, which end up costing us dearly. So 4% interest is better than 1% if I have the freedom to spend the amount however I want. “
As Minister of Planning, Mannan hopes to improve the level and quality of implementation, reduce waste and fight corruption, which will improve Bangladesh’s inhospitable business climate.
“But above all, the projects that go through my machine would directly benefit the rural masses, the poorest part of our population.”