Are perceptions beating reality?

 Published in: The Daily Star on June 2, 2014
Are perceptions beating reality?

MUNCHING on a piece of dark chocolate while having coffee, a friend of mine enlightened me: “I hear very soon dark chocolate is going to be sold at the price of gold and by the way, gold prices are going down…” My jaw dropped in disbelief. But it is what it is. If that was what she wanted to believe, who was I to alter her reality. What counted most was her perception.
During a visit to Beijing, ten years back, I noticed the Chinese happily flying kites in Tiananmen Square. When I asked my Chinese friend why there was no sign of history there, she looked absolutely surprised about me having even known about the incident. So that was what mattered to the Chinese. Tiananmen was a chapter to be buried in the book of oblivion with a few lessons to be learnt. With tomorrow marking the 25th Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising, the new China under President Xi is poised to take off as a more decisive state, both geopolitically and economically. Perception is that the new China has no regrets about Tiananmen and it does not matter what the world thinks.
A few weeks back, The Economist was questioning how good would Modi be for India, and just a few weeks later how a Modi-fied India will take off with the slogan of ‘One God: GDP’ is being discussed in the same magazine. With one tight handshake with Nawaz Sharif, the entire global perception of regional hostility has been minimised, irrespective of Modi having chosen former Intelligence Bureau Chief Ajit Kumar Doval, a traditionally anti-Pak operational brain, as the national security advisor. Such is the power of perception.
We go by perceptions in Bangladesh as well. We indulge in smaller sampling size and concentrate on perceptions and form reports. We also handpick months and phases and report growth. What we don’t take into account is forecasts and the medium and long-term challenges an exporting nation faces. While one learns that for four consecutive months, growth of export earnings has been declining and that the export growth was 3.9% during Jan-March of FY 2014 against 16.6% during July-December 2013, and growth of export earnings from RMG  products sharply dipped to 6.8 % (The Daily Star, May 29), one also learns from BGMEA, that during the first 10 months of the FY2013-14 (July-April), the actual export performance was $19.97 billion with an actual growth of 15.39%. At the same time, according to Bangladesh Bank data, exports in Bangladesh decreased to Tk. 177.84 billion in March of 2014 from Tk. 180.06 billion in February 2014. Now are we monitoring perceptions or reality? Are we monitoring based on current reality or shall we rather look at a ten-month period of peaks and lows finally averaging at a positive percentage? I guess the best answer should be that we should do what suits us the most. And reporting positive export growth boosts our self-confidence and eases us all into a lullaby land where we can happily think that Bangladesh is an indispensable supply source for apparel. Forever.
Truth is, we are living in a separate world where much of what we learnt is being looked at differently. Bangladesh’s RMG industry has to wake up to newer realities where we have to take into consideration the consequences of the take-make-waste linear economy and make the case for a more circular economy. We have to understand that the concept of ecology of the supply chain is being discussed worldwide. We also have to take advantage of the tremendous business opportunities if we can sincerely understand where global concerns are stemming from. And then there is digitalisation and internet to think of. There are more and more sensors in products and processes which are collecting data on thousands of parameters that the world wants to monitor, control, automate and finally eliminate many routine and non-routine functions. We will also have to increasingly work in networks with real time data that will require new skills of coordination, communication and customisation.
Calculating export growth based on convenient phases may help temporarily but we also have to realise that there is an acute gap between our current manufacturing base which only focuses on current production and has less idea on where the world is headed for. We are living in a world where 3D printing is bringing ideas to life. For example, 3-D printing is already printing everything from houses to shoes and shirts. The generation of consumers that has grown up personalising their consumption on their smart phone will inevitably want to do the same to clothes. Order volumes will get smaller, styles will change more frequently, product life-cycles will shorten, materials will change and supply chains will shortened. Workers will have to be more adaptable, multi-skilled, digitally literate and innovative. Problem solving and decision-making will be a standard part of their jobs. Manufacturing and services will merge as makers responding to consumer needs in a seamless supply chain. In brief, manufacturers in no time will only be supporting sustainable consumptions instead of merely sustainable manufacturing.
This is where I sense a huge gap between our perceptions and the one that is being framed worldwide about Bangladesh. The world may not have many countries to source their competitive products from right now, but many sourcing destinations are being encouraged to develop to suit a hassle-free importing process. The EU and the US may just be looking at compliance and the bare minimum good practices, but in no time the gap between how we perceive growth will vary from how the rest of the world views it. With UK calculating sex and drugs into their GDP calculation this minute, one could also wonder if standards all over the globe are changing and if nations should just set their own targets and paint their own growth pictures best suited to their individual images. Perhaps then is it best to ‘market’ us as per our own requirement? Only then we would be able to visualise our manufacturing and supply base as indispensably infinite and sustainable. Otherwise, tough times are ahead and our concept of ‘growth’ continuing ‘forever’ will soon be ruthlessly slashed by realists, who are already looking at a few markets beyond simply South Asia.

The writer is Managing Director, Mohammadi Group.

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