The worthy, wealthy, invincible Swiss Clubbers of Bangladesh

 Published in: The Daily Star on June 23, 2014
The worthy, wealthy, invincible Swiss Clubbers of Bangladesh

There’s just too much money in town … too many parties, too much comfort, too many new entrants to the Swiss Club of Bangladesh. The fact that Bangladeshis deposited 373 million to Swiss Bank accounts while money from across the world declined and stood at a record low of 1.32 trillion Swiss francs at the end of 2013 speaks volumes of our development pattern. Who says we haven’t progressed? Who says we haven’t come a long way in 43 years? Truth is, in 43 years, we have perhaps become hungrier, greedier than many other countries across the globe and just perhaps, we have compromised our identities and have become blind to who we once were.
A year ago, when I asked my son to define a successful businessman in Bangladesh, he responded by saying that if a businessman did not have loans more than 500 crore he or she did not matter. A year later, post-Swiss revelation, when I asked him the same question again, he said that anyone having a loan less than 2000 crore did not matter. Needless to say, the perception of wealth and success has achieved a new high in the last twelve months. True, post Hallmark, life has been difficult for many general businesses. Banks have increased their due diligence and have tightened their homework on lending. Borrowers, because of multiple uncertainties, have also shied away from credit. But this is all applicable to the very-general-business-people whereas the very-special-business-people go on with what they have, multiplying their wealth many-folds by flirting with rules, policy and law. Neither does this practice stop with any government and nor does it ever seem likely to ever cease. New manipulators pop up every five years and join the bandwagon and become new pipers of new wealth. Where do the ones on the base and the sub-base level stand? Guess what happens to them…they become like chilies grounding down a little with every year. Is this justice?
Point is, why are the base ones missing out on their share of national wealth? What is it that makes the rich invulnerable and invincible? A debate on minimum wages rocked Bangladesh last year and wages went up by 77%. It took a Rana Plaza collapse to push the wage debate. What then happens worldwide? Back in August 2012, South African police killed 34 miners who were protesting low wages in Marikana Platinum Mine. They had demanded their wages to be raised from 500 euros to 1000. At the end of it all, and at the cost of those 34 lives, their wages were increased by a bare minimum of 75 euros, which brought the cost of the lives of the dead to 2.21 euros.
In reality, income disparity is nothing new and is also a global issue. This brings us to a crucial point: Distribution of wealth is a political reality and not just an economic one. According to a report from Forbes, from 1987-1995, the Japanese dominated the Forbes list; from 1995-2009, Americans had the honour of topping it and ever since 2010, Mexicans seem to be doing a better job than the rest. While there were 40 billionaires in 1987, there were 1,400 in 2013. While there were 5 billionaires out of 100 million adults in 1987, there were 30 per 100 million in 2013. While there was 0.4% of global private wealth in 1987, it was more than 1.5% in 2013. The wealthiest 0.1% of people on the planet, or rather some 4.5 million people out of 4.5 billion, possess 10 million euros on an average. Where does this wealth come from? Does it consist of hard earned fortune of people like Bill Gates whose wealth increased from $4 billion to $50 billion in 10 years or is it mostly wealth belonging to L’oreal heiresses like Lilian Bettencourt whose personal wealth shot from 2 billion to 25 billion in 10 years without having to work even for one day in her life?
In December 2013, Washington-based Global Financial Integrity (GFI) published a report titled “ Illicit Financial Flows from Developing Countries: 2002-2011” which had a heat map displaying the average illicit financial flows for developing countries between 2002-2011, and there were many shades of colours that were chosen to code the status of the illegal outflow. The deepest colour was red indicating the depth of the outflows, and guess what? Bangladesh shared the deepest red with a few countries like China, Russia, etc.
In October, 2013 the Swiss government expressed an interest to sign an international agreement for conducting Swiss Bank account as per policies of the other banks subject to the approval of the Swiss Parliament. One can only hope that the government of Bangladesh will also take necessary measures to track these accounts and share the findings with the rest of the country. This is a unique opportunity for the honourable prime minister to tell the people that none is indeed above the law. After all, when my Honufa bua is struggling against wealthy land grabbers to keep her one katha of land in Badda, we can’t surely be resting on our piles of billions and sleeping with ease.
As a nation, we must be living in Pere Goriot’s times where each one of us has a bit of Rastignac in us, dreaming to climb up the ladder by any means, even at the cost of trampling whoever we spot on our route. We must be a nation which is today blinded by an illusion of a wealthy society where none but our own comfort bubbles matter, where nothing really is real but our own families, our own homes and our own lives, where national growth is less than our own private returns on our private properties, where inherited wealth is way above national output and income, where national accounting is just a political construct and not a social one.
Point is … as a nation, how long can we afford to be vaccinated for life against Justice?

The writer is Managing Director, Mohammadi Group.

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