Development and its discursive dimension in Bangladesh: The storied versus the substantive

The discursive predisposition may have to do more with the politics of development leadership than development itself, the former residing in the ivory tower and communicating only virtually with the masses. In our research on language and development, we have called for critical and ethical reading of development testimonials to ensure that discursive development does not leave material development and its holistic conception behind.

The “miraculous” development achieved by Bangladesh in the past decade or so has attracted the attention of many, both at home and abroad. As a language academic and considering my research on language and development, I feel encouraged to write about development of Bangladesh and its political economy from a linguistic perspective. I believe that while in recent times Bangladesh has achieved significant development at the substantive level, the current government has also successfully promoted what can be called “a discursive turn” in development. Indeed, this discursive dimension of development seems to have emerged as a significant feature of political discourse in the country.

Discursive and the “discursive turn”

So, what do I mean by “discursive” and “discursive turn’”? The word “discursive” is the adjective of the noun “discourse”. Discourse is one of those keywords that are prevalent across disciplines but are difficult to explain in a few words. At the risk of simplifying, discourse refers to the institutional practice of constructing knowledge or truth about a subject of interest. It also refers to the knowledge that is constructed by such practices. Thus, discourse indicates both processes and products. We may consider the discourses of feminism, democracy, English, political Islam, development, COVID-19, and so on as examples. Discourses about a particular subject are constructed by authorities from different locations using different media and textual resources. Importantly, discourses are always work in progress; we can’t say that we have known everything about a particular subject, or that there is nothing more to be learned.

“Discursive” refers to the practice of truth construction. Discursive practices are mainly language practices, although other resources such as art, painting, photography, audio, and video can also be used for constructing truths. For example, we mainly rely on language for writing history (which is a discourse about the past) but establishing a museum or installing the statue of a public figure may also be a way of constructing historical knowledge. So, discursive literally means languaging—or constructing meanings about our subject of interest using language.

The mention of discursive implies its counterpart, the nondiscursive—that is, the material or substantive. For example, when we talk about the discourse on Muslims, we refer to all knowledge that has been constructed about Muslims. This linguistic/discursive truth about Muslims may or may not fully correspond to who Muslims really are, and how they live their lives, etc. In other words, Muslims may have existence outside our language or discursive construction. Similarly, there may be no clear alignment between the economic development that we talk about (discursive sense) and the economic development that may or may not be out there (material sense). Of course, not everything can be said to have material existence outside language. Some scholars argue that in real sense what we call “national languages” do not exist; these languages are nationalist projects and have been produced through discursive practices.

Apparently, a key issue in discourse is the question of the correspondence between the constructed truth (discursive) about a subject and its truth in the real world (material). We often hear about biases of the media in representing particular subjects. For example, several media researchers have argued, with some justification, that discussions on Islam and Muslims especially in the West tend to reveal negative representations. What is implied here is that, there is a gap between the discursive and the material (or ontological). Similarly, it is often suggested that the self that we construct in social media may not be the exact representation of our actual self—the person that we really are in real life.

Finally, the word “turn” in “discursive turn” refers to a shift or change in direction. It is often called a “paradigm shift” that indicates significant changes in theoretical and methodological priorities due to new developments at various levels. My focus is on the turn towards the discursive in relation to development in Bangladesh and its implications.

The discursive turn in development in Bangladesh

In the light of the above discussion, when I suggest a discursive turn in development, I refer to a period when Bangladesh did not just accomplish development meaning economic and social progress, but also made development an agenda of discourse in the public domain —in other words, languaging, communicating and celebrating development, which has become a key feature of public debates these days. Talking development is also a way of bringing development into being.

The discursive turn might have been initiated in the second half of the 2000s by the so-called caretaker government, which shouldered upon itself the mission of deep-cleaning politics and getting rid of all political viruses, for development. However, the turn was fully accomplished by the subsequent government, which can take all credit. The discursive turn can be seen as part of the doctrine of “the democracy of development”, which is generally understood as “less democracy and more development”.

Signs of the discursive turn were evident in many areas and activities from the beginning of the second decade of the current century. However, I became convinced of the turn in January 2017 when I had an opportunity to visit what is called unnayan mela (development fair) in Bogra, a district in the northern part of Bangladesh. I was impressed by the innovative event which went for several nights. At the fair, different departments of the government and other entities presented themselves in interesting ways, using digital and artefactual resources to highlight their development activities. It was a way of celebrating, making and claiming development, and bringing developing into being. Indeed, I later found out that the aim of the development fair was to inform people of development in the country and to make them part of the development bandwagon. The fair was organised in all 64 districts and I had a chance to visit the one in Rangpur as well. It has become an annual event since then using different names, although there has been recent disruption due to the pandemic.

As customary for any discursive formation, the discursive turn in development was advanced by many sources and authorities with many forms of their contribution, locally, regionally and globally. The government authorities have left no stone unturned to highlight the level of development achieved in various sectors. Many development stories have also been woven around the change in the development status of the nation—from low-income/underdeveloped to developing/middle-income. However, this kind of development talk is probably too esoteric. Therefore, lately more popular strategies have been adopted, leading to comparing Bangladesh to more developed economies such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Canada. Government officials, who in the past were required to play a passive role in canvassing government programmes, a role reserved for the government of the day mainly, have been invited to contribute to the development discourse. The public communication wing of every department has been empowered to perform the show-and-tell of development. Government offices and their websites are used to exhibit data and promote stories of development.

The new digital technology has provided an unprecedented enabling condition for discoursing development. The much talked-about Digital Bangladesh project has worked at material and discursive level at the same time. Social media such as Facebook have also been maximally utilised for discoursing self and development by government officials at all levels. Officials sharing their image of taking COVID-19 vaccines on the Facebook can be considered an iconic case of self- and development-discourse at the individual level.

The friendly media across the board have also played their due role in the development discourse formation by producing, reproducing, telling and re-telling stories of development. There are some counter-discourses but in comparison to the more dominant discourses, these are negligible.

The discursive turn has also been supported by neighbours in the region. While one such neighbour expressed their apprehension in the beginning of the century when Bangladesh, as per their discourse, was going to be the next Afghanistan, their discourses in recent times have focused on the rise of Bangladesh as a “development miracle”. Even a country that is conventionally not known to be Bangladesh’s friend bought Bangladeshi discourses of development and reproduced those discourses in their public domain. In a recent specially organised visit to Bangladesh, several South Asian leaders expressed their desire to be the students of development, catapulting Bangladesh into the position of development guru of a sort.

Development meaning economic, social and political advancement of societies is a legitimate aspiration of all nations, communities and individuals. It is also the key agenda of all regimes – democratic, authoritarian, capitalist, communist etc. Notably, it was the rationale for colonial rules. Indeed, the European colonisers justified their invasion and occupation of other countries on the grounds of development—that these countries were underdeveloped, deserving intervention from outside. When the colonisers left, they did not leave entirely. They re-connected with their former colonies through “development aid” to help and guide so these countries could be like them, developed and modern, following their footsteps. Thanks to the initiatives of the United Nations, the concept of development has since been broadened through the promotion of ideas such as human development, Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals.

In the 21st century, pursuit of development (material) inevitably accompanies languaging development, as there are limitless opportunities for storying development. One consequence of this is that the gap between the discursive and the material seems to be widening. The storied development is often found to leave the substantive development behind, especially its conceptualisation in a more holistic manner that stresses a balance between economic growth with social justice and environmental sustainability. The harrowing gap between the discursive and the substantive in development has been revealed rather starkly by the recent COVID-19 crisis in India, challenging Modi’s recent euphoric development narratives. We also know from age-old local idioms that the material possessions of discourse-makers do not have to have material existence; it may exist in the paper only (Kazir goru kagoje achhe, goale nai).

The discursive predisposition may have to do more with the politics of development leadership than development itself, the former residing in the ivory tower and communicating only virtually with the masses. In our research on language and development, we have called for critical and ethical reading of development testimonials to ensure that discursive development does not leave material development and its holistic conception behind.

Therefore, when we talk about development, let’s try and go beyond the discursive and look for development that is real, substantive and equitable.

Dr Obaidul Hamid works at the University of Queensland in Australia. He researches language, education, and society in the developing world.

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