Dhaka, Bangladesh (BBN) – From a childhood of abject poverty, Atiur Rahman has climbed the ladder to become the governor of Bangladesh Bank, the country’s central bank. But the soft-spoken 62-yearold will never forget those harsh days and the people who helped him along the way, humbly saying he owes them his life.
“I repay (their generosity) by helping the poor,” he tells China Daily Asia Weekly. “Had there been no good people in the world I would have (remained) poor in the countryside. My father was an extremely poor, landless farmer. We were five brothers and three sisters, and often spent days without enough food.” Since reaching his current position in 2009, Rahman has been on a mission to reduce poverty in Bangladesh through inclusive development.
Born in a remote village of Jamalpur district, north-central Bangladesh, the young boy received early basic education at home from his mother. Later, the family’s financial situation could not keep the young boy in the village primary school and he had to drop out before reaching the third grade. After that, he was assigned the job of taking domestic animals out to graze. In the evenings he would then bring the milk to the market to sell. The turning point of his life came in the form of a “drama”, he says. One day, he had the opportunity to attend a theater performance at a local school. Enjoying the atmosphere of the school, he was determined to return to the education system. His older brother persuaded the school’s principal to allow the young Rahman to attend the final examinations as a private candidate.
For three months leading up to the examinations, Rahman stayed at a friend’s house to prepare. He came in first place in the school and was moved to the fourth grade. “On hearing the good news, my father sold a goat to buy new books and clothes for me,” he recollects. “In my spare time I helped my family.” The schoolboy’s determination and hard work meant that he was awarded a partial scholarship to attend the prestigious Mirzapur Cadet College in the central Tangail district.
A school teacher in the village, Foyez Moulavi, collected charity donations to pay for the remaining admission cost, he still remembers. Later, the school’s authorities granted him free tuition. When the final examinations came around, he passed with flying colors. After that the village boy never looked back. He enrolled in the University of Dhaka in the country’s capital to study economics, obtaining a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree.
A Commonwealth Scholarship gave him the opportunity to study at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, where he obtained his PhD in 1977. Later published as a book, his doctoral thesis, Peasants and Classes, is much admired by economists worldwide. Fast-forward to the present day, and Rahman has recently clocked up five years as the governor of Bangladesh Bank. He recalls the proud moment he was chosen for the position. “I still remember, I was giving a lecture in Nepal when the government announced my name as governor of the bank,” he says. When he started the job, the country was reeling under a financial crisis due to the global meltdown. He successfully steered the economy, especially the financial and banking sector, out of trouble.
Besides building necessary coordination between monetary and fiscal policies to ensure inflow of investments and job creation, he put his energy into developing the rural economy with micro finance and an inclusive growth model, of which he is a great champion. Prior to becoming governor of the bank, Rahman was a professor in the Department of Development Studies at the University of Dhaka. Before that, he had worked at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies in various capacities for nearly 28 years. He also played a major role in the microcredit revolution in Bangladesh. He served on a national task force on the eradication of poverty that was established by Muhammad Yunus, who set up the Grameen community bank in the country.
Rahman, who has already initiated a vigorous approach to make banking services available to deprived people, says financial inclusion is the important factor that would result in more equitable economic growth. “Financial inclusion of the poorest — particularly their access to small-sized credit for income-generating selfemployment activities — is a major tool in Bangladesh for combating poverty,” he says. “Micro finance, which was pioneered by Nobel laureate Dr Yunus, is now being replicated worldwide extensively. In that regard, Bangladesh has shown the way,” he says. Rahman says the bank will focus on leveraging the potential synergies in partnerships between banks, micro finance institutions, and telecom service providers in bridging the remaining gaps in financial inclusion.
Citing the success of the Bangladesh economy, which has maintained GDP growth rates of 6 percent per year since the global financial meltdown, the governor says inclusive financing must be a new global priority to ward off the next round of financial crises.
In another previous role, Rahman served as director of the state-owned Sonali Bank, the largest in Bangladesh. In 2001, the government appointed him as the chairman of the board of directors of the Janata Bank, the second-largest bank in the country. During his tenure at the helm of the central bank, he has involved all banks and financial institutions in a countrywide campaign to bring financial services to the marginalized poor, farmers, unemployed and rural women.
“Women entrepreneurship development is one of the important dimensions of the inclusive policy,” he says. “Engaging women in economic activity by providing enhanced access to financial services is the key target,” he adds.
The father of three daughters says that “unless we engage women in activities where they have competitive edge over others, the country will be losing national output by underutilizing their skills and creative ideas”.
Rahman’s ideas are not immune to criticism, and his detractors say that he has been running the central bank like a non-governmental organization. He, however, takes those disapprovals in his stride. “That is part of the game. Every morning I flip through newspapers to see how many criticisms there are against me,” he says with a smile. “I take criticism positively.” The governor, however, believes that the central bank cannot be an onlooker when the country’s poor people are dying on the street. Nevertheless, Rahman points out that Bangladesh offers generous opportunities for investment under its liberalized industrial policy and export-oriented, private sector-led growth strategy.
“We also help create an enabling environment for expanding private investment, both domestic and foreign,” he says. “And we need a country like China to invest. It will be a win-win proposition.” The bank is also increasing its concentration on infrastructural development by introducing a refinance program for environmentally friendly investments in solar energy, biogas plants and effluent treatment plants.
“We consider ‘green banking’ as a socially responsible mode of financing and deem it as one of the major drivers of sustainable economic development,” he says. His green banking initiatives were awarded in 2012, when he was presented with the ‘Green Governor’ title in the United Nations Climate Change Conference, held in Doha. With much planned for the future, Rahman is determined to continue making changes for the better in the top role. For now though, he is content with being distinguished as a champion of poverty alleviation and is happy to be known as the “poor man’s governor”.
BBN/SSR/AD-29May14-12:36 pm (BST)