Home Youth activism Akbar Ali Khan: Life of Service, Voice of Conscience

Akbar Ali Khan: Life of Service, Voice of Conscience

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Akbar Ali Khan (1944-2022) FILE PHOTO: PRABIR DAS

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Akbar Ali Khan (1944-2022) FILE PHOTO: PRABIR DAS

Akbar Ali Khan’s death came as a sudden shock, although his health problems were severe and prolonged. Despite his frailties, he was undeterred in his public engagements, regularly speaking out on critical national issues, always calling a spade a spade, pushing the nation’s gaze to higher ground. Given his personal tragedies – the passing of Bhabi and his beloved daughter, as well as his multiple health complications – Akbar Bhai’s drive to be a fearless voice of conscience has been nothing short of heroic. He has gone through many careers: teacher, bureaucrat, freedom fighter, policy maker, writer, public intellectual. But there was a common thread in this long and eventful journey of life: a strong sense of integrity, a dedication to service and an openness to learning.

Akbar Bhai was a seeker of knowledge at heart, but not in isolated ivory towers. From his first book Discovery of Bangladesh to the many titles that followed, he was both meticulous in his scholarship and eager to connect with his readership. His unorthodox titles, his communicative language through which he explained complex economic issues in a way that both piqued and engaged a wide variety of readers, testify to his great success as an author. No wonder UPL and Prothoma continue to publish new editions of his books; the long line of interested readers keeps getting longer and longer. Nor was his writing career a post-retirement story. He was intellectually active throughout his career; two of his major titles – Discovery of Bangladesh and Porarthoporotar Orthoniti – were published while he was on active duty at the highest levels of government.

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Akbar Bhai also exemplified the idea of ​​public service dedicated not just to his personal advancement, but to serving the public. He was quick to write dissenting memos when he could not accept direction from higher ups, no doubt because he believed that the true calling of a public servant is to offer honest and competent advice, not simply to pander to higher authorities or, worse, blindly acquiesce to their vested interests. But he also focused on finding effective solutions to development and administrative problems. He was a very successful financial secretary, then a cabinet secretary and, after his retirement, an acting executive director at the World Bank. I had the good fortune to meet him in Washington, DC, in his office at the World Bank in 2005. He was the natural choice to lead the Regulatory Reform Commission set up by the interim government in 2007 to streamline the red tape bureaucratic and obstructive mentalities. It was a loss for the nation when this body and the other government-business dialogue platform initiative – the Better Business Forum – were abandoned by the subsequent government.

Despite his personal dramas, Akbar Ali Khan never truly “retired” from his true calling of public service. As Bangladesh appears to have retreated from democratic norms, as concerns over governance have intensified, the need to speak ‘truth to power’ as Noam Chomsky famously put it has never been greater. Being a ‘voice of conscience’ is not an easy role to take on, given the growing shift towards an authoritarian mindset in Bangladesh. Akbar Ali Khan has been pretty fearless here too, part of an increasingly dying breed of public intellectuals. His time has come. Others must continue. Bangladesh’s promise must shine brightly. Farewell, Akbar Bhai.

Hossain Zillur Rahman is Executive Chairman of the Power and Participation Research Center (PPRC) and a former adviser to the Interim Government of Bangladesh.