The Financial Express

An economist with a difference

| Updated: October 25, 2017 01:54:42

An economist with a difference
Dr Mahabub Hossain, an eminent social scientist and economist, passed away at 67. On January 03, 2016, he left us all for eternity during a heart surgery at Cleaveland, the USA (Innalillahi……..Rajiun).
 Joachim von Braun, former Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), considered him as 'a hero for development economists around the world', and his work a blessing for the poor that will last. 
M. Balisacan, Secretary (Minister) of Socio-economic Planning, the Republic of the Philippines said, Mahabub was not only an outstanding scholar and international public servant, but also a great colleague and friend. The tribute by BRAC founder and chairperson, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, is possibly most appropriate: "Very few people globally had the depth of understanding of development issues like Dr. Mahabub Hossain.  His life was a story of success against all odds and during his time at BRAC, he had a persistent focus on creating opportunities for the poor. His research over many decades on proliferation of innovation in agriculture and livelihood improvement of marginalized farmers has been path breaking".
Dr Mahabub was born and brought up in a typical village which might have impacted his research career afterwards. His father's family was relatively large -five brothers and six sisters. As an elder brother (after one sister) in a typical Bengali society, he had to bear a lot of burden in seeing them settled. After completing schooling and graduation in India residing in maternal grand-father's house, he obtained Masters in Economics from Dhaka University, and a Ph.D from the University of Cambridge. 
Mainstream economists rarely do research on rural economy, particularly on agriculture but exceptionally Mahabub Hossain devoted his whole life to agriculture and rural development research. He applied all economic theories to rural life realities, built up panel data set - ascribed as 'gold mine' by Ahmed Mushtaque Raza Chowdhury - from 62 randomly selected villages across the country derived through repeated sample surveys in 1988, 2000, 2008, and  2014. Worldwide, the data set is known as 'MH dataset'. Observations from the dataset have helped policy-makers pursue a correct line of reasoning in formulating policies; some policies also got changed as suggested by Hossain's own dataset.
 The Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) rose to a new height while he was its Director General in the 1980s. Among others, two famous studies on rural poverty and 62-village surveys are being widely cited even now. As the head of Social Sciences in the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), he immensely contributed to socio-economic research on new technology and rural livelihoods system. A position in the IRRI gave him the opportunity to gain an international status. Soon he became a point of reference in South Asia and also around the globe, as far as agricultural economics and rural development were concerned. Till his death, he was the President of the Association of South Asian Agricultural Economists - a position not held by any Bangladeshi before. In 2013, the world famous 'Foreign Policy' magazine listed him as one of the 500 most influential persons in the world - a feat not favoured to any Bangladeshi. 
This writer was fortunately one of his close academic associates since the 1980s - jointly publishing seven books and a host of articles inside and outside the country.  He liked the book that is the most non-technical one: Bish Gramer Golpo (story of 20 villages) published by the University Press Limited (UPL) - based on tales told by the villagers about rural transformation. He wanted to test whether rural transformation - as described by scientists - conforms to the views of the people. He always encouraged this scribe to write extensively in newspapers on professional issues in layman's language so that the public could know about the changes. "You should know and do mathematics but meat of the mathematics should be conveyed to policy-makers and public through simple language". 
During his long association, this writer observed a few characteristics in Dr Hossain's life that need mention. First, he was the only mainstream economist who dedicated his research life to rural, particularly agricultural issues. Second, he was the pioneer in doing research with primary data - a job perhaps most painful for an ardent researcher. Third, he never left data set in the hands of the enumerators' processors. He used to burn midnight's candles to see accuracy and consistency inaccuracy of huge dataset. Fourth, he was thoroughly honest and committed to interpreting data set. Never ever had he said anything on socio-economics issues which are not evidence-based. Cooking data for cheap popularity or newspaper headlines was never in his taste. And finally, given any remote chance, he used to drive to rural areas to witness changes in there or assess the impacts of interventions. 
His demise is a death blow to many of us. His family has lost a guardian, children their father, the country an eminent economist who could impact policies through evidence-based examples. But personally the present writer lost a friend, philosopher and a guide. Bangladesh will always feel his presence thorough the influence of his writings on rural economy and livelihoods. Let's not shed tears as Rabindranath Tagore said: "If you cry because the sun has gone out of your life, your tears will prevent you from seeing the stars". The sun has set but left deep rays of research on rural economy. May God bless his soul. 
The writer is Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University. 

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