Corruption, collusion and impunity
When corruption transforms office of government and politics into a license for profit making and personal aggrandizement, illegality becomes a way of life for the high and mighty. Policy and state structure is increasingly captured by a pernicious collusion amongst those who benefit from corruption. Rule of law is undermined, impunity flourishes, and ironically enough, corrupt practices take place brazenly.
Corruption is a global problem. No country is immune from this epidemic. None of the countries ranked as least-affected by corruption has yet to score 100 percent according to the Corruption Perceptions Index, confirming that corruption exists everywhere.
More importantly some of the so-called least corrupt countries such as US, Switzerland, Luxembourg, UK, Singapore and Hong Kong enjoy the dubious distinction of being among the most attractive destinations for corrupt money accumulated by the high and mighty in the developing countries. Quite often, high profile acts of corruption involve collusion across national frontiers whether in the form of involvement of multinational companies in infrastructure & other projects in developing countries, or in the process of laundering corrupt money to safe havens.
A staggering amount of nearly $6 trillion was lost by the developing countries through illicit outflow in the decade of 2001-10. The annual outflow is estimated to have by now reached $1 trillion, most of which usually lands in leading international financial centers of the developed world. No wonder that detection rate of illicit funds remains as embarrassingly low as 1 percent, seizure rate a paltry 0.2 percent while repatriation even worse - absolutely trifling and inconsequential.
The primary responsibility does lie in the systemic weaknesses perpetuated by beneficiaries of collusive corruption in the power structure at the sending end. However, a benign environment and hunger for laundered money in the capital markets in the recipient economies remains the bigger culprit as this demand-driven illicit flow of corrupt money keeps on flourishing and people in developing countries from where the theft takes place continue to pay for it.
There are other dimensions of collusive corruption as blatantly manifested during the global financial crisis that started in the US in the form of an insidious capture of the system and deliberate failures of oversight, disclosure and regulation in the financial sector. It was a blatant example of how in an industrialized nation, which by the way is most vocal against corruption in developing countries, undue influence is recklessly exercised by powerful private interests. As long as such policy capture and criminal flows are sustained and illicit funds remain undetected, the sufferings of the world's poor will persist.
On the other hand, in our own country where only petty corruption in service sectors costs the economy 2.4 percent of annual GDP or 13.6 percent of annual national budget, what some of our Members of the 10th Parliament have indulged into in the first several weeks since the controversial election of January 5 does not seem to have troubled the conscience of anyone in the House. Transparently enough, the Chief Whip wanted cash and only cash, not crest, loud and clear enough as a token of his constituency's appreciation of the new-found coveted status. Equally blatantly, some MPs rushed to the Election Commission to persuade it to offload information on their accumulated wealth submitted under affidavit as per electoral law backed by court judgment and public demand. Little did they care that by this they only embarrassed themselves further. If not deterred by media and public outcry, the Commission was reportedly going to explore the possibility of complying with this illegitimate and illegal demand which could also constitute contempt of court.
Powerful ministers defended publicly that there was nothing wrong in amassing wealth from positions of power. The same denial syndrome damaged the prospect of any firm and effective action against those responsible for the share market collapse and scandals in the state-owned banks. Nothing happened with respect to the scandalous recruitment business in railways.
Political affiliation remains the most viable qualification for securing public contracts and permits to set up such business enterprises as banking, insurance and media. The power of corrupt money can guarantee impunity in the face of blatant violation of laws and regulations thanks to a pernicious collusion of politics with business, administration and law enforcement.
The mockery of a “hunger strike” staged by a ruling party MP to secure release of an associate in powerbase alleged of multiple crimes from Manirampur police station didn't embarrass any of his peers who may have found it as a transparent piece of action to protect party interest. Similar abuse of power by Ministers, State Ministers and MPs for being accorded reception by forcing school kids out of class and home to stand on roadsides for long hours failed to draw any remorse. The yearning for being honoured was so over-powering that they cared precious little that the kids were thirsty and hungry. Many went a step further to be crowned by gifts made of gold.
Although the High Court declared section 32 (A) of the Anticorruption Commission (ACC) Act as unconstitutional it should not be surprising if the government takes a suicidal course of appealing. Setting an example of yielding to conspiratorial attempt to policy capture they had passed the bill, making a discriminatory and unconstitutional mandatory provision for the ACC to obtain prior approval of the government before taking action in case of alleged corruption by public officials. If the government remains intransigent on curtailing the authority of the ACC it will only be blamed of colluding with corruption and impunity.
All these go against an impression created for a Cabinet supposed to be clean. Question also remains on how to reconcile a clean image with the appointment of a former President as “special envoy” carrying a baggage of corruption and criminal cases, much as these may have been the key instruments of political bargain used to create a façade of inclusive election.
One can recall that the Government placed governance and corruption control at the core of successive election manifestos. If the election manifesto is not convincing enough, the Perspective Plan 2010-21 can also be referred to, which asserts, “the Government is determined to confront and root out the scourge of corruption from the body politic of Bangladesh … The Government intends to strengthen transparency and accountability of all government institutions as integral part of a program of social change to curb corruption … With Vision 2021 the country aspires to an accountable and transparent governance system”. In a similar vein the Government recognizes in the 6th Five Year Plan, “Corruption lies at the heart of overall governance shortcomings in Bangladesh … without a strong anti-corruption strategy the ability to implement Vision 2021 and the underlying 5 year development plans will be seriously compromised”.
However, such lofty commitments will be of no real meaning if protection of the corrupt and collusion with them go on unabated, and the professionalism, integrity and effectiveness of administration, law enforcement and justice continue to be undermined by partisan political influence. A Government formed through a debatable election that will have a severe deficit in public trust as long as it remains in power has no option but to demonstrate that it has the courage and capacity to challenge impunity head on and let the institutions of accountability to effectively bring the corrupt to justice. Time for the government is now to demonstrate that promises are made not only to be broken, but to be kept, for a change.
The author is Executive Director, Transparency International Bangladesh.