Foreign trips for bureaucrats: The purpose defeated
Good intentions gone wrong -- sums up best the government initiative to send officials abroad for training and upskilling.
What was meant for acquiring technological know-how ended up being an opening for an all-expenses paid trip abroad for many government officials, show reports from the Bangladesh Comptroller and Auditor General.
Take the case of 13 projects implemented from fiscal 2017-18 to fiscal 2019-20 by the Department of Agricultural Extension of the agricultural ministry and the Department of Livestock and the Department of Fisheries under the fisheries and livestock ministry.
The projects had a foreign training component, and the audit by CAG found that 16-20 percent of the officials nominated for going abroad to gain practical knowledge and technology transfer were above the age of 55 years.
The age of retirement in government jobs is 59 years, so the officials would stop working before the knowledge gained could be applied.
If it isn't nominating officials who are close to retirement, it is choosing people who are not even part of the implementing agencies (30-32 percent) or people who are too high up to engage in technology transfer at the field level.
Subsequently, the purpose of the projects, which is to acquire technical know-how and transfer it to local farmers, is defeated.
Take the case of seven of the projects under DAE that were meant to train farmers to: produce high-quality lentils, oilseeds and spices, year-harvest fruits round the year, and increase crop production through improved water management initiatives.
As many as 228 officials were sent abroad to get first-hand knowledge and impart it at the field level.
But 45 of the nominated persons were above 55 years of age, with 23 of them being more than 58 years of age, found the CAG audit.
Then 73 others were from other ministries and had nothing to do with the projects at hand.
It was the same case in the projects under the ministry of fisheries and livestock.
As many as 30 percent of the officials sent abroad for training in five projects under the Department of Fisheries -- pertaining to building the capacity of marine fisheries and a brood bank, setting up a research centre and veterinary college -- were not from the implementing agencies.
Then 16 percent of the officials nominated for foreign training in two of the projects were above the age of 55.
When the CAG sought an explanation from the departments for the anomalies, the response would always be the same: the nomination process was completed as per the instructions of the development project proposal (DPP) and the decision of the ministry.
What's worse is the officials do not submit a training report upon return to Bangladesh or proof of application of knowledge acquired as per conditions of going for foreign training.
So there is no proof of whether the training session was beneficial at all or contributed to the objective of the projects.
In all the instances, the CAG did not find the replies satisfactory and felt the government money was wasted as the goals and objectives of the projects are not being met fully.
There are other ways through which corruption takes place such as using funds not earmarked for foreign training and going straight for a request for quotation (RFQ) method without following the due process for procurement of foreign training services.
The government suffers from revenue loss due to the non-deduction of value-added tax and income tax at the prescribed rates from various bills of foreign educational tours under the projects, the CAG found.
"The OCAG report is an example that gaining undue personal benefits from foreign trips in the name of training and capacity building has become a part of administrative and project implementation culture in the country," said Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh.
Unfortunately, the instances identified in the OCAG report are not isolated events.
These go on unabated because there is no accountability for such irregularities, he said.
What is needed is to hold to account all three groups of officials involved: those who participated, those who approved the selections and those who approved the visits.
"Failure to ensure such accountability will render the OCAG report as a paper tiger and the illicit practice will continue."