Is 'anti-corruption' only rhetoric or also a reality?
December 9 is observed as the International Anti-Corruption Day (IACD) to mark the adoption of the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) in 2003. Beyond the rituals like rallies, seminars, awards and cartoons, IACD is intended to create greater public demand against corruption and response by concrete action of stakeholders to control this global menace. If IACD has to be anything real, and more than rhetoric, both the demand and supply side, the people on the one hand and the government and institutions like Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) mandated to control corruption on the other, must uphold the spirit of the day beyond December 9—365 days a year.
Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) has been observing the day engaging various stakeholders nationally and locally including the government and the ACC since 2004. Thanks to TIB's advocacy leading to a government decision, the day is now being observed at the state level for the second successive time. All offices of DCs and UNOs will observe the day together with ACC and TIB through various events including a simultaneous human chain.
However, if we reflect upon what, if anything, has been achieved over the years in real terms, perhaps the only success one can reckon is that the anti-corruption movement steered by TIB has survived navigating a multiplicity of challenges. The demand has intensified. A recent survey conducted by Transparency International (TI) showed that 93 percent of Bangladeshi respondents are willing to stand up against corruption whereas the global average is 63. However, in the supply side, or actual control of corruption so as to reduce people's sufferings in daily life, there is hardly anything notable.
Bangladesh no longer occupies the top position in the TI's list of worst corruption-affected countries as in 2001-2005. In the 2017 index, it was at the 17th position, though with a score of only 28 percent; a long distance remains to be covered only to reach the global average of 43 percent when Bangladesh could claim to have been able to moderately control corruption. In the meantime, we embarrassingly remain at the second worst position in South Asia after only Afghanistan.
The 2018 national household survey conducted by TIB showed that more than two-thirds of the respondents were victims of corruption while receiving various services. More depressingly, sectors that are mandated to control violations of law, such as law enforcement agencies, topped the list of most corrupt sectors. Over 89 percent of those forced to make unauthorised payments for services reported that they did so because services are unavailable without bribery.
If Bangladesh could moderately control corruption, its annual GDP growth could be at least 2-3 percent higher. Corruption causes plunder of resources by few as symbolised by the banking sector. Thanks to the inherent linkage of political zero-sum game with the opportunity to abuse power, corruption destroys the level playing field in public space including elections, employment and professional opportunities, public contracting, access to public services, etc. It distorts competitive business and investment environment bedeviled by conflict of interest. Above all, it erodes trust in government and politics.
Corruption is also a multi-trillion-dollar global scandal involving illicit transfers of corrupt money in which Bangladesh has been prominent as a key client in global destinations like Swiss banks and other leading financial centres. Bangladeshi interests are aplenty in offshore addresses like those listed in Panama Papers and Paradise Papers as well as other locations like "Begum Para" of Canada or "Second Home" of Malaysia, not to speak of other conventional destinations like Hong Kong, Singapore, London, New York and the like. No less important are transfers by foreign employees or consultants illegally employed in various trades especially from neighbouring India who are practically stealing billions.
This in spite of the fact that over the last decade or so, some substantial legal, institutional and policy reforms have taken place in many cases, thanks to advocacy of TIB, to strengthen the potentials of the state to control this cancer. These include reform of the Money Laundering Prevention Act and efforts towards strengthening the ACC, though there is much to be desired in terms of its effectiveness, especially in holding the "big fish" to account. Bangladesh's ratification of the UNCAC and adoption of an action plan to implement it, adoption of the Right to Information Act followed by the law to protect disclosure of information, and adoption of the national integrity strategy are just some examples that raise hope.
There is no dearth of policy pronouncements either. The government's Vision 2021 recognises good governance and corruption control as indispensable elements of state policy. The Perspective Plan 2010-21 asserts the government's determination "to confront and root out the scourge of corruption from the body politic of Bangladesh … (and) to strengthen transparency and accountability of all government institutions." Prominent among 12 broad development goals identified by the 7th Five Year Plan is "promoting good governance and curbing corruption." It also pledges to further strengthen the "democratic governance process to ensure participation of all citizens and the sound functioning of all democratic institutions."
Bangladesh is also among 193 countries that adopted in September 2015 the UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030, central to which is goal 16 that makes our government pledge-bound to "promote a peaceful and inclusive society … provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels." Under target 16.5, Bangladesh is under obligation to "substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms"; under target 16.4 to "significantly reduce illicit financial … flows, strengthen the recovery and return of stolen assets"; and under 16.10 to "ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms."
Disappointingly though, potentials of all these remain far from being effectively utilised as does the government's responsibility to ensure people's participation against corruption, as underscored by Article 13 of the UNCAC: "Each State Party shall … promote active participation of individuals and groups outside the public sector, such as civil society, non-governmental organisations and community-based organisations, in the prevention of and the fight against corruption."
Whether corruption control is just rhetoric or reality in Bangladesh is anybody's guess. Pledges are far from being delivered; institutions are rendered dysfunctional by partisan influence; the big fish enjoy blatant impunity while policy structure is on the verge of being captured by corruption. The prospect of change has been further downgraded by an ever-shrinking space for voice and accountability institutionalised by specific legal restrictions on freedom of speech and opinion. On top of laws transforming self-censorship into the "new normal" is the Digital Security Act, a source of deep sense of insecurity among people.
Little does the government realise that by restricting freedom of speech and opinion, it is simply protecting the corrupt and distancing itself from the prospect of accountable governance. Whether or not anti-corruption efforts will be any more effective than what we have seen so far will depend on how soon the government recognises that restricting fundamental rights, including freedom of speech, is the other name for creating one's own Frankenstein.
Dr Iftekharuzzaman is Executive Director, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB).