First launched in 1995, by the Berlin-based organisation Transparency International (TI), the annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) has put the issue of corruption on the global agenda. The TI has recently released its 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index, which drew defensive reaction from the head of Bangladesh's Anti-Corruption Commission and the minister of information, which sounded more like zero tolerance to any criticism of the state of governance in Bangladesh than a reaffirmation of the zero-tolerance policy against corruption announced by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
The TI's ranking of 180 countries and territories by the perceived levels of public-sector corruption is based on up to 13 independent data sources or opinion surveys of experts and businesspeople in the surveyed countries. The index uses a scale of 0 to 100, where 0 indicates highly corrupt and 100 is very clean.
No country is free of corruption with a perfect score. More than two-thirds of the countries scord below 50 on the latest CPI, with an average score of 43. Bangladesh's score is 26, two notches below its 2017 score.
Zero tolerance of corruption is an election pledge of the recently elected ruling regime. Responding to the question “When will Bangladesh be free from corruption?”—posed by a young man in a public dialogue before the election—Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had said, “It's one of my targets… a 'zero tolerance' policy against corruption will be implemented.” While visiting the home ministry at the secretariat on January 20, the prime minister urged officials to work to uproot corruption, drug and militancy. “Corruption, drug and militancy gripped the whole society like deadly diseases as the military dictators ruled the country for a long time,” she said, adding that militancy should be under control and corruption must be stamped out. (The Daily Star, January 21)
There is no room for disagreement with the TI's position that “corruption corrodes the social fabric of society. It undermines people's trust in the political system, in its institutions and its leadership.” The TI adds that the annual CPI reveals that “the continued failure of most countries to significantly control corruption is contributing to a crisis in democracy around the world…the data shows that despite some progress, most countries are failing to make serious inroads against corruption.”
However, Information Minister Hasan Mahmud claimed that the TI report was “motivated and faulty.” He said, “The method the TIB [Transparency International's Bangladesh chapter] followed in preparing the graft index was faulty…If there's any specific allegation…TIB [should] inform the government and the Anti-Corruption Commission.” He also said, “When Bangladesh is being praised globally and by the World Bank for curbing corruption, the TIB has published a faulty report to defame the country's people.” (The Daily Star, January 31).
The minister is wrong on several counts. CPI is an annual report of the Transparency International, not a report of its Bangladesh affiliate TIB. The methodology of surveys of perceptions that was followed has been explained in the report and is well-known in social science research, including its value and limitations.
It is not the job of the TI or TIB to inform the government or the Anti-Corruption Commission about specific incidences of corruption. Bangladesh has been praised internationally for its development performance, not for “curbing corruption.” It is beyond logic why the TI or TIB would publish a report to “defame the country's people.”
It was surprising and disappointing that the head of the Anti-Corruption Commission, Iqbal Mahmud, also responded defensively, calling the report sweeping and unacceptable. He said the TI report on graft will not be accepted unless the causes of rising corruption in Bangladesh are addressed. (The Daily Star, January 29).
A problem, but not a justification of the official reaction, may be the media attention focused on the league table of countries in the TI report and relative position of a country compared to others on different aspects of corruption. This is known as a “naming and shaming” strategy to raise public awareness and prompt policy action.
The scores on CPI represent measures of perception based on sample opinion surveys in countries on different indicators. On the score card, Bangladesh's position has slipped somewhat compared to the previous year.
These numbers reflect a degree of subjectivity and statistical margins of error, difficult to calculate reliably when a composite index is constructed by adding up the results of a number of various sample surveys.
The scores and the relative position of countries are meaningful as a rough indication rather than a precise number. It is meaningful and disturbing that Bangladesh stands towards the low end of the ranking among the 180 countries (149th); and the same among the seven South Asian countries (last but one) and the 31 Asia-Pacific countries (last but four). It is the pattern, rather than a few notches up or down from the previous year, that is significant.
The pattern also shows that Bangladesh was in the lowest position for several years during 2001-2005 and has moved up somewhat since then, which is good news. But it has remained stuck in recent years just above the bottom quartile of countries.
Incidentally, with a score of 71, the US lost four points over 2017 and dropped out of the top 20 nations for the first time since 2011.
“A four-point drop in the CPI score is a red flag and comes at a time when the US is experiencing threats to its system of checks and balance, as well as an erosion of ethical norms at the highest levels of power,” the TI noted.
Most significantly, the TI pointed to a firm link between corruption and the health of democracy from its cross-analysis of the corruption data and global democracy survey data.
Delia Ferreira Rubio, the head of the TI, observed, “Corruption is much more likely to flourish where democratic foundations are weak and, as we have seen in many countries, where undemocratic and populist politicians can use it to their advantage.”
If we expect to move up further on the index of perceptions of corruption or reduce real incidence of corruption and help implement the zero-tolerance pledge of the prime minister, a stance of defensiveness and denial will not get us there.
Manzoor Ahmed is Professor Emeritus at BRAC University.