On January 28, 2021, Transparency International released its Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2020. In the index, Bangladesh has scored 26 out of 100, the same as in 2019. Counting from the bottom, Bangladesh has been ranked 12th, two steps lower than the 14th in 2019. The ranking counted from the top remains the same as in 2019—at 146th out of 180 countries included in the index. The result is disappointing as not only have we failed to improve our score, but we have also been placed two steps lower when counted from below compared to 2019. Moreover, we have once again been ranked the second lowest in South Asia, better than only Afghanistan. We remain the 4th lowest among 31 countries of the Asia-Pacific region, and our score continues to be well below the global average of 43.
No country has scored the full marks, however, so no one is free from corruption. As many as 131 countries (73 percent) have scored below 50, and 105 countries (58 percent) have scored less than the global average. Compared to 2019, scores have declined in 48 (27 percent) countries, increased in 62 (34 percent), and remained the same in 70 (39 percent) including Bangladesh.
Denmark and New Zealand have jointly topped the list having scored 88, while other countries leading the list with more than 70 percent score are Finland (85), Singapore (85), Sweden (85), Switzerland (85), Norway (84), Netherlands (82), Germany (80), Luxembourg (80), Australia (77), Canada (77). UK (77), Hong Kong (77), Austria (76), Belgium (76), Iceland (75), Estonia (75), Japan (74), Ireland (72), UAE (71), and Uruguay (71).
Notable poor performers among the so-called developed countries are France (69), USA (67), Russia (42) and China (32). Somalia and South Sudan are jointly at the very bottom with a score of 12. Other lowest performers ranked nearest to the bottom are war-torn or failed states like Syria, Yemen, Venezuela, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, North Korea, Haiti, DR Congo and Turkmenistan.
Among South Asian countries, Bhutan continues to be the best performer with a score of 68, ranked 24th from the top. The Maldives has done amazingly well, having scored 43 and been placed at 75, a record gain of 24 points and 55 steps higher placement compared to 2019. This has been attributed to a very high rating in terms of democratic progression, especially some unprecedented legal reforms introduced to promote freedom of speech, right to dissension and association and access to information.
Overcoming the agonies of being the lowest scorer for five successive years during 2001-2005, Bangladesh has somewhat improved in recent years, although the score remains stagnant in the 20s. In view of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's pledge of zero tolerance against corruption pronounced repeatedly during the period covered by the surveys contributing to this year's index (September 2018-October 2020), and specifically reiterated in the context of the coronavirus, it was expected that Bangladesh would perform better. What has happened is just the opposite. Belying the pledge of the prime minister, corruption has rather flourished, particularly through 2020 when a section of unscrupulous people often linked with power have taken the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to abuse power and accumulate illegal money and wealth.
At the local level, apart from a section of public officials, the politically influential people including public representatives indulged in various forms of abuse of power in distribution of relief goods meant for the worst victims of the crisis. Even the cash support programme for the ultra-poor was not spared. At the higher level, the floodgate of collusive corruption was opened in procurements and supplies involving unscrupulous vendors together with a section of public officials and political players.
There were reports aplenty about major scandals involving swindling of public money in procurement in multiple sectors, not just health. Money laundering captured many headlines, with allegations of the involvement of the politically powerful including public representatives and public officials competing with business entities. Some public representatives even came out to be human traffickers.
What particularly contributes to non-delivery of the zero-tolerance pledge, and hence poor performance in CPI, is the ever intensifying linkages among politics, big money and corruption which have been taking an institutional shape, causing detachment of public interest from the decisions and actions of the state.
The other dimension of the continued structural weakness is that the conventional processes as well as institutions of checks and balances and accountability in governance and statecraft have been converted into a monopolised territory of the ruling party. This continues to multiply the agents of corruption—beneficiaries, colluders, protectors and promoters of this illegality—many of whom are mandated to implement the pledge of zero tolerance. A striking example is the banking sector which has been bedevilled by loan default and all possible means of swindling public money. Policies and decisions often reflect the design of swindlers and defaulters, rather than the public interest.
Examples are rare where the corrupt, especially the big fish, are genuinely punished. The reality is that they indeed enjoy impunity thanks to political, financial and governmental linkages, real or manipulated.
Without a paradigm shift in the present political culture, corruption cannot be controlled effectively, nor can our performance in CPI be expected to improve. Politics, political parties, political processes and positions must be insulated from the influence of money and criminality. One crucial gap in this regard is the absence of legal provisions to transparently and accountably manage conflict of interest and beneficial ownerships. Conflict-of-interest regulations can prevent abuse of entrusted power, while beneficial-ownership regulations can prevent tax evasion and money laundering.
Joining the international standards set up in 2014 to enable automatic exchange of bank information internationally could go a long way in promoting financial integrity, especially to prevent tax avoidance. Opportunities opened up by the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) have not yet been fully taken advantage of to prevent money laundering and facilitate repatriation of stolen assets.
The culture of impunity of the corrupt must be uprooted. The Anti-Corruption Commission must break out of the dividing line it seems to have drawn for itself which prevents it from going beyond the small fries and bringing to justice the big fish, irrespective of their identity, status and political or other linkages.
No less important is the need to promote a culture of tolerance for openness, disclosure and dissent which is key to public participation in the anti-corruption movement. It is the responsibility of the government to create the conducive environment for participation of the civil society, NGOs, media and citizens at large in this movement. As long as the government treats its critics as enemies instead of change agents to strengthen the scope of compliance and accountability, the space will continue to increase for the Frankensteins of corruption to gain power.
Dr Iftekharuzzaman is Executive Director, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB).