Do we have the political will to improve?
Transparency International (TI) released its Corruption Perception Index 2019 on January 23, 2020. Bangladesh has scored 26 out of 100, the same as in 2018. Counting from the lowest score, implying worst affected by corruption, Bangladesh has been ranked 14th, one place higher than last year. From the highest score, meaning least affected by the menace, we have been ranked 146th among 180 countries, three steps higher than 149th in 2018.
Although ranking is never ignored, more importance is attached in this index to the score received by the country independently. Therefore, despite some upward movement in ranking—one step from below and three steps from above, attributed to worse performance of comparable countries—there is no scope for complacency.
In the context of the government's high-profile zero tolerance policy against corruption repeatedly pronounced by the Prime Minster during the period covered by the surveys contributing to this year's index (December 2017-October 2019), it was reasonably expected that Bangladesh would score better. Such expectation could also be attributed to the Prime Minister's declaration in the context of the high-profile anti-corruption drive that no one involved in corruption would be spared, irrespective of political affiliation, including her own party.
Among reasons that such factors for potential positive perceptions seem to have been neutralised, is firstly, a deficit of trust as to how much the initiative would yield the desired outcome of bringing to justice everyone involved. There are reasons to believe that multi-dimensional collusions facilitated almost every identified instance of irregularities, including the involvement of the so-called "big fish" or "godfathers", as a powerful minister is referred to.
The second vital factor is the growing concern about the intrinsic linkages between politics, big money, and corruption, which has been taking an institutional shape. This has resulted in a detachment of public interest in decisions and actions of statecraft, undermining, in turn, the structure of transparency and accountability. This second factor appeared prominently as a global trend as reported by the index, which also shows that countries with robust political integrity and accountability have performed better while countries that represent deficit in political integrity and accountability are found to perform poorly.
Among the eight South Asian countries, Bangladesh continues to be the second worst after Afghanistan. In the Asia-Pacific region, we are the fourth lowest among 31 countries, better than only Cambodia, Afghanistan, and North Korea.
No country has scored 100 percent; hence no country is free from corruption. As many as 131 countries (72 percent) have scored below 50; 108 countries (60 percent) have scored less than the global average. Compared to 2018, scores have declined in 68 (38 percent) countries, increased in 60 (33 percent) and remained same in 52 (29 percent) including Bangladesh.
Overcoming the agonies of being the lowest scorer for five successive years during 2001-2005, Bangladesh has in recent years somewhat improved, although the remains stagnant in the 20s. A long way remains if we want to reach the global average of 43.
Zero tolerance against corruption is easier pledged than implemented, especially in a context where conventional processes and institutions of checks and balances and accountability in governance and statecraft have been converted into a monopolised territory of the ruling party. It is more challenging when many of those who are mandated to implement the pledges are themselves among the beneficiaries, colluders, protectors, and promoters of corruption.
Examples are rare in which corruption is a genuinely punishable offence and the corrupt cannot be allowed impunity. During the period of data for this year's index (December 2017-October 2019), there were reports aplenty about some unprecedented scandals involving swindling of public money in procurement in multiple sectors. In almost all these instances of corruption, the common feature was a pernicious collusion of business and politically linked power with a section of individuals in law enforcement agencies and relevant officials of the concerned public entities.
The state structure and governance process are often captured by agents and beneficiaries of corruption, the striking example of which is the banking sector bedevilled by loan default and all possible forms of swindling public money. Policies and decisions often reflect demands of swindlers and defaulters rather than public interest, the cost of which is passed on to the common people.
There is hardly any public institution or sector that is not affected by corruption. Even the Anti-Corruption Commission carrying the baggage of integrity deficit since it was created has been subject to embarrassing revelation of corruption by its officials, including very senior level ones, during the data period of the index.
Without a paradigm shift in political culture towards integrity, neither can corruption be controlled effectively nor can our performance in CPI be expected to improve. Politics, political parties, processes, and positions must be insulated from the influence of big money and criminality. One crucial gap 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 substantially prevent tax evasion and money laundering.
Some progress has been made in terms of updating the anti-money laundering law and relevant institutional capacity. Much more needs to be done consistent with the evolving capacity under digitalisation of the banking sector. There is no reason why Bangladesh should stay away any longer from the international standards set up in 2014 to enable countries to internationally exchange bank information automatically, already joined by more than a hundred countries including some of our regional neighbours. In addition to opportunities opened by the UN Convention against Corruption, which Bangladesh is yet to fully take advantage of, this will greatly help prevent tax avoidance and money laundering and facilitate repatriation of stolen assets.
Public policies and enforcement must be free from the influence of the politically and financially powerful at the expense of public interest. The culture of impunity of the corrupt must be uprooted. The Anti-Corruption Commission must overcome inhibitions against acting independently and bring the corrupt to justice irrespective of identity, status and political or other linkages.
A crucial aspect of strategy to prevent and control corruption is to ensure electoral integrity including electoral finance transparency. Without compliance of electoral laws and rules by the political parties and strict enforcement by the relevant institutions, especially the Election Commission, there is no way that elections can be meaningful or corruption can be controlled.
No less important is the need to promote a culture of openness, tolerance for disclosure and dissent as key to public participation in anti-corruption movement, as mandated by the constitution ensuring freedom of expression, association, and dissent. It is the responsibility of the government to create a conducive environment for participation of civil society, NGOs, media, and citizens at large in the anti-corruption movement. Drastic and comprehensive amendment of the digital security act is indispensable. The more a society considers critics as well-wishers and change agents to strengthen the scope of compliance and accountability rather than treating them as enemies, the better will be the performance in anti-corruption.
Dr. Iftekharuzzaman is Executive Director,
Transparency International Bangladesh.