The coronavirus pandemic has been converted into a festival of corruption in the health sector in Bangladesh. Crises like these do increase the risk of corruption everywhere in the world. However, there is perhaps no other country where corruption has been found to be as awkwardly pervasive as in Bangladesh.
The outrageous nature and dimensions of corruption of contractors and suppliers with real or manipulated political linkages, in collusion with a section of public officials in responsible positions, have been shocking for many. The scandal around N-95 mask supplies or fraudsters like Regent or JKG or the donor-funded Covid-19 Emergency Response and Pandamic Preparedness Project are but a few examples.
The list of such big-fish corruption is endless. Equally shocking has been the distressing instances of corruption in relief operations, including widespread allegations of misappropriation of relief goods for the worst affected and cash support to the ultra-poor, in which none other than the politically powerful, so-called public representatives reportedly played the dominant role. Corruption has been rife, from big procurement and supply related deals to the lowest level deliveries of services, including asking for bribes for the scheduling of Covid-19 tests and even a business of fake negative reports that has led several countries to close their doors to Bangladeshi nationals.
However, it will be naive to consider the health sector as the only villain. Put any other sector under similar stress as the health sector today and the scenario will be the same, if not worse. The financial sector for instance, has been pushed to the brink of collapse by the big shots who have captured the state to a level that among those who dictate terms for the banking and financial sector are the swindlers, launderers and defaulters, not the laws, rules or regulations.
For those who are beneficiaries of it, corruption is a matter of narcotic dependence while for those who are victims—the common people—it is an extremely distressing experience in daily life, which is indeed hostage to it. According to the national household survey released by Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) in June 2018, 89 percent of respondents who experienced corruption reported that they were forced to pay bribes in order to access public services. The experiences are more or less the same in every sector while law enforcement, land administration and justice are among the worst affected.
Another striking feature of corruption in Bangladesh is that those who are entrusted with the responsibility to control corruption, for instance the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), are ineffective and politically influenced. A section of ACC officials are reportedly corrupt, and it doesn't have enough courage to exercise the institutional and legal mandate entrusted to it. It seems to have drawn a line beyond which it doesn't find itself confident to go. As a result, at best only some small fries in the sea of corruption are chased while the big fish remain untouched.
Anti-corruption pledges are repeatedly made from the highest level of the government, including the call for zero tolerance against corruption. Soon after the onset of the coronavirus crisis, the pledge was repeated that no corruption would be tolerated in the Covid-19 response. However, precious little is done to enforce and implement such pledges. Nowhere in the world are such pledges translated into reality by the head of the government personally. Ironically for us, a section of the people who are supposed to be in charge of implementing this highest level pledge are reportedly among the stakeholders and kingpins of collusive corruption; they benefit from it, promote it, protect it and facilitate impunity.
Stories of some corrupt individuals widely reported in the media recently, like the procurement mafia, casino dons, pillow and kettle scamsters, land-grabbing brothers from Faridpur, or the MP arrested in Kuwait, have been shocking. But in reality, as invariably linked to criminalised politics, these are neither surprising nor isolated. All these are syndromes of a cancerous disease that has been allowed to spread deep and wide in the political space across the country. What we read, hear and thus get shocked and awed at are just the tip of the iceberg. At the core of it is bedevilled politics and its increasing criminalisation is the collusion with a section of the law enforcement agencies and administration. Add to this the vicious cycle of a set of dysfunctional institutions of integrity and accountability.
Bangladesh's commendable performance in growth and its socioeconomic transformation could have been much better if it could achieve higher standards of governance and effectively controlled corruption, the cost of which is considered to be at least two to three percent of GDP. The country has performed poorer than many of its peers in terms of nearly every important governance indicator. In terms of the Rule of Law Index, Bangladesh was only 112th out of 126 countries in 2019. Our performance is equally poor in the Regulatory Quality Index, Government Effectiveness Index, Voice and Accountability Index, Press Freedom Index, Political Rights Index, Civil Liberties Index, and not least the Corruption Perception Index. Bangladesh is also among a few countries where corruption even costs lives, as experienced in the case of Rana Plaza, Spectrum Garments, and the Nimtoli and Churihatta tragedies, just to mention a few.
Against this backdrop, the advent of coronavirus and its fallout have only accentuated the challenges. Politically, indications are in abundance of increased concentration of power, decreased space for political dissent and further politicised and weakened institutions. All these may cause lower levels of law enforcement, increased impunity, reduced access to justice and redress, and increased discrimination. High level political pronouncement against corruption is most likely to continue at least as a perceived means of legitimacy, though the appetite and capacity to enforce it are likely to remain low.
The infrastructural, systemic and resource deficits in the health system, as well as other related sectors like social protection and education, may not only continue to cause public sufferings but can create more opportunities for corruption and rent-seeking.
Because of political linkage and influence, larger business entities including export-oriented ones, in their leapfrog race to benefit more from the stimulus package and other government support, are likely to make the medium, small and the vast informal sector lag behind. In the process, business integrity will be further undermined. On the other hand, media and civil society spaces may shrink further, at a time when the need for civic mobilisation for voice and accountability is more than ever.
As challenging as the job of anti-corruption is in this context, it is still not an impossibility. Much would depend on the extent to which the importance of the political magic bullet is brought home. Our political leaders need to realise that it is only in their hands that the Frankenstein's monster they have created can be controlled.
Other crucial entry points include the abolition of the culture of impunity and bringing the corrupt, especially the big fish, to justice. Systemic improvements like more robust and rigorous application of the digitised procurement system, as well as public service delivery, are well within the capacity of the authorities, given political will.
A key catalyst rests in the introduction and enforcement of a robust law to manage conflicts of interest so that public representatives and public officials at all levels are barred from having any business relations with the state.
The 2012 Anti-money Laundering Act that has remained a paper tiger must be enforced, while the Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit must be made effective. Professional skills and integrity of the law enforcement agencies and ACC that are mandated to control corruption and money laundering must be drastically reformed.
The National Board of Revenue should have long been able to control mis-invoicing, which is the dominant channel of illicit financial transfers. Bangladesh must adopt the global standard for automatic exchange of information on financial accounts that could facilitate robust tracking of financial flows within and across borders.
Over and above, effective delivery of anti-corruption demands a retransformation of values, norms and practices of political parties for public good and depoliticisation of the state institutions, without which there is no way corruption can be controlled.
Iftekharuzzaman is Executive Director, Transparency International Bangladesh.