A synopsis of the battle against corruption in 2019
The year 2019 was essentially business as usual in terms of corruption in Bangladesh, as it continued to a be challenge of ever-increasing concern except for two notable features that drew public attention. On the one hand, corruption exposed itself in some unprecedented manner as booties of this illegality in casinos, public procurement and other instances of abuse of politically linked power shocked and awed many observers.
On the other hand, for the first time in the country, a high-profile anti-corruption drive was launched by a political party-led government at the initiative of the prime minister and leader of the ruling party targeting a few individuals within her party, which raised many expectations. What to expect of this bold stance remains a big question.
The first corruption-related story of the year that drew intense public attention was that Bangladesh went two steps down in both score and ranking in terms of the CPI—the Corruption Perception Index. In international comparison, we continued to be among countries perceived to be worst affected by corruption, while also remaining the second lowest in South Asia after Afghanistan in terms of prevalence of the menace.
This measure of grand corruption added to the already deepening concern that in terms of petty corruption, as experienced by 89 percent of victims of bribery, paying bribe is a sin qua non for receiving public services as the national household survey released by Transparency International Bangladesh in 2018 found. It has been widely reported throughout 2019 that the depth and breadth of bribery in public services have only intensified in spite of the recent significant increase of salaries and benefits for public officials.
At higher levels, reports of syndicated corruption in development projects using foreign grants, loans and investment funds as well as taxpayers' money appeared frequently in the media. Among the top rankers were public hospitals, educational institutions, Biman, Chattogram Port authority and custom house. Abuse of power by law enforcement agencies which have always ranked among the worst corruption-affected segments continued unabated. A police officer was even found to have corruptly colluded with a senior official of the Anti-Corruption Commission, which also acknowledges its own challenge of dealing with corrupt and unethical practices.
The police authority has reportedly taken departmental disciplinary measures against hundreds of officials and staff though in most cases, no genuinely deterrent action is known to have been taken except "punishment transfer", which in reality means only passing the burden of corruption from one place to another. Jailors, and other senior prison officials were unabashedly involved in corruption related to auction, procurement and supplies for prison canteen, commoditisation of prisoners, bail, accommodation and visits.
Corruption in public procurement symbolised by the "pillow scandal" in the Rooppur nuclear power project quickly became a new normal in other publicly funded projects involving collusively manipulated cost estimates at unbelievably high rates applied to products or services for development projects. On the other hand, public works has been one of the most lucrative targets of politically linked corruption in procurement, also through easily formed collusions with a section of relevant officials.
2019 also witnessed corruption allegations sparking off spontaneous public rallies. One was in the wake of a Transparency International Bangladesh report that exposed corruption in Wasa causing poor quality of water and other services. The other was against illegal transactions in connection with development projects of Jahangirnagar University allegedly involving the vice chancellor and her family.
Institutions usually outside the antenna of corruption reporting like Islamic Foundation made news around corruption in recruitment. So did the Election Commission, a section of leadership and senior officials of which found attendance and lectures in trainings a convenient means of illicit money making. The EC further shocked observers when its staff got involved in the corrupt business of issuing NIDs to a sizable number of Myanmar nationals of Rohingya identity. Then came the unusual story of a triangular internal feud between CEC, commissioners and the secretariat around an unprecedented competition for advantage, by violating the due process in recruitment, which was widely exposed by the media.
The most ominous trend has been the accumulated crisis in the banking and financial sector bedevilled by institutionalised abuse of politico-financial power like loan default, through collusion, protected and promoted by Bangladesh Bank under pressure of the government. The trend continued throughout the year more blatantly than ever.
The problem of money laundering across borders has been in the news prominently—according to internationally credible data released in 2019, Bangladesh was ranked 26th globally and second in South Asia after only India. Counted mainly on the basis of trade-related misinvoicing, at least USD 9 billion is laundered from Bangladesh in a year. Efficient cross-checking of the data may determine what portion of the defaulted loans are finding its way out of the country.
On the other hand, as recently estimated by TIB, at least USD 2 billion is lost annually to six top destination countries for Bangladeshi expatriate workers in the form of illegal payment for work permits which is supposed to be free of cost. By another estimate, at least USD 3.5 billion is annually laundered by illegally employed foreign nationals in Bangladesh, mostly in the private sector.
The list is much longer. Corruption and impunity have not only been institutionalised to a level of state capture, but also allowed to grow like a monstrous multi-headed Lernean Hydra which also needs multi-dimensional strategic measures to control. The problem has acquired such dimensions by a long-nourished feature of political culture in the country by which access to power by direct, indirect or even manipulated political links is taken as an unrestricted mandate to abuse that power for private gain and personal enrichment. In exercising this mandate, a collusion is conveniently built with partners and agents from business, administration, law enforcement and indeed the whole set of state institutions.
Against this backdrop of despair, the high-profile drive targeting a few ruling party affiliated student and youth leaders, some procurement lords and kingpins of casinos, raised public expectations. Three important points made by the head of the government and leader of the ruling party encouraged people to expect that things may change. She declared the government will exercise a policy of zero-tolerance against corruption; promised that nobody will be spared; and made the unprecedented pledge to cleanse her own house first.
The main challenge, however, is about enforcing these in word and spirit, which depends on the capacity and commitment of those who are entrusted and authorised to do so. Unfortunately, many of those in key roles are considered to be among the beneficiaries, promoters and protectors of the institutional structure of corruption.
Take the instance of casinos that flourished in Dhaka right before the eyes of the law enforcement agencies, administration and other relevant government departments, political leaders and public representatives of various levels. The same is true of the network of corruption in public procurement, which has been exposed as the source of filthy enrichment of some of those who are under investigation, but facilitated by a win-win game involving collusion and protection by the proverbial big fish.
In this context, effective delivery of anti-corruption demands a retransformation of values, norms and practices in political parties, which is the most difficult part. Equally difficult is the task of depoliticising the relevant state institutions, rendered almost dysfunctional mainly by partisan influence. In the absence of any real progress in that direction, there is no magic bullet to control the monstrous hydra of corruption.
Iftekharuzzaman is Executive Director, Transparency International Bangladesh.