The unjust and discriminatory face of corruption
Corruption increases injustice and discrimination; its impact is multidimensional. Grand corruption, meaning collusive abuse of political, governmental and business power for private gains via manipulations of public interest-related decisions, benefits a few at the expense of the whole society. Vast amounts of public money are siphoned off through high-level corruption by perpetrators, depriving the common people. When grand corruption flourishes to the extent of state capture, the institutional, legislative, regulatory and law enforcement capacity are systematically engineered to protect and promote impunity.
The cost of grand corruption in Bangladesh is high. A former finance minister was quoted to have recognised in 2015 that at least two to three percent of our GDP was annually lost to corruption. Credible data on illicit financial transfers out of the country, as reported by Global Financial Integrity, shows that through trade-related misinvoicing alone, Bangladesh lost USD 8.275 billion annually during 2008-2015. More updated data would show the amount to be much higher, no less than USD 12 billion annually. Illicit financial outflows take place in several other ways, including the conventional method of hundi. Duly validated or not, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of police recently reported that Bangladesh was losing USD 7.8 billion of remittance annually through mobile financial services (MFSs).
Corruption generates disproportionality and inequality. Corruption affects the poor and marginalised through an unduly increased cost of, and limited or even no access to, public services. They also suffer as government resources are diverted away at the expense of investment in public sectors.
When grand corruption flourishes unabated, petty corruption involving duty bearers of service delivery also spreads deep and wide, to an extent that it becomes a way of life. For perpetrators, corruption is a matter of narcotic addiction to illicit enrichment, while for the victims – the common people – it is an extremely distressing experience in daily life that is unjust and discriminatory. This is the key message of the National Household Survey 2021 on Corruption in Service Sectors, released by Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) on August 31, 2022.
Nearly 71 percent of the respondents of the survey were victims of various forms of corruption, including bribery in 16-plus service sectors covered by the survey. Meanwhile, 72.1 percent of the victims of bribery reported that they were forced to pay bribes as they wouldn't have access to public services otherwise. There is also strong evidence according to the survey that corruption affects the marginalised sections of society more than the average victims.
The worst corruption-affected sectors, according to the experiences of respondents who had interactions in the respective service sectors, are law enforcement agencies (74.4 percent), followed by passport delivery (70.5 percent), public road transport services (68.3 percent), judicial services (56.8 percent), healthcare services (48.7 percent), local government (46.6 percent) and land (46.3 percent). In addition to bribery, corrupt practices include extortion, fraudulence, embezzlement, negligence of duties, nepotism, and harassment. The data period of the survey was December 2020 to November 2021.
It shows that the perpetrators of corruption are generally indifferent to socioeconomic or gender-based identities of service recipients, meaning that corruption adversely affects everyone. However, it impacts relatively weaker and marginalised sections of society more. The rate of victimisation of corruption among the rural households, for instance, is significantly higher (46.5 percent) than those in the urban areas (36.6 percent).
The amount of bribe collected by corrupt duty bearers from an average household is estimated to be Tk 6,640, based on which the estimated annual amount of bribery is Tk 10,830 crore, which is equivalent to 5.9 percent of the 2020-21 national budget or 0.4 percent of the GDP. The burden of bribery in terms of the proportion of average annual income is seven times higher (2.1 percent against 0.3 percent) on the lower income category of households (annual income up to Tk 24,000) compared to the higher income households (Tk 85,001 or more).
The discriminatory nature of corruption is further manifested in terms of victimisation of households headed by persons with disabilities (PWD). At least 80.3 percent of such households were victims of corruption, compared to the national average of 70.6 percent. In terms of bribery, the rate of victimisation is 51.8 percent for PWD-headed households compared to the overall 39.8 percent.
While there is little variation in the victimisation of corruption based on the professional identity of household heads, interestingly enough, over 51 percent of government officials are also victims of corruption. More strikingly, retired public servants are victims of corruption at a higher rate (68.3 percent) than their in-service peers, which validates that while corruption does not spare anyone, the weaker the service recipients are in terms of identity and status, the more they are vulnerable to corruption.
Corruption – grand or petty – is a major impediment to inclusive development and democratic governance. It weakens institutions, prevents rule of law, and erodes public trust in government. Corruption is protected and perpetuated by biased policy regimes and faulty governance practices that favour the rich and well-connected. Accordingly, the more pervasive corruption is, the higher income inequality and social exclusion become.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Bangladesh is placed high on the global list of the fastest growing countries in terms of the super rich, according to Wealth-X. The Global Inequality Lab reported that 44 percent of Bangladesh's total national income was held in 2021 by only 10 percent high-income people, while the bottom 50 percent possessed only 17.1 percent of GDP. Just one percent of the population owns more than 16 percent of total national income.
Promotion of integrity in public service is crucial to controlling corruption. So long as scope remains for abuse of power with impunity, relevant laws, rules and regulations remain unenforced, and institutions of accountability remain politicised and dysfunctional, corruption will only flourish. Much depends on the extent of political and governmental appetite, courage, and commitment to serve public interest and ensure accountability without fear or favour.
Dr Iftekharuzzaman is the executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB).