Corruption control–is it feasible or a fantasy?
December 9 is observed throughout the world as International Anti-corruption Day (IACD). On this day in 2003, the United Nations (UN) called upon governments and peoples of the world to mark the adoption of the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC).
Corruption is a crime that undermines economic development, social cohesion, political stability and democratic progress of all countries and societies without exception. It is inter alia a multi-trillion dollar global scandal geared by the global financial and banking infrastructure that remains conducive to illicit transfers of corrupt money mainly from the developing to the developed world. At national levels, corruption is a menace that causes plunder of resources; destroys a level playing field in public contracting; distorts competitive business and investment environment; and above all, erodes trust in government and politics.
Corruption causes suffering to everyone except the corrupt who may benefit from it thanks to impunity, collusion and lack of political will. Corruption hurts the poor and disadvantaged the hardest; it also kills innocent lives as we have seen in case of Rana Plaza and many more such tragedies in Bangladesh.
The purpose of observing this day is to bring such ill effects of corruption to the attention of the governments, politicians, businesses and all other stakeholders including the citizens at large, and to stress the importance of standing up together against corruption.
The importance of people's participation against corruption has been underscored by Article 13 of the UNCAC, which says, "each State Party shall … promote active participation of individuals and groups outside the public sector, such as civil society, non-governmental organisations and community-based organisations, in the prevention of and the fight against corruption …"
Bangladesh became a state party to UNCAC in 2007, and hence committed to create the space for citizens' participation in anti-corruption movement. Political call for social movement against corruption in Bangladesh indeed precedes UNCAC. In a speech on the Independence Day way back in 1975, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman called upon the people: "… the number one priority is to root out corruption … I need your help … I will enforce the law, I will not spare anybody … it has to be a people's movement … It has to be a movement to socially boycott the bribe-taker and the corrupt. … who can do it? Students can do it, the youth can, intellectuals can, the people can, each house should be turned into a fortress against corruption". It is not known though if this vision ever caught the imagination of subsequent political leaders.
Nevertheless, the list of Government commitments to control corruption and promote better governance is pretty long. A plan of implementation of UNCAC pledges was adopted by the Government in 2009; it underwent a self-assessment and peer review of implementation; the Right to Information Act was adopted in 2009, the Whistleblower Protection Act was adopted in 2011, so was the National Integrity Strategy in 2012.
These can be viewed as efforts to strengthen legal, institutional and policy capacity of the state to control corruption. The extent to which these are implemented and enforced remains a big question though, as does the quality of performance of the Anti-Corruption Commission and other institutions of accountability like the parliament, the justice system and law-enforcement agencies.
The Government's Vision 2021 recognises good governance and corruption control as indispensable elements of state policy. The Perspective Plan 2010-21 asserts that "the Government is determined to confront and root out the scourge of corruption from the body politic of Bangladesh …The Government intends to strengthen transparency and accountability of all government institutions as integral part of a programme of social change to curb corruption".
The 7th Five Year Plan (7FYP) emphasises that progress towards the desired milestones of Vision 2021 critically depends on meeting the governance challenges. Prominent among 12 broad development goals identified by the 7FYP is "promoting good governance and curbing corruption". The plan reiterates the pledge to further strengthen the democratic governance process to ensure participation of all citizens and the sound functioning of all democratic institutions. Good governance and corruption control were at the core of election manifesto in successive national elections.
To cap it all, Bangladesh is among 193 countries that have subscribed in September 2015 to the UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030, central to which is goal 16 that makes our Government pledge-bound to "promote a peaceful and inclusive society … provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels".
Under SDG target 16.5, Bangladesh is under obligation to "substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms"; under target 16.4 to "significantly reduce illicit financial and arms flows, strengthen the recovery and return of stolen assets and combat all forms of organised crime"; and under 16.10 to "ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms".
To what extent are all these likely to bear fruit or will continue to be no more than lip service, is anyone's guess. The moot question, therefore, is whether corruption control is feasible in Bangladesh or a fantasy? Bangladesh is happily no longer at the very bottom of global ranking as per corruption perceptions index (CPI) as it used to be during 2001-2005. But with a score of 25 out of 100 in 2015 it remains far from being able to effectively control corruption. Bangladesh remains the second worst performer in South Asia after Afghanistan. In terms of people's daily experiences, according to the national household survey 2015 conducted by Transparency International Bangladesh, 67.8 percent of the people were victims of corruption in the surveyed service sectors. Further details can only be more frustrating.
The point to note in the context of IACD is the ever-growing importance of multi-stakeholder involvement in fighting this menace together. This is however easier said than done in an environment where the shrinkage of space for voice and accountability has been institutionalised by legal provisions that specifically restrict freedom of speech and opinion of individuals and institutions in the non-government sector.
Will corruption control be mired by dissent control? Much would depend on whether and to what extent people at large and civil society in particular will have the passion and capacity to resist this institutionalisation of restricted civic space and prevent it from becoming the 'new normal'. It will also depend on how civil society succeeds in navigating through the barriers. An equal and indeed more important question is if and when would the government realise that all the lofty commitments without fundamental freedoms will only increase frustration among people.
As attractive as it may appear in the short term, no government can afford to alienate people by restricting critique and dissent for too long except at its own peril. Governments that restrict freedom of speech and opinion not only protect the corrupt but also create Frankensteins for themselves.
The writer is Executive Director, Transparency International Bangladesh.