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Expand space for accountability to control corruption

December 9 is observed as the International Anti-corruption Day (IACD). On this day in 2003, the United Nations called upon governments and peoples of the world to mark the adoption of the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC). IACD is intended to highlight the importance of concrete and collective action against corruption involving all stakeholders.

The Cabinet Division of the Government of Bangladesh decided in 2017 that IACD will be officially observed in the country annually. For Bangladesh, IACD has assumed much greater significance this year as we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the glorious victory of our independence.

We take pride in our internationally enviable achievements in terms of many socio-economic indicators and now realistic aspirations to become a middle-income country. The country's GDP growth remains consistently high, while in terms of such indicators as Human Development Index, Multidimensional Poverty Index, Gender Development Index, population growth reduction and life expectancy at birth, Bangladesh has been performing better than comparable countries in South Asia and beyond.

However, Bangladesh also anguishes for its contrastingly poor performance in terms of nearly every credible indicator of governance and corruption. These include the Rule of Law Index, Regulatory Quality Index, Government Effectiveness Index, Political Stability Index, Voice and Accountability Index, Press Freedom Index, Political Rights Index and the civil liberties index.

According to the Corruption Perception Index 2020, Bangladesh continues to be ranked among countries where corruption is perceived to be most pervasive. Although it has been able to overcome the pains of being at the very bottom of the list as during 2001-05, its current 12th position from the bottom, with a score of 26 out of 100, remains well below the global average of 43, and the second-lowest in South Asia, only after Afghanistan.

Corruption is a crime that undermines and impedes development, social cohesion, political stability and democratic progress everywhere. It is a menace that causes the plundering of resources, destroys level playing field in public contracting, distorts competitive business and investment environment, and erodes trust in government and politics. It increases poverty and income disparity, too. It is a multi-trillion-dollar global scandal that includes illicit transfers of corrupt money, mainly from the developing countries like ours to the developed world. Credible estimates suggest annual illicit transfers from Bangladesh at a rate of USD 10 to 12 billion.

Bangladesh's performance in growth and socioeconomic transformation could have been much better if it had effectively controlled corruption, the cost of which is estimated as at least two to three percent of GDP. For the common people, it is a distressing experience that hurts the poor and disadvantaged the hardest. According to the national household survey on corruption released by Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) in 2018, 66 percent of the surveyed people experienced corruption in the service delivery sectors while 89 percent of those who were victims of bribery were forced to make unauthorised payments as they wouldn't otherwise have access to public services.

Against this backdrop, as we mark the country's 50th victory anniversary, we need to consider the opportunity costs of corruption in terms of our aspirations for sustainable development, democracy, justice and equality. What the UN has identified as the theme of this year's IACD—"Your Right, Your Role: Say No to Corruption"—was much more eloquently and comprehensively articulated by the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, back in 1975 in a speech on Independence Day, as follows:

"In 1971, I called upon you to create fortresses in every household against Pakistani rulers … the number one priority today is to root out corruption … I will enforce the laws, I will not spare anybody … I need your help …  it has to be a people's movement … it has to be a movement to socially boycott the bribe-takers and the corrupt. … Who can do it? Students can do it, the youth can, intellectuals can, the people can … each household should be turned into a fortress against corruption."

Given the level of criminalisation of politics and the depth and breadth of corruption, there is hardly any indicator of whether and to what extent Bangabandhu's call inspired subsequent rulers and political leaders, including the party he led before being brutally killed and deprived of the opportunity to lead the transformation needed to realise his vision. 

The incumbent head of the government coincidentally echoed the same spirit in the context of the casino scandal and a short-lived high profile drive against ruling party-affiliated youth leaders, procurement lords and casino "dons". She declared zero tolerance against corruption, promised that nobody would be spared and made the ambitious pledge to cleanse "own house" first. The zero tolerance commitment was repeated by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in the context of Covid-19 pandemic response.

However, hardly anything has been done to effectively implement these pledges. Nowhere in the world can such pledges be translated into reality by the head of a government alone. Ironically, a section of the people—in their official and institutional capacity—who are entrusted to implement the pledge are among the colluders, beneficiaries and protectors of corruption.

The importance of multi-stakeholder participation against corruption has been underscored by Article 13 of the UNCAC, "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." A State Party to the Convention against Corruption for Bangladesh thus has to be committed to creating space for citizens' participation in the anti-corruption movement.

This is easier said than done in an environment where there are aspirations of monopolising the political space, and where the scope for voice and accountability has been severely restricted by the motivated application of certain provisions of laws that restrict freedom of speech and opinion of civil society, media and common people. For the same reason, nearly every institution of democracy and national integrity system has been rendered politicised and dysfunctional, creating scope for widespread impunity enjoyed by abusers of power. 

Enforcement of law and holding the corrupt to account without fear or favour are crucial for corruption control, but equally important is to transform anti-corruption work into a social movement, as stressed by Bangabandhu. Space must be expanded, not restricted, for civil society and media to exercise their rights and responsibilities as enshrined in the Constitution, without which any prospect of holding power-abusers to account will remain only a dream.

Dr Iftekharuzzaman is executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB).

The Daily Star,

December 09, 2021