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Disappointing CPI score: What trajectory is Bangladesh on?

The Transparency International (TI) released its Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2021 on January 25, 2022. Bangladesh has scored 26 out of 100—the same as in 2020, 2019 and 2018. From the top, Bangladesh is ranked 147th among 180 countries, one step lower than 2020, and 13th from the bottom, one step higher than 2020. The result is disappointing. We have failed to achieve any real progress. More importantly, based on a trend analysis for 2012-2021, Bangladesh has stagnated at the same score of 26, which indicates the lack of success in controlling corruption over the past decade.

Once again, we are second worst in South Asia, above only Afghanistan. We are also the third lowest among 31 countries in the Asia Pacific region, and continue to score well below the global average of 43, an indicator of moderate success in corruption control.

No country has scored 100 percent, implying that corruption exists everywhere. About 130 countries (72 percent) have scored below 50, and 100 countries (55 percent) less than the global average. The 10-year trend analysis shows a mixed picture: the score has increased for 84 countries, decreased for 83, while seven including Bangladesh have stagnated in their respective score.

Denmark, Finland and New Zealand have jointly topped the list, each having scored 88. Other countries leading the list with more than 75 percent score are Norway, Singapore and Sweden (85), Switzerland (84), Netherlands (82), Luxembourg (81), Germany (80), the UK (78), and Hong Kong (76). Notable weak performers are the US (67), Spain (61), Italy (56), China (45), and Russia (29). Russia's score has dropped from 42, while China's score has gone up from 32 to 45. South Sudan is at the very bottom, having scored 11. Other lowest performers are war-torn or "failed states" like Syria, Somalia, Venezuela, Yemen, North Korea, Afghanistan, Libya, Equatorial Guinea, Turkmenistan, DR Congo, and Burundi.

Bhutan continues to be the best South Asian performer, scoring 68 and ranked 25th from the top, followed by India and Maldives scoring 40, Sri Lanka (37), Nepal (33), Pakistan (28) and Afghanistan (16). The trend analysis for 2012-2021 shows Bhutan to have gained five points, India four, Nepal eight, Afghanistan eight, and Pakistan one. Only Sri Lanka has lost three points, while Bangladesh remains stagnated. Data for Maldives were not available.

Bangladesh has overcome the agonies of being the worst performer in 2001-2005. However, we have disappointingly remained in the category of countries where corruption is considered to be acute. Disappointing in particular for the fact that the period for which CPI 2021 data relates to (November 2018 –September 2021) was supposed to be one of zero tolerance against corruption.

At the time of launching the 2018 election manifesto, the prime minister made a zero tolerance pledge against corruption. After forming the cabinet, she reminded the ministers of the same. Subsequently, delivering a speech to the nation, she stressed upon four aspects of her anti-corruption pledge: those involved in corruption must move away from it and practice integrity; the laws must be strictly enforced; information technology in public services must be expanded; and cooperation of media and general public must be ensured to prevent corruption. In the context of the much-talked-about anti-corruption drive in September 2019, she announced that nobody should be spared, including leaders or workers of her own party. She later reiterated zero corruption in the response and recovery programme undertaken by the government to confront the Covid-19 pandemic.

Hence, it was logical to expect that Bangladesh would perform better. The reality is just the opposite. Belying the prime minister's pledge, corruption has flourished as a section of unscrupulous people, often linked with power, took the pandemic crisis as an opportunity to abuse power and accumulate wealth. At the local level, a section of officials and politically influential people, including public representatives, indulged in various forms of corruption in supply and distribution of relief goods for the victims of the crisis. Even the cash support scheme for the ultra-poor was not spared. The floodgate of corruption got expanded in procurement and supplies involving vendors with alleged political links colluding with a section of officials.

Money laundering captured headlines highlighting reported involvement of the powerful, including public representatives, officials and businesspersons. In addition to money laundering, some public representatives were even involved in human trafficking, including one convicted out of the country, though concrete action within the country against any such instance has been negligible.

A key factor in the non-delivery of zero tolerance pledge is the intrinsic linkage between politics, money and corruption, causing a disconnect of public decisions and actions from common people's interest. The banking sector is an example of state capture, whereby policies and decisions often reflect the interest of loan defaulters and swindlers. The Covid recovery stimulus package represented bias for the predominant business lobbies, while the interest of the poor and disadvantaged remained peripheral. The institutions mandated to ensure rule of law and accountability have been rendered dysfunctional by politicisation. As a result, the beneficiaries, colluders and promoters of corruption are protected. Accountability is rare except for smaller fries, whereas the big fish enjoy impunity, thanks to their links with power—real or manipulated.

Without a paradigm shift in our political culture to put public interest first, replacing the practice of treating political affiliation as a licence for abuse of power, corruption cannot be controlled. Politics and political positions must be insulated from the influence of money and criminality. Depoliticisation of institutions is critical to ensuring rule of law. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) must be able to effectively criminalise corruption, irrespective of social, political and financial status. To promote public participation against corruption, the space must be expanded for openness, reporting and discourse on corruption, and the exercise of constitutionally guaranteed rights, including freedoms of opinion and dissent.

The theme of CPI 2021 is "Corruption, Human Rights and Democracy." Corruption contributes to an unsafe climate for human rights and its defenders. The Transparency International estimates that out of 331 cases of murder of human rights defenders globally in 2020, 98 percent occurred in 23 countries with high levels of corruption, and at least 20 such cases targeted anti-corruption activists.

Restricting freedoms of opinion and dissent is a strategic weapon to protect corruption and weaken the scope of societal checks on it. Unabated corruption reduces the state's capacity to ensure accountability, enhances impunity, and makes corruption a way of life.

Corruption leads to democratic decline and dysfunctionality of institutions. It increases injustice and abuse of human rights, which in turn leads to further corruption, causing a vicious cycle. Given the state of violation of human rights in Bangladesh, deficits of the rule of law in general and abuse of the Digital Security Act (DSA) in particular, whether we are on the same trajectory or not is anyone's guess.

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

The Daily Star,

January 26, 2022 

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