Combating corruption: Is it so simple?

Shamsul Huq Zahid
On the world anti-corruption day, observed on last Friday, the head of the country’s anti-graft watchdog, the Anti-corruption Commission (ACC), was heard saying that a strong anti-graft law would be enough to take Bangladesh out of the group of world’s most corrupt countries in next three years. The ACC chief was talking to a small army of private TV channel reporters while leading a rally in the capital on the day.

But is it so simple? Will a piece of legislation be enough to achieve the goal that has been eluding the nation for decades?

The ACC, at least in the black and white, is an independent quasi-judicial entity powerful enough to probe corruption allegation against anyone, no matter how powerful he or she is and file cases accordingly. If not succumbing to the demand from the people, who remain the victims of widespread corruption by the elements wielding state and administrative powers, the immediate past political government coming under continuous pressure from the key multilateral development partners constituted an independent anti-graft body replacing the Bureau of Anti-corruption that used to operate according to the wishes of the government.

Unfortunately, there has not been any tangible change in the situation as far as the incidence of corruption is concerned since the formation of an independent ACC in the mid 2000s. The country continues to remain in the group of most corrupt nations scoring below 3.0 of the corruption perception index (CPI) of the global anti-graft watchdog, the Transparency International (TI) though it has improved its ranking a bit in recent years. But the improvement, it is assumed, was mainly due to anti-graft actions initiated by the army-backed caretaker government that ruled the country between 2007 and 2008 and the corruption situation in some countries turning worse than before.

Bangladesh in 2011 stood 13th on the TI’s CPI scoring 2.7 ahead of Nepal, Pakistan and the Maldives in the South Asian region. There should be no reason to be complacent about the very marginal improvement in the ranking for there could be a reversal in the situation next year given the allegations of corruption at high places being raised by none other than the global lender like the World Bank (WB).

The WB’s allegation about corruption in the bidding process of the country’s dream project, the Padma Bridge, has, of late, entered a very tricky phase following Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s bid to pass the onus of proving the graft allegation on to the WB. Many, soft on the incumbent government, might find some meat in the PM’s request but, in all probability, this could further heighten the lender’s annoyance. There are also allegation of corruption in the spending of public funds in some other sectors, mainly in the Roads and Highways Department (RHD).

There is no denying that conditions attached to loans given by the multilateral lenders very often generate resentment among the cross section of people in poor developing countries. The conditions, such as reduction in the volume of subsidy and hike in power and fuel price, in many cases are found to be detrimental to the interest of the poor in the short term. Though conditions are basically aimed at improving fiscal management on the part of the government, those, in many cases, do not go well with the people.

However, those unpalatable conditions apart, the WB these days is pursuing a policy of zero-tolerance to graft. If the WB sticks to that policy, there should be no valid reason for grumbling about it or portraying the Bank as a villain not agreeing to finance an important infrastructure project like the Padma Bridge. In fact both the Bank and the government should work jointly to unearth the truth about the Padma Bridge graft allegation. Neither the WB can withdraw its assistance to a country where more than 31 per cent of the population are still mired in abject poverty nor the government can think of continuing its development activities without the WB help. Finally, both have to come to terms on the graft issue.

However, the role of the ACC in the Padma Bridge graft allegation remains unclear. Instead of pursing the issue it has taken an evasive stance under different pretexts. It could be that the Commission has no option other than taking that stance.

Coming back to the ACC chief’s emphasis on a strong anti-graft law to help the country getting rid of the stigma of being one of the most corrupt nations, it can be argued that more than anything else, the ACC should start asserting its independence without fear if it really wanted to combat corruption, which reportedly, is costing the nation more than 3.0 per cent of the GDP annually. The laws in this country are all right but their enforcement remains a major problem. The common people have a perception that the laws are meant for the poor, not for the powerful and the rich.


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