It has been nearly two months since our face-off with the World Bank on Padma Bridge financing, and the latter’s decision on cancellation of the proposed credit. In the last two months we have heard rhetoric from two extremes of the spectrum. It ranged from denouncement by some of the decision by the world organisation as biased, one sided, and self-serving, to recognition of the decision by others as appropriate and deserving for our government’s failure to redress the accusations of corruption in the project. We heard our political leaders giving public vent to their chagrin with loud denials of any wrongdoing in the project by any public official. We also heard rhetoric of going to the extra length of announcing to the world the intention of going it alone. Some overzealous patriots even lauded this utopian promise and suggested ways and means to fund the project by floating bonds.
Barring some sane sections of the population that tried to bring some sense into this hot headed debate and foolish pounding of chests, the majority of our current leaders tried to ride their high horse of self-righteousness without trying to see or do what is the best way to come out of this impasse. An impasse many outside observers view as our own making.
There is no point in going over the main issue that led to the cancellation of the credit and the subsequent stalemate. But there are certain facts that we need to remind ourselves in the cacophony of rhetoric before they get lost in the noise.
First, we need this bridge as an essential element of our desperately needed expansion of transportation infrastructure. Second, we need a huge of amount of funding to build this bridge that we cannot assemble with our meager domestic resources despite all our bombastic claims. Third, this huge funding is only possible from external sources and that too at a concessional rate. Fourth, the external source of funding for our country has always been coordinated and arranged by the World Bank — an institution that has stood by us since our birth. Since Bangladesh joined the World Bank in 1972, the Bank through its soft term lending agency International Development Agency (IDA) has provided about one-quarter of all foreign aid commitments. Fifth, more than two-thirds of funding of our Annual Development Program — the core of our economic development activity — is provided by our external partners led by the World Bank. Can the rhetoric of self-righteousness and oratory of going it alone to build the bridge hide these stark realities?
Countries that depend on goodwill and support of external partners for development can ill afford to lose their trust, let alone their financial help. Bangladesh is no China, the country that went ahead finding alternative ways (largely domestic resources) to build the $22.5 billion Three Gorges Dam Project when the World Bank that time declined to participate in the funding citing environmental concerns. Bangladesh is no Malaysia where the leader of the country that time (Mahathir) refused to accept International Monetary Fund help during East Asia financial crisis because of the latter’s stringent conditions. These countries went on their own because they could rely on their own resources. Our leaders need to remind themselves that we are nowhere near these Asian giants — neither economically nor politically.
First and foremost step in halting this standoff with the World Bank is to reopen the dialogue with the Bank with a clean slate. The clean slate should start with an understanding for a transparent investigation of the allegations of wrongdoing in the project by a mutually acceptable agency of international reputation. This act should be accompanied by removing individuals who have been tainted by suspicions of misconduct in the Bridge project. In parallel, the government should assure all its development partners including the World Bank of its honest intentions to pursue what is in the best interest of its country and demonstrate to these agencies that the country is not beholden to any individual or individuals. That the government and its leaders hold the country’s interest over and above all politics and political supporters.
We may have started on a wrong foot, but we have not yet lost the momentum to correct this wrong step, gain support and garner funds to build this bridge. The logjam in financing can be broken not by rhetoric or counter accusations, but by taking steps to remove the misgivings in the minds of our external partners.
It is not guaranteed that the World Bank financing will be automatically restored when the government reopens the dialogue and agrees to take corrective steps. The Bank, like our government, has its own processes and a decision making Board. But at least the right steps by our government will demonstrate to our other external partners of our honest intentions, and that may lead to a path for a new collaboration.
We build bridges to cross barriers, facilitate traffic and provide access. However, bridges are more than meet the eye. The Padma Bridge, when built, should provide an example of building relationships — relationship of trust, friendship, and international collaboration.
The writer is a former civil servant and a retired staff member of the World Bank.