Padma Bridge: No more brinkmanship

In the wake of World Bank’s (WB) cancellation of its contract with the Government of Bangladesh on June 29, 2012 for $1.2 billion credit for the Padma Bridge, I wrote in these columns on July 2 that the government faced an acid-test which like any other challenge in life could be converted into a new opportunity. This in our view then and now could, however, happen only if the government shunned its typical denial syndrome and generated the courage and commitment to ensure a fully independent, credible investigation into allegations of corruption and deliver exemplary punishment, if found guilty.

We also commented then that the World Bank’s decision to cancel the contract was not only debatable but also an example of chopping off the head because of a headache. It was our view that the WB, a newcomer to the world of openness and accountability, could be more strategic and could continue to engage with the government. We had called upon the WB to review its decision.

As a stakeholder in the business of low-interest credit for development projects in countries like Bangladesh which is indeed the lifeline of WB itself, we were convinced that the Bank should not only come back to Padma but also take the responsibility as a key fiduciary agent of the project to ensure integrity, transparency and accountability in its implementation process.

Vindicated as our stance was then on both counts as it is today in the context of the WB’s decision to revive its loan agreement, our basic premise remains that neither the WB, nor the government has any right to deprive the people of Bangladesh of the development opportunity for alleged corruption of a handful of people.

After almost a year of brinkmanship since allegations of corruption in the project was first raised, the Government today has to take the correct lesson out of the experience so that it doesn’t face any recurrence of such self-embarrassment in the days to come before the eyes of the people of this country as well as international community.

The return of WB may be viewed at the moment as a diplomatic gain for the government. However, taking the proper lesson out of the whole episode, it must now firmly abandon the ostrich-like denial syndrome of rejecting allegations of corruption and take these seriously to ensure due investigation free from any bias or influence so that exemplary action is taken against those found guilty without any fear or favour. Failing this, the sense of satisfaction in the corridors of the government and beyond can be short-lived.

The government’s failure to act promptly as soon as allegation of corruption was brought has not only undermined its own credibility, but also led to the possibility of depriving the people of the country of the multi-purpose dream-bridge — a high profile electoral commitment of the government, the return from which has been estimated to be 1.5-2.0 percent higher GDP.

There is no reason to believe that resumption of WB funding to be evidently joined by other donors like JICA and ADB for the bridge will by itself help regain the eroded trust of the people of the country about the government’s respect to its own electoral pledge against corruption in general and for that matter in the implementation of the Padma Bridge project.

To achieve that trust, the government must ensure strong and faultless measures to prevent all forms of illicit act and conflict of interest, particularly high profile cases of collusive corruption involving people in positions of power. Stern actions must be taken not only with respect to allegations of corruption in Padma Bridge and its new phase, but also in case of other big corruption scandals like the stock market, Destiny Group, Hall Mark and Sonali Bank and the vast range of other allegations of abuse of power.

The government cannot ignore the fact that frustration due to a deepening culture of impunity is no more limited to people outside the government but also a lot of those within. It was clearly demonstrated by the desperate appeal to the prime minister placed a week before the breakthrough by the high command of Bangladesh Awami League, the largest partner in the grand alliance government.

The brinkmanship that the government indulged into in the whole process was epitomised by the way that the last remaining roadblock, e.g., the fourth condition of WB, was handled. This may have unfortunately widened the space in which conditionalities typical of the likes of the WB could go beyond ensuring transparency and accountability and safeguards against corruption that Bank is preaching today.

The negotiating team headed by the external affairs adviser to the prime minister supported by a desperate finance minister must be commended for the breakthrough. But there is no doubt that the “getting to yes” was far from a position of strength as far as the government is concerned. The bargaining position of the government may weaken further and affect the degree of flexibility and independence in the decision-making process unless the government demonstrates and sustains unqualified political commitment against corruption.

Agreeably enough, it needs a rather unlikely optimist to believe that such delivery is going to come about in any significant way at a time when the policy structures appear to be increasingly entering the grips of those who are part or protectors of the collusive forces involved in the alleged instances of grand corruption rather than those who would be supportive of effectively challenging impunity. The silver lining can be found, ironically though, in the fact that time is running out for delivery against commitment consistent with the government’s electoral pledge at the core of which was corruption control.

The author is Executive Director, Transparency International Bangladesh.


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