A forlorn hope for the country: Transparency in Bangladesh

Daily Star, Dhaka
Janauary 27, 2004

Hafeejul Alam
(The author is a management specialist)


That the transparency situation in Bangladesh has since vitiated the total system of governance does not make a news any more, for it is evident to all and sundry that the establishment has since put on a nasty tag of "most corrupt in the world" bestowed by none other than the Transparency International for the last three consecutive years. However, if sincere efforts are not initiated to remove "that tag" and if a sort of ostrich policy pervades all over, we would continue to attract not only news but the tear-jerking ones, letting down our image as also smashing up our already-impoverished economy.

Then again, things get worse when the distinguished foreign dignitaries point to our messy situation in unmistaken terms. Thus, in a recent meeting with the leaders of the BGMEA, the visiting US Congressman Joseph F. Crowley remarked, "The lack of transparency in awarding contracts is an issue affecting trade and investment in Bangladesh, and all these are leaving a negative impression on the US." It is worth mentioning here that the US is the second largest buyer of the Bangladeshi garments and Bangladesh enjoys a highly favorable trade- balance with that country. Needless to say, the situation may be reversed any time, if we don't bother to improve our standing. From the BGMEA source, we could learn that Bangladesh's export to the US has already reduced by 18% in 2003 compared to 2001 in terms of value.

Although we are getting wide media coverage about the prevalent sleazes which include the names of no less than the important cabinet ministers, there is hardly any official press note on the reported issues except for indulging ministerial commentaries, as if our government machinery is as neat as a new pin. In a recent move, the Chairmen of the 44 law-maker headed parliamentary standing committees have reportedly united to ask the government to give them more power to make sure that their recommendations are implemented. They reported that "corruption goes unchecked and remedial recommendations are not implemented, as the ministries don't provide the committees with documents." Needles to say, this points to the Achilles' heel inherent in the system of the governance. A business leader in a recent meeting has very rightly observed that crime in Bangladesh has become "a profitable business" much to the frustration of the foreign investors. This may sound grotesque, but reveals the stark truth about our national life. The politico-economic nexus is shaping the society in such a way that only the crime and dishonest practices thrive and there is no incentive to be decent and honest.

After two years of intense examination of the irregularities in government expenditure, the seven -member commission called Public Expenditure Review Commission (Perc) headed by M. Hafizuddin Khan has done a splendid job for the nation, by not only revealing the sordid details of the transparency situation of Bangladesh but also suggesting for an up-front and corrective recipe. The government-appointed body blamed the waste of the Prime Minister's relief fund on to the lack of transparency and recommended punishment to the persons responsible for wasting state funds in the name of "beautification and development" of Dhaka Airport Road.

The commission categorically reported that the three constitutional committees of the Jatiya Sangsad (National Parliament) could not ensure accountability and transparency in public expenditure and remove corruption in state organizations and identified "lack of political commitment and unwillingness to add zest to parliamentary norms and culture as the reasons for stalemate in the constitutional bodies." The commission's recommendations also included such matters as discouraging state iftar parties and downsizing the number of ministries. However, the most dramatic one was the winding up of the PMO office on the raison d'ê

tre that in a parliamentary system of government, the Prime Minister normally operates through the cabinet division and that the measure would not only help avoid over-centralisation, but would go a long way in controlling the public fund.

As a direct consequence of lack of transparency and accountability, the economy is slumping down day by day. There appears to be no sign of any upturn, nor there is any visible effort to improve the situation. Catchy slogans and stunning public speeches can't provide for the millions, nor those can lead to any growth pattern. According to the recent interim report on "The State of the Bangladesh Economy in the Fiscal Year 2003-2004 prepared by the CPD (Centre for Policy Dialogue), the economy is "depressed by marginal growth in the manufacturing sector, low level of FDI inflow, net outflow of agricultural credit, transitory bubbles in the capital market, paralysis in the privatization process, slowdown in the remittance flow, and, last but not the least, the perceptible price-hike of essential commodities." If we look at the economic giants of Asia like China, Malaysia, South Korea or even at India and Sri Lanka, we would find that the crucial element of their rapid economic growth was nothing but massive foreign investment. In the year 2001, the total Foreign Direct Investment ( FDI ) in Bangladesh was to the tune of US $ 79 million and in 2002, the amount got trimmed down to US $ 45 million and presently it is all time low and there is no scope to mystify the situation by statistical juggling.

Obviously, the saner people from every strata of the society are extremely distressed at this moribund trend. While combating corruption is considered a crucial step in stimulating FDI as also the economic growth, it's almost impossible to contain corruption or maintain transparency without a political will. No gain in saying the fact that a pragmatic and statesmanlike approach could bring about a sweeping development in the total transparency scenario, having a far-reaching effect on our path to progress and growth. In this respect, the success story of the National Accountability Bureau of Pakistan could be set as an example before the policy-makers of Bangladesh. As suggested by the different development partners, setting up of a totally independent anti-corruption body without any governmental interference could also go a long way to deal with the corrupt practices. After all, sincere efforts are necessary to contain the massive corruption in the society and if a system of transparency could be established at the top, the bottom would automatically adjust itself with the same.

As a first step, the cabinet- members of the government and top officials could be asked to periodically declare their assets and properties including the sources of possession. The system of nomination for parliament members by the political parties could be made open and transparent and subject to audit by the Election Commission. The political parties too could be registered with the election commission and their fund positions periodically audited. The structural checks and balance between the executive, the judiciary, and the parliament as is found in the Westminster type of democracy could be established, ensuring total independence of the judiciary. The parliamentary standing committees could also be vested with adequate powers to deal with the sordid state of different ministries and public bodies.

However, from the objective situation as available in the country, it would be a sheer reverie even to think that the required political will would be spontaneously forthcoming to make transparency and accountability come about and that everything would be okay in the country in the foreseeable future. That the recently published 340-page report of the Public Expenditure Review Commission (PERC) would hit the nail on the head of the establishment was expected. What is not expected is the political will to sincerely go through the report and implement the recommendations contained therein, for the way the present regime had been conducting itself for the past two and a half years would not suggest that at all.

So long the establishment, with their brute majority in the parliament, would foster the attitude that "the king can do no wrong" and put on show a supine indifference to the prevalent widespread corruption and so long the reported sleazes of the ministries and public bodies would not go through the necessary judicial inquiries revealing the correct picture, the nation would be ill with abysmal image-crisis with a forlorn hope for the economy.


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