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News Analysis
Reform agenda and demise of pious wish
Shahiduzzaman Khan

          The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) was formed with the pious intention of dealing firmly with the unbridled corruption that is so deeply embedded in the country's socio-political and administrative systems. A series of problems afflicted the launching of the commission at the initial stage. Of late, the ACC seems to be gearing up its operations with a renewed vigour.
The ACC is an upgraded organisational version of the now-defunct Bureau of Anti-Corruption (BAC). It was expected to be run more effectively with sufficient funds and manpower at its disposal. The government had committed several times that the ACC would have unlimited power to execute its day-to-day affairs.
A report published in the FE this week suggested that the commission was still having problems in running its daily operations. Thus, for lack of necessary funds and manpower, the ACC has dropped the idea of setting up two cells at the country's two ports -- Chittagong and Benapole. Now the question is: why was the government so upbeat about the projected performances of the ACC? Why is the pious wish now meeting a sudden demise?
Bangladesh topped the list of the most corrupt nations in the rankings of the Transparency International (TI) for the fifth consecutive years. The development partners also are eyeing corruption as number one problem of the country. They have been warning Bangladesh about eliminating corruption or face the music. Yet the incumbent government has been nonchalant. This is very unfortunate.
It is widely known that the country's ports and customs houses are plagued by unbridled corruption. The practice of open bribery on the table is a common phenomenon in the port and customs houses and it is also largely prevalent among the related service-users. The Bangladesh chapter of TI in its report found that Tk 8.01 billion was being transacted in the Chittagong port and the customs house as inducements on an average every year.
If branch offices could be established in Chittagong port and Benapole, the ACC could have an opportunity to give an effective check to the bribery and other malpractices there. But now this is not going to happen. Yet the ACC chairman remains firmly upbeat. He said in Chittagong recently that the incidences of corruption have fallen drastically, expressing the hope that the country would no more rank first in the corruption index of the TI. Is the ACC chairman talking right? How could he know that the country would not rank first again since no effective anti-corruption activities are yet in sight? An ombudsman's office, to act effectively as the watchdog against corruption, is yet to be set up.
The ACC chairman, addressing a luncheon meeting with the members of AmCham this week, gave also a broad hint that after the framing of the rules by the Cabinet Secretary within one month, 50 per cent of the country's corruption could be eliminated within a year. He, however, did not specify the modalities under which such a drastic fall would occur.
After the dissolution of the former bureau, the ACC had literally became inactive, though it appointed some officers to continue the works like issuance of clearance of government officers for promotion and attending to summons issued by the courts trying anti-corruption cases.
Addressing the same meeting, President of the AmCham Andrew L. Fawthrop said it is important to take drastic actions against the corruption and push the country towards higher growth path -- like a sustainable growth rate of country's gross domestic product (GDP) between 7.0 and 8.0 per cent for several years.
Andrew said if the nation could move in this direction, the unwanted and negative perception about Bangladesh would diminish on its own, the interest of the local as well as foreign investors would accelerate, poverty could be alleviated to a great extent and that is the hardest challenge before the country.
There is no denying that the corruption is rampant in Bangladesh in most sectors. Tax and customs administration is at the top of agenda. Country's banking system is plagued by default. Bribery and thefts in utilities such as power, ports and telecommunications are rampant. The human development services are also subject to poor governance.
This 'systems loss' appears to be present in all sectors of the society. Added to this, lack of institutional reform, severe confrontational politics, 'criminalisation' of politics and deterioration of law and order are hindering the country's sustainable economic growth.
However, there should be a credible mechanism to penalise officials for corruption and inefficiency, and reward the meritorious ones for efficiency. Declaration of assets and liabilities also needs to be made mandatory for ministers, legislators and people entering or leaving public service.
Getting rid of corruption is really a daunting task for Bangladesh. However, the country has many things to learn from other nations that are giving increasing attention to issues of governance and corruption and are investing substantial resources in making their governments more accountable, transparent and responsive to the needs of their people.
There is little public trust in the police force, widely regarded as one of the most corrupt organisations. Reports of torture, intimidation, extortion, and extra judicial killings are also rife within the police force. The impact of bitter hostility between the two leaders of mainstream political parties is severe. It has resulted in the politicisation of key institutions of society such as the bureaucracy, police, academics and lower levels of the judiciary.
The failure of the political elite to address the socio-political causes of corruption and to bring the bureaucracy under political control helped corruption to take a firm root. Even popularly elected representatives are unwilling to take effective measures against large-scale corruption.
An anti-corruption strategy should thus be developed in order to bring about a reform in the public sector. The World Bank (WB) suggested for a substantial raise in salaries of public sector employees, especially for the senior officers, in line with those in the private sector. It also pleaded for reducing the number of public employees at the lower level in order to be affordable. Better paid officials, according to the WB, will be under less economic pressure to supplement their incomes though corruption.
Meanwhile, it is worthwhile to underline the need for proper use of information technology (IT) that provides opportunity for increasing transparency. Therefore, all government offices should be run through online multi-media. The people must have channels to report corruption that should be readily accessible.
TI's successive branding of the country as the 'most corrupt' should raise alarm bell to the government. The ACC should make coordinated efforts to help the government undergo through drastic reforms in every sector. Implementation of the reform agenda is a fundamental need for helping the nation recover from the social vices.
But it is well-nigh impossible for an incumbent government to push through such an agenda at the fag end of its periodic electoral cycle. So for all practical purposes, hard actions for institutional reforms of the government will have to wait until elections are held.
Until then, ridding the country of corruption will remain a hope against hope under the given circumstances in the country.


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