[Cross posted at E-Bangladesh]
Today Berlin-based Transparency International (TI) released its Corruption Perceptions Index for 2007. The Daily Star newspaper in Bangladesh announced the news with the headline "Bangladesh improves on its graft image: Climbs up to 7th position from bottom of TI’s corruption index." Indeed Bangladesh this year tied for the 7th lowest spot on the index and in 2006 Bangladesh tied for the third lowest spot. However, both in 2006 and in 2007 Bangladesh received a CPI (Corruption Perceptions Index) score of 2.0. In other words, Bangladesh showed no improvement in corruption between 2006 and 2007. Bangladesh’s ranking improved only because seven countries of the world became more corrupt this year (Cambodia, Central African Republic, Papua New Guinea, Turkmenistan, Venezuela, Equatorial Guinea and Laos all reported worse scores this year than in 2006) and four new countries with worse corruption than Bangladesh were added to the list of countries surveyed (Afghanistan, Tonga, Uzbekistan and Somalia all were new entrants at the bottom of the list).
The new Transparency International report must come as alarming news to Bangladesh’s "corruption" fighting military government. An "anti-corruption" drive launched in January by Bangladesh’s military rulers apparently has had no effect. So, today the TI representative in Bangladesh scrambled to give reasons for the lack of improvement. First he found the silver lining in the report:
"This also proves that at least corruption is not increasing in Bangladesh," said Muzaffer, referring to the country’s five-year stint in topping the index of corrupt countries.
He further explained:
Pressed on why the score remains the same despite the anti-corruption crackdown by the caretaker government, Muzaffer said Bangladesh could have fared worse if the positive results achieved between January and July this year did not offset the worsening corruption data of 2006.
Explaining why the score remains the same, TIB Executive Director Iftekharuzzaman said, "Included in this year’s index were data collected until the end of July 2007, which means CPI 2007 was relatively more influenced by the data from 2006."
He added that since business surveys provide the data, ‘it is quite likely that a perceived sense of insecurity and uncertainty that is widely believed to have prevailed among the business community in wake of the post 1/11 anti-corruption drive in Bangladesh, might have prevented the possibility of a better score’.
TIB also said it is too early to say how Bangladesh’s score will be affected by the ongoing institutional reforms undertaken by the current government in separating the judiciary, and in reforming the Election Commission, Anti-corruption Commission, and the Public Service Commission.
Referring to the arrest of those associated with corruption in the past and the signing of the UN Convention against Corruption, TIB said the effectiveness of these measures will determine Bangladesh’s score in 2008 and beyond.
"It might well be that only in the years to come the positive impact of such reforms would be more clearly discernible," Iftekhar added.
The TI representative argues that 2006’s corruption was so bad that the "anti-corruption" drive from 2007 has only so far overcome the negative data. He also blamed the perception of the business community in the wake of the "anti-corruption" drive for the low score. I am compelled to remind the TI representative in Bangladesh that the TI index tracks the perception of corruption, not corruption itself (hence the name Corruption Perceptions Index). Therefore the perception of the business community is not a mitigating factor to explain away the CPI score, it is the score.
The military government has used the "anti-corruption" drive as justification for its political purges. It has been repeatedly stated that corruption must be tackled before free and fair elections can be held. Chief Advisor Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed boasted to Time magazine earlier this year that because his government did not suffer from "political patronage" they were better corruption fighters:
A nonparty caretaker government doesn’t suffer from the burdens of political patronage. Whether or not the political parties could have done so, I do not know. But they certainly lacked the political will and the courage in the past.
The impression that has been created is that Bangladesh was becoming more and more corrupt under successive democratic governments, and therefore an intervention was in order. However, a look at how Bangladesh fared between 2001 and 2007 in Transparency International’s own numbers tells a startlingly different story [Click the graph below for an enlarged image]:
The graph includes data from 2001 when TI first started tracking the CPI score for Bangladesh. According to TI, the 2001 CPI score is an outlier and TI cautions that it is only based on a small number of surveys and should be viewed with caution (however, I have left the data in for completeness). You will notice that Bangladesh improved every year on the CPI score except in 2007. From 2001 to 2006 Bangladesh was under democratic rule, and contrary to the meme that has been nurtured by Bangladesh’s military government, Bangladesh improved steadily. If past trends had continued, 2007 should have shown an improved CPI score. However, the military government’s "anti-corruption" drive has instead stopped Bangladesh’s slow climb out of corruption.
The TI data for 2007, though surprising at first glance, is not wholly unexpected. In June of this year, I wrote a short article for Himal Southasian magazine about the fallacy of the military government’s "anti-corruption" drive. That issue of Himal magazine however was banned in Bangladesh. In the article I wrote:
While the reduction of corruption, rampant in Bangladesh, is a laudable and important goal, it is far from clear that an anti-corruption drive by an unaccountable government can indeed be successful. On the contrary, all the conditions exist today for the further corruption of the political system in Bangladesh. The World Bank often uses the following formula for parsing corruption: C = M + D – A, where corruption (C) equals monopoly power (M) combined with discretion by public officials (D) minus accountability (A). According to this formula, the current caretaker government’s monopoly over all instruments of state power; its powers of arbitrary arrest without warrant, and its detention of citizens without due-process rights; and the limitations it has placed on the press as the citizens’ watchdog, all conspire to undermine the government’s stated goal of reducing corruption.
The crucial element of fighting corruption – accountability – is conspicuously missing from the current framework. Though the leaders of the caretaker government may have good intentions, the government itself, operating under a state of emergency, is institutionally stacked against them.
What we are seeing today in the TI data is the result of an unaccountable government’s "anti-corruption" drive. As with all military government’s in the past, the results are predictable. It is no coincidence that at the bottom of TI’s list this year is Burma, one of the world’s longest ruling military dictatorships.
Bangladesh has been, and remains, a very corrupt nation. However, corruption in Bangladesh is systemic and cannot be solved by decapitating the political leadership, and it certainly cannot be done by an unaccountable military government. There is no question that individuals in past governments in Bangladesh have engaged in massive corruption. But that corruption has not been limited to democratic governments. Perhaps the most corrupt leader Bangladesh has had was the military dictator Hussain Mohammad Ershad. Until institutions in Bangladesh become more transparent, until governments in Bangladesh become more accountable, and until power in Bangladesh ceases to be concentrated amongst the few, Bangladesh will continue to struggle with rampant corruption. Rounding up politicians in the name of an "anti-corruption" drive may grab headlines, but the deeper damage caused by the application of draconian laws and the complete disregard for the rule of law by this government is breeding even more corruption.
One thing is certain. The longer an unaccountable military regime rules Bangladesh the more corrupt Bangladesh will become. Bangladeshis have been forced to give up their essential liberties with the promise of "free and fair elections" and a "corruption-free" future. As long as the military rules Bangladesh, the people are likely to get neither.