WB statement on Padma Bridge and democratic system of governance
Shishir Shahnawaz , বৃহস্পতিবার, সেপ্টেম্বর ২৭, ২০১২


সম্প্রতি পদ্মাসেতু প্রকল্পে বিশ্বব্যাংকের অর্থায়ন নিয়ে সৃষ্ট পরিস্থিতির উপর শিশির শাহনেওয়াজের বিশ্লেষণ। শিশির উন্নয়ন অর্থনীতির একজন গবেষক।

Let us assume that the senior public officers in the Government of Bangladesh (GoB) unknowingly commit mistakes under the blessings of political leaders in power and these officers enjoy a de-facto immunity to get away with such 'unintentional' deed. Fair enough. Although in the short run, it generates heated conversations both inside and outside the country, in the long run creates questions on the system of accountability of senior public officials and their subordinates to perform 'due diligence' over a period of time. I am opinionated by the fact that the situation arises for not having efficient institutions within the claimed 'democratic governance'.

Let me refer to the news that captured several media yesterday. The World Bank (WB) issued a statement concerning the Padma Bridge in Bangladesh as well as ranted how the senior public officials had misrepresented the World Bank's position concerning the Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project. The World Bank (WB) felt obligated to inform the public of "the government's credible evidence of corruption involving senior public officials related to the financing of the Padma Bridge". Such evidence "led the World Bank to cancel the US$1.2 billion credit in the absence of a credible response by the government".

Following the WB statement, several whistle-blowers, both national and international, painted a very alarming picture pointing to a range of serious problems. Several explanations can address the current situation of the government's accountability and it is to these types of plausible explanations that I now turn.

Firstly, Bangladesh has a 'hybrid democracy' where elected governments treat this nation as a 'quasi firm'. The government with its constitutional power and authority does always have an upper hand to control market opportunities. Even with reported cases of international transfer, the government in power has been seen to exact tributes that accompany the exercise of sovereignty. And since the government has an upper hand, it does make sense to relax the constraints of legality on several activities and at times, opt not to enforce laws - thus distorting the border between legal and illegal, ethical and unethical, white money and black money, ethical officer and unethical officer.

Secondly, acting as an authority 'for the people' and 'by the people', the government has been seen drifting away from electoral mandates. In course of doing so, several ministers have forged alliances with a range of politically motivated business groups both at home and abroad. Recent incidents involving the Hallmark scandal or hiring of contractors to rehabilitate local infrastructure are testaments to the events where there was an intended purpose to capture 'concentrated profits'. A particular group aiming to benefit from such rents has tended to compromise on the quality of public institutions that are meant to act for the community as a whole rather than act in the interests of any vested group.

Thirdly, political leadership in Bangladesh has not introduced sound policies to enhance the legitimacy of the government. A few leaders have even failed to demonstrate political altruism to the common masses. In certain cases, a few elected leaders have gone to the extent of tarnishing images of the pioneers of innovation that has benefited humanity in a global context. Defaming personality like Nobel Laureate Dr Muhammad Yunus or even political rivals abroad certainly does not build our national image outside Bangladesh. And there we see little voice from the senior public officials on this issue. The lack of transparency in the way the senior public officials work does not officially does not speak of their working environment.

Fourthly, the 'naming, blaming, shaming and then forgetting' culture in our political arena does not hold true for any social justice. The increase in political and apolitical murders, abductions, extortions as well as extra-judicial killings in recent times simply testifies to the fact that the executive power does not have the capacity to hold the political leaders to account. Although, the parliamentary standing committees in the National Parliament are said to be more competent at scrutiny and review, they lack what is now known as 'geographical balance of power'. Adding to this is the traditional practice whereby every government prefers to have its MPs help impede the opposition MPs from being effective in holding the government accountable. Senior public officials are seemingly toothless in such cases.

Lastly, the failure to provide oversight and administrative safeguards against the misuses of public funds has purported to a deliberate lack of transparency on how members of parliament meet personal expenses. While it entails cases of possessing public goods (like grabbing donated relief materials) by unscrupulous MPs, it also points to making foreign trips and vacations abroad with public money. Another important issue concerns how the political advisors (those advising the government on bilateral issues and border disputes) are financed during the tenure of a government.

Now there has to be a way out of this vicious circle of lack of accountability - a package that promises to come for much greater openness, improved transparency and better oversight in the system of governance. Therefore, to end on an optimistic note, there may be a handful of steps that can be adopted in the short term that might then become part of an effective longer term remedy.

In Bangladesh, minus-1 or minus-2 formula may be appealing to many proponents and in some cases may offer a constructive and innovative solution. Such a formula to me is unlikely to influence the activities of insistent authoritarian regimes. Closely scrutinising the serious lapses in the system of governance and accountability in Bangladesh, it becomes clear to me that 'accountability' comes from the top and rather follows a 'top-down' approach. This broadly explains why I related my analysis with senior public officials and political leaders. They are the supreme commandoes with concentrated power and work under the prime minister within the current democratic system of parliament in Bangladesh. An efficient and good institution is only possible when these commandoes work together and propose ways to improve the capacity of public officials to hold the government accountable by way of strengthening the capacities of parliamentary standing committees, the press and the public. Such committees must have an authority to scrutinise and monitor the behaviour of public officials, be impartial and audit public administration as well as protect and reward public servants willing to blow the whistle on government misconduct. They must be free from any involvement of any third party including the MPs and within their statutory mandate, they must be able to flawlessly perform their oversight functions of audit, scrutiny and reevaluation as they consider fit.

Adding to the smooth functioning of the parliamentary standing committees is to duly designate secretaries and cabinet secretaries from respective secretariats as 'auditing officers' who will be personally responsible and accountable to the committees for their personal performance in exercising their specific management authorities. If we fail to achieve any of these or do not come up with any alternative solution, several generations of Bangladesh will be lost to long-term misgovernance and an endemic corruption and donors will never leave anything to a chance.
Published : The Finacial Times, Bangladesh
Dr Shishir Shahnawaz is working as a researcher in the North-South Institute in Ottawa, Canada.
sshahnawaz@nsi-ins.ca