Yes we are corrupt; live with it!

Published : 9 July 2012, 02:47 PM
Updated : 9 July 2012, 02:47 PM

The Padma River Bridge funding debacle has taken place… and… um… to no one's great surprise! OK, the ministers and the officialdom are surprised, shocked and dismayed! The bellyaching has begun in earnest. They keep shouting from the rooftops – we are not corrupt and no corruption can be proven because no money has changed hands. Or better still, corruption, what corruption? Never happens in Bangladesh! The litany goes on and on! That is the official line from the finance minister to small functionaries in the government. The business people are also singularly disappointed as this infrastructure project may have been a great boost to the economic fortunes which are in doldrums due to global slowdown.

In the midst of all the yammering everyone is forgetting a little fact; we are a corrupt nation. Corruption has been deeply entrenched in our society for eons and we had figured out a way to live with it. Coexist, so to speak. Corruption takes away a little off the top from our GDP including government revenues, business ventures but there was/is a modus vivendi. Now as Bangladesh marches into a globalized economy and has to deal with the likes of World Bank and many other large multinational organizations that way of being is challenged in unsettling ways. The good old days of skimming little off the top maybe more problematic than ever now.

What should Bangladesh do? I have a radical suggestion for the Prime Minister. Please declare that yes we are a corrupt country for many historical reasons and we are going to embark on a generational program to reduce or rid us of the corruption genie but for now we accept that we are a corrupt country. Add a few percentage points to the total cost of any project as corruption expenditure line. As a part of the bargain Bangladesh will start to move towards greater transparency with each project. Transparency is the best antidote to corruption. A national commitment to become more transparent will over time slowly choke off the corruption gene in our DNA. We will get back to this radical idea later on. Let us explore how corrupt we are and let the data speak for itself.

Corruption has been a part of life forever and ever. It is in all parts of our society. The contractor does not get paid for his work until he greases some palm so in order to maximize his take he does his road construction during the monsoon. The rickshaw-puller decides how much to charge depending on the look of the prospective fare not any objective per mile tariff. The court case will not move unless the right people have been paid off. Getting a passport requires multiple obstacle course including payments at each and every check point. I can go on with the list but I am sure you see this every day in your life. So, we cope in small and big ways.

My father used to work in the Police department before he started his vegetable wholesale business. His was a job with a very small salary but relatively large power because he was always posted in small thana in the remote villages. We were officially not well off but there was money to meet most of our needs. My mother would meticulously separate out the salary money from what she called "Gorom taka", hot money. The purpose was to use the salary money for education, paying for tutors, giving alms and other long term beneficial activities. The 'gorom taka' was used for other expenses. As if that would make any difference but that was her way to live with corruption in her scale and she knew she needed the 'gorom taka' to make ends meet. I am sure there are many ways each of us cope with a society that cannot function without a little grease at every turn.

Since 1995, Transparency International (TI) publishes the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) annually ranking countries "by their perceived levels of corruption, as determined by expert assessments and opinion surveys." The CPI generally defines corruption as "the misuse of public power for private benefit." In 2011, the CPI ranks 182 countries "on a scale from 10 (very clean) to 0 (highly corrupt)."

Bangladesh ranked 120 with a CPI of 2.7. The top 5 countries all had CPI of 9.2 or above. The only Asian country in the top 5 is Singapore. War torn Somalia brings up the rear with a CPI score of zero and the ranking of 182. Our old friend Pakistan is ranked 134 with a CPI of 2.5. So, relatively we are little less corrupt than the Holier than thou Pakistanis. Here is an extract of the TI data:

The Corruption Index from Transparency International 2011 (Extract)

Well the data speaks for itself. We have made a little progress. We have gone from a ranking of 130s to 120. All the screaming that there is no corruption will not throw the monkey off the back of the country. It is just sitting there and grinning at all of us while we jump up and down and tell the world, "see there is no monkey, he he he." So, let us stop living in a make believe world and do something bold and innovative. Let's admit that reality matters.

How will this date of destiny with truth work? Let us take the Padma Bridge project as an example. The Prime Minister should get on a national and international stage and boldly declare that, "yes we agree we are corrupt but we will change over time". She should declare a multi-step solution which can be as follows:

* Create a completely transparent bidding system. All qualified bids will be sealed and in a lock box with an independent accounting firm like say, Price Waterhouse. The bids will be opened in an open event which will be streamed live.

* The project timeline and key milestones will be posted in advance of the start of the project. Each contract and sub-contractor for each phase will be clearly identified.

* Each milestone must have clear deliverables and penalties and rewards associated with on-time and on-budget performance including performance bonus or termination of a contractor.

* Payment manipulation is a key source of corruption. So it will be important for billing points to be identified in advance with clearly measurable deliverables and target payment processing window.

* The contractors or sub-contractor will file their bills to the requisite authorities and will simultaneously publish their invoices on the website. The payment timer will start at the time of publication. This will make it transparent that the contractor has submitted an invoice for work performed and expected to get paid by such and such date.

* There needs to be an issue section which will track issues related to any payment and quality of work. This section will have detailed notes as to why a payment is being held up or a milestone is not completed.

As you can see these steps are basically attempts at generating transparency. Over time these steps will change behaviours of all impacted parties. If we are lucky then maybe in 30 years we will move up to the top 25 least corrupt countries in the world. It is a long road but sooner we get started, quicker we will get there.

Besides transparency the other determinant factor for corruption is extremely low wages for people who have big impact of monetary decisions, i.e. people with approval power. It is hard for someone to make Tk100 and see someone else getting Tk1 billion in payment without pangs of angst, insecurity and yes, greed. So, as a part of the overhaul the Prime Minister should tack on 2% additional costs on the Padma Bridge project. That money will be used to reward the officials involved in the project based on well-articulated and transparent performance objectives.

Whew, now that I have solved the million years old corruption problem let me tell you why I think it is doable today as opposed to even 10 years ago. Technology is the short answer. Today every data point and every bit of information can be easily made available to anyone with a computer or a cell phone. Vast amount of data can be harvested in a distributed fashion.

Now, dear Madame Prime Minister your time has come to build your legacy by taking concrete steps that will rid us of the corruption monkey or at least tame the beast.

Kayes Ahmed lives in Boulder, Colorado, USA with his three dogs. He runs a small yet global apparel and design business based in Boulder.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher