It should not be something to gloat over. Not being in Transparency International's Top-5 bribery-plagued Asian countries is no reason to celebrate. If we seriously evaluate why Australia, European countries, and the United Kingdom have been restricting our direct air-cargo shipments this year, bribery and corruption cannot be far from explaining this outcome. We have known it from even before the country's birth: remember how 303 top civil servants were purged for corruption in 1969 (General Yahya Khan's Martial Law Ordnance #58, December), on the eve of our liberation war? What is new is that the scale has simply bloated.
That Forbes list (discussed by Tanvi Gupta in Forbes, March 13, 2017), finds India at the top, followed by Vietnam, Thailand, Pakistan, and Myanmar. Though the methodology utilised to make that list will inevitably be debated (particularly in those listed countries), the bribery rates themselves ranged from a high of 69 per cent (for Myanmar) to 41 per cent (for India). All have nurtured a flourishing cash-economy of late. While we wait to see how Narendra Modi's demonetisation, meant to confront this plague, fares, the emerging picture of bribery/corruption fuelling growth should not be dismissed, not now across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, nor in developed countries historically. In the final analysis, bribery/corruption comes as close to becoming a cultural trait as any other feature, no less a development spark as consequential as any other.
Crony capitalism illustrates a well-known corruption vehicle. Though South-east Asian countries are often singled out for giving this vice the most full-blown face, it is not just the four countries from this region on the Top-5 list that we must examine to understand and regulate it; but others have also made headline news over such practices, as Malaysia's 1MDB (Malaysia Development Berhad) scandal and the scandal-plagued eviction of South Korea's President Park Geun-hye. Beyond Asia, we see widespread infection across Africa and Latin America. South Africa's President Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma's fate depends on how much more concerted the no-confidence protests against him becomes for this very reason. In Brazil, for instance, even as the second consecutive president is being investigated, for example, for possible corruption, that is Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer, their patron, Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva, just received a 10-year jail service for precisely the same. Since they are all democratically elected leaders, we can only wince how much deeper military leadership could have sunk before.
Broader still, the vice has not spared developed countries, particularly in their own 'wild west' industrialising spurt. Slightly over a century ago, the United States, for example, had its own 'robber barons' era, when many of the currently revered magnates began their accumulation through nefarious, under-the-table means: J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, Andrew W. Mellon, John D. Rockefeller, and so forth, belonged to this group. Many of those names, if not all, have associations with institutions of higher learning, fellowships, and philanthropy today; but back then they were no different than Pakistan's 303 CSP culprits of 1969, Lula, Dilma, Park, and Temer today, in other words, outright and blatant thieves.
Whether development stems from the full-fledged resort to bribery/corruption or not, it is premature to say, but evidence shows punitive legal measures gain ascendancy once a threshold of irreversible development has been scaled. Not just development, but also a preference for rules over power and education can work wonders if initiated, monitored, and coordinated across different streams of people.
This is where it can get more stuck than at any specific transaction scene; and, therefore, remedial efforts must target these entrenched resistance realms for any cleansing: removing/punishing culprits from/in offices serve only a preventive measure, effective only for the short-haul; a more effective long-term curative counterpart must slowly emerge from the mess.
We have not entered that curative domain as yet. Doing so cannot but heed what others recommend or require: after all, their view, at least on this subject, is more objective than those to whom these are offered. For example, with more stringent airport/border screening of both arriving and departing passengers and cargo, we may not lose so high a proportion of our remittance earning to reverse remittance (that is, from within the country to foreign locations), and smugglers. Since we have the appropriate technologies to stem these rots, we must plunge more into deploying them than counter self-serving argumentation.
Another beneficial area would be in the RMG (ready-made garment) sector being affected by shipping screenings. Exporters now having to trans-ship through third-party airports have increasingly complained of their income-erosion (and therefore a country-wide export-income erosion). Fixing these holes permanently would not only restore proper corporate profit and country-wide export-income, but more importantly raise hope and confidence abroad with both importers and possible investors that Bangladesh is getting better for business, while checks-and-balances really function. Echoes from such vibes would fetch much more of the foreign exchange and start-up costs of our staggering infrastructure-construction needs.
Extending these gestures and vibes to developmental appraisals would also cushion any setbacks, especially those from forecasting too high but ultimately achieving far less. Here the favourite example is of our annual growth-rate interpretation tussle: the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, for example, invariably forecast a lower growth-rate for us than our relevant ministries/agencies. Of course, it is pivotal whether our growth-rate is more or less than 7.0 per cent annually, at the least, if we are to celebrate our 50th birthday anniversary as a full-blooded middle-income country. Yet, that is a ground-level measurement, felt in factories, farms, shops, and street-wise, not in think-tank prophecies, official predictions, or political platforms. Whether we are a few degrees this way or that of the desired growth-rate spot matters less in the crunch than inflating performances rhetorically: the public notices the latter more than they do the former.
Underestimation can be a more viable tool in forecasting, just as incrementally nipping corruption can be more system-cleansing. Both produce tangible pocket-pinching results that far outweigh crony capitalist rewards, and their accompaniments, a looser reputation and grandiose forecasts. That is more so with those at the tangible, cash-register level, while, it seems, may be the only way to tame the top-level wild claims.
Culturally it is a reputation-enhancer, which sinks deeper than cash into our hearts, minds, and souls, and lasts longer than immediate monetary gratification. Every citizen would prefer to trust his/her next-door neighbour, election official, country representative, and so forth. There is no reason why we cannot if we do not over-pitch or over-reach.
Finally, development becomes more tangible, replicable, meaningful, and irreversible if controls prevail over corrupt tendencies and practices. Note, how all the Forbes Top-5 corrupt Asian countries belong in the upper developmental echelons: they may be closer to instituting the changes inherent in this essay, just as the United States was to bury the robber-baron stigma in the 20th Century, than we, perched as we are far lower on that developmental list. We would do ourselves a favour by making those changes now, at the lower developmental ranks, so we can look more legitimate when we climb and get where they were when they made their decisive moves. That could be our reputational comparative advantage over both developed and other developing countries.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.