“They suddenly raised the issue. I asked them myself give me proof and they could not give any substantial proof”. That was the response of the Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina to the reporter from BBC programme “HARDtalk” during an interview on Monday, July 30, 2012. We will not quibble about “substantial” and take her word for it. I say fair enough, the World Bank did not give “substantial” proof of corruption but it did send a letter detailing its concerns and conditions along with the notification of cancellation of the Padma Bridge funding. So, if there was no substantial proof or allegation why not release the letter? As they say, sunshine is the best disinfectant and it is past time for the PM to pour some disinfectant on this festering infestation of allegations and innuendo! The way to dispel myths and speculation is to be forthright and transparent.
Alas, this is not forthcoming! In the same interview the Prime Minister categorically rejected the notion of releasing the letter. She simply said she would not release the letter. There were no explanation, no reasoning. But she did say World Bank could release the letter if they wanted to. So, this morning I called the World Bank and talked to one of their public affairs persons. Typically, these people are like mushrooms, i.e., they are kept in the dark and fed bull turd on silver platter. So, the person said it is the WB policy not to release any correspondence between itself and its client. It is telling that the WB thinks that the client is sovereign country as opposed to the people of the country. The rationale they invoked is this; a bank has to deal with financial data which can be confidential and sensitive and the Bank charter states that the bank will maintain its confidentiality above all.
So, yes there was a letter sent, and we surmise that the letter stated specific allegations of corruption and named names. But, we shall never know or so they think. The fact is that this letter is sitting on some server within the purview of the extremely porous and politically hobbled World Bank organisation. I will bet my last Sylheti Komola that it is coming out! It is not a matter of IF but WHEN this will hit the public domain. Under these circumstances, I think it would be wise for the PM and her people to release the letter. That way if nothing else the government can manage the release, the spin and hopefully the fallout.
I have written in some other article titled, “Yes we are corrupt, live with it”, about the need to admit that we are a relatively corrupt society for historical and governance reasons. The Prime Minister spent fair amount of time of the 4-minute interview talking about the past. She enumerated the corruption under the military regimes and of course under the BNP. Then she uttered these incredible words, “My government never indulgences in corruption”. Huh! Where did that come from? Indulge is very different from breathing. I submit to the Honourable Lady that corruption — big and small — in Bangladesh is more like breathing and entirely different than indulging! It is everywhere. The Speed Money, the Baksheesh, the actual graft for promotion and even the extra money required to pay to the doctor or the hospital staff to take care of one’s loved ones! I experienced the last one when my mother was dying of stomach cancer and the clinic let us know in so many words that we would need to make extra payment to the doctor, the attending nurse, etc. for care! Not additional care but just regular care. These are the indignities that people live with every day and it is definitely not indulgence that the country suffers from. The country suffers from lack of transparency and lack of resources that have a negative feedback loop. The less transparent you are, the more corrupt is your resource allocation and the more corrupt is your resource allocation, the less transparent you are! A perfect infinite negative feedback loop!
The Prime Minister pointed out the achievements of the country under her administration. She said the country has grown at 6+% year on year since she took office. She has increased power generation, etc. I happen to applaud the current government about the economic progress and substantial improvement in overall well-being of people. But, it is a matter of opportunity costs and not about absolute metric. There are analyses that show rampant corruption can lop off a percent or two of the GDP in a country that is in similar growth stage like Bangladesh. This means that on a compounded basis the country would be much farther along in terms of economic development and all other economic metrics if there was no or less corruption. But, we shall never know what the opportunity cost of corruption has been to Bangladesh.
The question is why stonewall the release of the WB letter? The reasonable answer is that the administration is trying to protect its political capital and appease powerful interests. At this point I am reminded of Winston Churchill who famously said, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last”. The crocodile of corruption has a one-way ticket to strength and mayhem unless checked quickly and snuffed out at an early stage. Admittedly it is not early stage but the battle can still be joined. The way to do that is transparency.
Madame Prime Minister it is not about the past or history. It is about the future and especially your own legacy. It is time to take a bold step and stop feeding the crocodile. I say, release the World Bank letter and let the chip fall where they may.
Kayes Ahmed lives in Boulder, Colorado, USA with his three dogs. He runs a small yet global apparel and design business based in Boulder.