You can imagine all the long faces at the World Bank. Having put Bangladesh through relentless humiliation over the matter of the Padma Bridge, the WB has now nothing to say. Its loud silence will speak of what it attempted to do, or indeed did, in dragging Bangladesh through mud.
What does the global financial institution do now that the Ontario Superior Court has acquitted three men accused of bribery and attempted bribery in relation to the planned Padma Bridge in Bangladesh? The WB should not waffle here, should not dissemble as it tries shaping a response to the verdict delivered by Justice Ian Nordheimer. The case, in the view of the judge, has had no merit because it was based on gossip and rumour. The prosecution, in other words, failed to convince the court that there was indeed any conspiracy over the Padma Bridge issue. The naivete of the prosecution, the motive of the World Bank in basing a case on telephone conversations and on notes in diaries was all along a matter of disbelief. That disbelief has now been made formal — and rejected as evidence — by the Ontario Superior Court.
The World Bank owes itself, the court and the people and government of Bangladesh an explanation of its behavior. It suspended the aid that was to come from it for the building of the Padma Bridge on the grounds, as it now turns out, of baseless charges of corruption related to the bridge. Not a single farthing was released by the Bank for the bridge and yet it went ahead with its allegations and insinuations. Once it began pressing the issue of bribery and corruption, the World Bank went into overdrive to project the government of Bangladesh across the world as one mired in foul conspiracy. No degree of protest or denial, no statement testifying to an absence of even a whiff of corruption related to the Padma Bridge by Bangladesh was entertained by the WB. Its attitude toward this country was one of scorn. The Bank could do no wrong. It was the Bangladesh government that was the epitome of corrupt dealings. Probity, in the eyes of the Bank, was unknown terminology in Bangladesh. The word, the protestations, of the Bangladesh government did not matter. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina went out on a limb to state that no corruption was involved.
The WB was repeatedly asked to furnish proof of its ‘findings’. Nothing came of that demand. Its files were classified. What was unclassified, or so the WB wanted people to believe, was the Bangladesh government’s record of corruption even before the first brick of the Padma Bridge was laid on the ground. What did happen was thus a concerted, well-orchestrated campaign of vilification against the government, in broad measure against the country.
The World Bank’s efforts to tar the Bangladesh government with the taint of corruption saw some heads roll, unnecessarily and without evidence of those heads having been involved in questionable acts. A minister was compelled to leave the cabinet. An advisor with an excellent academic and professional reputation was forced to go into suspended animation as a result of the WB’s unsubstantiated charges. The fallout was not merely the departure of these two individuals from government. It was more, in that it was the entire Bangladesh government which came to be humiliated by the World Bank. When it refused to release the funds earmarked for the construction of the Padma Bridge, it was the last straw for the government. The WB, through the withdrawal of the funds, was informing the world, in a state of unsurpassable glee, that Bangladesh’s elected government was corrupt to the core, that its functionaries could not be trusted not to pocket the funds allocated by the Bank for the bridge, that the country did not deserve to be treated with disdain.
The judgment of the Ontario Superior Court has now turned the tables, on the World Bank. In terms of logic, in terms of reality, the WB should be going red in the face, in the way that many in the West, in Washington, were left looking sheepish when the new state of Bangladesh did not collapse when a ship containing food aid for the country was forced to turn back from mid-sea in 1974 — because Bangladesh had decided to do business with Cuba. Now that the World Bank has lost, now that we the people of Bangladesh have been
vindicated in our position vis-à-vis the Padma Bridge, will the Bank step up to inform us, and the world beyond our frontiers, that it made a grave mistake, that it prejudged us, that it is ready to offer us an apology for the enormous damage it did to our collective reputation as a people?
The case for us, here in Bangladesh, is clear as daylight. The World Bank, despite its senior officials’ recent expressions of appreciation for the country’s development efforts, should now have the courage and humility to offer clear, unambiguous apologies to former minister Syed Abul Hossain, to the Prime Minister’s Economic Affairs Advisor Dr. Mashiur Rahman, to the secretary who was forced to leave the relevant ministry under a cloud of motivated allegations. The reputations of these men were damaged by the WB; the Bank’s insinuations lowered their image in the public eye. Will the World Bank now move to restore the damage it has done to these men and to Bangladesh’s people and government? Will it compensate the former minister, the advisor and the secretary for the anguish it caused them?
The World Bank and all other global institutions involved in development programmes with poor countries have a lesson to learn from the verdict delivered by the court in Ontario. It is this — do not assume that social deprivation is always a reason for corruption; do not presume that governments in countries struggling to break out of the cycle of poverty are necessarily grasping and corrupt. Do not judge, lest ye not be judged. Rare is that nation that has prospered through an adoption of WB-prescribed
structural reforms, through an acceptance of monetary aid from the World Bank. Exploitation of poverty is what the WB thrives in. Tajuddin Ahmad was right, back in 1972. Bangladesh had little need of the World Bank or its dollops of aid. No one listened to Tajuddin. Today it is the indictment of the World Bank in that Ontario court which makes us go back to the wartime Prime Minister and post-war Finance Minister for new lessons in wisdom.
In Bangladesh, it is an entire population of 160 million people who value their self-esteem, who are engaged in pushing back corruption. Now that the World Bank has lost in its bid to project us before the world as a nation of thieves and plunderers, it becomes important for us and for the government to identify those of our people who have or may have assisted the WB in drawing all those wrong conclusions about men in authority ready to bite off large slices of the funds set aside for the Padma Bridge. These elements need to be investigated and exposed, in the larger and long-term future of this People’s Republic. Nothing can be a bigger sin, nothing can be more self-defeating, than badmouthing one’s own country before the world.
As for the Padma Bridge, we will construct it with our own resources. Let the World Bank watch, red-faced, from the sidelines.