Reuters file photo.


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.

Canadian court finds the evidence in case on charges that Canadian SNC-Lavalin Group Inc staff planned to bribe Bangladeshi officials to be ‘speculation, gossip and rumour’. Photo: Reuters

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.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick listens to a question during a news conference with Canada's Finance Minister Jim Flaherty (not pictured) on Parliament Hill in Ottawa June 9, 2009. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
The then World Bank president Robert Zoellick cancelled the Padma Bridge contract before leaving office. Photo: Reuters

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

Syed Abul Hossain had to resign as communications minister after the allegation of corruption in the Padma Bridge project surfaced.
Syed Abul Hossain had to resign as communications minister after the allegation of corruption in the Padma Bridge project surfaced.

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

Luis Moreno Ocampo, a former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, came to Bangladesh to assist the investigation.
Abul Hossain says the role of Luis Moreno Ocampo, who led World Bank investigation into Padma Bridge graft charges and questioned Bangladesh’s findings, will be marked as a ‘dark chapter in history’. Photo: Reuters

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.

Syed Badrul Ahsanis a columnist.

12 Responses to “There should be red faces aplenty at the World Bank”

  1. ehsan

    We should not forget that we still have a rampant corrupt culture within our society, and institutions. This is a fact, which does not change with this undoubtedly comfy verdict…

  2. Dr A Rahman

    The comments made by the author are virtually irrefutable. The World Bank (WB) had done irreparable damage to Bangladesh’s image and reputation. Even we, living abroad, had been saying that in a dispute like this about corruption, the WB must be right and Bangladesh must be the guilty party.
    An international investigation should now be sought to find out why and how an organization like the WB passed judgment on a sovereign state with such flimsy evidence, which any back street organization would dismiss it as unsustainable.

  3. Shamsher M Chowdhury

    I never had much confidence on the World Bank, or the IMF, to ability to address the socio-economic problems of the world. Its staff are paid ‘obscenely’ high salaries and they have very little to show for it. The first thing they do is buy expensive homes for themselves in posh residential areas in metropolitan Washington. Most of them have no clue of what they should do to help those who are in need of help. Its personnel policy is corrupt and smells of nepotism and cronyism all over!

    • Saleheen Sayeed

      You are right Mr Chowdhury about the expensive life style of these World Bank staffers with a “slightly higher than” civil service pay. When they come on postings to Dhaka, they rent the most expensive houses and get involved in making extra money from projects and suppliers. Accepting “in-kind” gifts far above their 50-100 dollar threshold is not even considered as corruption.

  4. M Zaman

    If I remember correctly, WB never said there was corruption. However, there was allegation of corruption. Without prima facie evidence, Canadian court would not have gone for a trial.

  5. Anwar A. Khan

    Former Senior Counsel to the World Bank Karen Hudes says the global financial system is dominated by a small group of corrupt, power-hungry figures centered around the privately owned U.S. Federal. Some inside the WB have made it transnational corporation forming a giant bow-tie structure. A large portion of control, meanwhile, flows to a small tightly-knit core of financial people there.
    “This is like crooks trying to figure out where they can go hide. It’s a mafia,” she said. “These culprits that have grabbed all this economic power have succeeded in infiltrating both sides of the issue, so you will find people who are supposedly trying to fight corruption who are just there to spread disinformation and as a placeholder to trip up anybody who manages to get their act together.… Those thugs think that if they can keep the world ignorant, they can bleed it longer.”
    So, the rule of law should be restored, she said, and the public will demand a proper press to stay informed. “We’re going to have a cleaned-up financial system, that’s where it is going, but in the meantime, people who didn’t know how the system was gamed are going to find out,” she said. “We’re going to have a different kind of international financial system… It’ll be a new kind of world where people know what’s going on — no more backroom deals; that’s not going to keep happening. We’re going to have a different kind of media if people don’t want to be dominated and controlled, which I don’t think they do.”
    The WB should apologise for the colossal damage they inflicted to Bangladesh. Our government also should demand to them to compensate us in accordance with the magnitude of their stultification.

  6. Shadier

    Now, let the govt. of Bangladesh throw the WB and their cohorts out of this land! After they have compensated the individuals and the country and apologized, publicly, for accusing all and sundry of corruption and stealing. Sorry, but it is the WB, which is ‘corrupt’. How else can you term their unacceptable behavior? We do not need them. They need us, to keep their cushy jobs. Let cancel the work visas of the top echelon of the WB here, while they operate on a skeleton staff, if at all.

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