Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Invisible Hand (That Takes)

A trainee from another group joined us for the day, and his translator happened to be a university student who was getting his masters degree in criminology and law. I thought he would be there perfect person to ask about corruption in Bangladesh.

As I have mentioned before, corruption remains a problem here, but besides the alleged electricity siphoning, we hadn’t witnessed much of it in person. Until 2005, Transparency International ranked Bangladesh as the most corrupt country in the world; however, over the past four years it has improved its lot to the 139th most corrupt out of a total of 180 countries. So, either the government’s reported efforts to crack down on corruption have been working, or the rest of the world is just getting more corrupt. My new friend’s response suggested perhaps the latter.

According to him, corruption was still quite prevalent in Bangladesh. He said elections were still far from free and fair – they were rigged and bought through various methods: turning people away from the polls, telling them voting had already closed, or even telling them their vote could be recorded from home; buying votes with direct payments to people, or to their village or union leaders. When I asked how a whole village’s vote could be bought, he explained that if the village leader says you must do something to continue to be a welcome member of the village, you do it. He also mentioned corruption at the bureaucratic level in that bribes are required to move paperwork from desk to desk, otherwise it just gets lost in the pile. And with regards to energy, he said people are pocketing money at every level. So, if 1000kw of electricity are budgeted, only 200kw actually get produced – the rest of the money disappears.

He said there were many obstacles to oversight. First, the academics and officials responsible for oversight are often being paid off themselves – perhaps creating the false sense of improvement.  Second, there are tremendous obstacles for NGOs such as Transparency International to get access to the areas of heavy corruption – most prominently rural areas. And he said this having previously worked with Transparency International. The problem is that Bangladesh is simply impossible to navigate as an outsider. If you don’t speak Bangla, you can’t get around. Outside the city there are many unmarked roads, and more than a few that would not even be shown on maps. So, international observers never even see the bulk of the problem. 

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