The International Anti-Corruption Day (IACD) is being observed today to mark the adoption of the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) in 2003. The purpose of this day is to highlight the importance of concrete and collective action against corruption involving all stakeholders. Bangladesh acceded to the convention in 2007, and its government in 2017 decided to officially observe IACD annually.

As we mark the day this year, the Bangladeshi media platforms—print, electronic, online—are flooded with mind boggling, though unsurprising, stories of exponential growth of wealth and income, even by hundreds of times, of numerous candidates aspiring to become MPs. The data revealed so far are unofficial, though unlikely to be much different when uploaded to the Election Commission (EC) website.

Corruption is inherently discriminatory and increases injustice. The cost of corruption in Bangladesh is at least 2-3 percent of GDP, as stated by a former finance minister. This, however, is only a part of the loss incurred by corruption. Money laundered out of the country is estimated to be at least $12 billion a year, about three times higher than the amount borrowed from the IMF to face the financial crisis.

What is most likely, and widely believed to be, is that although submitted under oath, barring some exceptions, many of these statements are far from credible to truly represent the actual state of wealth and income accumulation. Why such disclosures fail to garner genuine scrutiny by relevant authorities, to ensure accountability for possible under-reporting, is anyone's guess. More importantly, no action is taken to determine if the accumulation has taken place through legitimate sources and following due process.

This is just one example of how we have failed to make any substantive progress to control corruption, following national and international pledges to do so—nationally, through the political pledge of zero tolerance against corruption coming from the highest level, and internationally, through our accession to the UNCAC. Meanwhile, this massive growth of wealth and income of power-holders, thanks to their status of being MPs or relatives of lawmakers, is widely considered to be attributed to the privileges that being a public representative bring along.

This explains how the scope of abusing power is central to the zero-sum game of politics that Bangladesh is trapped in. While being in positions of power at all levels of public representation and governance structure—direct, indirect or even fabricated—is treated as a licence to enrichment, remaining outside power means being deprived of this golden licence. It also means that while power-holders treat this monopolised and sustained licence as their legitimate right to unlimited opportunities to promote personal and group interests, for those who remain outside power, it is not only a matter of lost opportunity but also a high-intensity, high-cost struggle for survival. The premium of being in power is too high to relinquish, while the cost of being outside power is too painful to bear.

This is not the first time that stories of alleged illicit enrichment have been in public domain, nor can it be generalised, as there are cases of legitimate acquisition of wealth and income following the due process, without abuse of power and free from conflict of interest. But since the provision of disclosure was created, no credible action has ever been taken by the EC or other authorities, including the Anti-Corruption Commission. No relevant institution validates the submitted data against reality; none ensures accountability for accumulation of the reported or unreported wealth and income, which could truly serve the lofty purpose of this disclosure provision. Media reporting, civil society advocacy and public outcry have been neglected without qualms to protect and promote such abuse of power at all levels relating to public representation and public office.

Corruption is inherently discriminatory and increases injustice. The cost of corruption in Bangladesh is at least 2-3 percent of GDP, as stated by a former finance minister. This, however, is only a part of the loss incurred by corruption. Money laundered out of the country is estimated to be at least $12 billion a year, about three times higher than the amount borrowed from the IMF to face the financial crisis.

Corruption breeds inequality and exclusion. According to the latest TIB national household survey, corruption imposes seven times more burden upon the poorer and low-income earners when compared with higher-income households. The marginalised sections of society suffer more than the average victims. Women are more vulnerable to corruption, so are the rural people as opposed to the urban. Approximately, 80.3 percent of households headed by persons with disabilities are victims of corruption, while the national average is 70.6 percent. Ironically, sectors that are mandated to control corruption like law enforcement, justice and public service are more bedevilled by corruption and bribery than other service sectors.

More than 17 percent of Bangladesh's GDP is held by only the one percent super rich. Corruption, grand or petty, is a major impediment to inclusive development and democratic governance. Corruption is promoted and protected by biassed policy regimes and faulty governance practices that favour the rich and well-connected. It provides opportunities to the powerful for policy capture, procurement capture and undue personal gain out of almost everything that happens in the name of development. Accordingly, the more pervasive corruption is, the higher the income inequality and social exclusion. Bangladesh has also experienced the brutal reality that corruption kills people, mostly women and the marginalised, as was the case in the Rana Plaza, Tazreen Garments, and Nimtoli tragedies.

Research also shows that corruption, conflict and insecurity are interrelated, and feed each other. In addition to discrimination and injustice, corruption also leads to erosion of trust and legitimacy of the government. Governments that score low in corruption indexes are more prone to use force and violence to control and suppress dissensions and protests. For this, a key role is played by politicised and dysfunctional state institutions often run by beneficiaries, colluders and protectors of corruption.

Corruption contributes to an unsafe climate for human rights and defenders of those rights. Credible analysis of relevant data shows that out of 331 cases of murdered human rights defenders in 2020, 98 percent occurred in 23 countries with high levels of public sector corruption. Restricting freedom of expression, association and assembly is a popular tactic to protect and promote corruption and weaken the scope of societal checks on corruption.

Corruption reduces the capacity of the state to hold power to account, which enhances the scope of impunity. It leads to democratic decline, retards peaceful transition of power, facilitates kleptocratic capture of institutions, leading to more corruption. Given the state of violent suppression of dissent, intimidation and criminalisation of free speech and independent media reporting, lack of redress for violation of human rights, and widespread politicisation and dysfunctionality of state institutions, there are reasons to be concerned about the future of democracy in general and accountable governance in particular. The importance of effective action against corruption involving the whole of the society cannot be any clearer.

Iftekharuzzaman is executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh.

Views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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