Aspiring middle-income status: Cleansing the country of corruption
Sandwiched between a middle-income fascination and a corruption-plagued identity, Bangladesh is a true paradox: more of a campaign is underway to get the United Nations Development Programme to tag the country as being "developed" than in remedying Transparency International's constant observation of how cancerous our corrupt habits. Pushed deeper, the paradox will remain worrisome unless we make remedial efforts another of our "mega-projects".
Ascending the income-ladder has been experienced at almost all walks of life with credit to the RMG (ready-made garment) catalyst: it has helped middle- and lower-class girls find a job, while also feeding women emancipation, though admittedly upper-class investors have benefited the most. Translating those benefits into political power, such as by industrialists becoming legislators, cements a brewing corporatist network, depicting a business-government alliance that could elevate capitalist considerations over democratic within the country. Whereas the RMG income-curve depicts an upwardly-moving dynamic the country badly needs, the downward corruption-curve has increasingly been chewing away the full benefits. Even if it exists at the lower level, corruption gets its momentum, staying-power, and headline-making opportunities because of upper-level engagements: rarely does it creep up the social ladder from the very bottom, but descending from the top-level down has been historically far more common.
Since no one is born crooked or corrupt, environmental factors play a huge, even sole role in penetrating our virgin minds. The spark could begin with (a) examples, for instance noticing how others benefit from it; (b) needs, that is through compelling circumstances where stepping outside the virgin box may be the only solution to a pressing demand; (c) kinship, that is, advancing the cause of a relative or very close friend; or (d) greed, that is, to secure contracts, licenses, and other pecuniary methods for any fruit. Though difficult to remedy, these conditions must nonetheless be grappled with.
Tactical punishments, such as a "cleansing drive" or an "awareness movement" may not be effective enough to produce a permanent cure: some perpetrators can be cleansed for a day or for a short spell, but the instinct remains, while others may be too deeply rooted in nefarious practices to even be affected. On top of that, corrupted people, as if by definition, have the means to punish those initiating remedies. No wonder why the practice takes on such institutionalised forms, so much so as if to act as a "sixth" sense among us. At least neutral outsiders can draw that conclusion.
Yet, deeper inroads may still be made, and the effort should never be shelved. In an age of steep materialism, at least three fairly straightforward policy-favouring factors remain at our disposal: more equipment and technologies to make structural changes against obvious corrupt practices; greater democracy-fuelled coordination between various administrative agencies; and the automatic full-fledged adoption of transparency under a democratic regime.
There may be a long list of common practices, but perhaps the obvious, most visible ones where social disruption is a constant consequence (such as crowds created in certain offices around "dalals," thereby generating street-side traffic), could serve as starting-points. For example, we are all so familiar (and frustrated) with the process of getting our passports, licenses, or any other permits, even passing smuggled goods through "customs" officials in the airport, seaport, or border outposts, that these could be easily utilised into helping catapult remedial efforts.
One easy way is to process many of the applications (for anything) on-line, with simultaneous copies sent to some regulating office to facilitate checks-and-balances. For example, all passport information, photograph, and fee could be captured online (or the photo submitted personally in a second-phase, with a print-out approval of the original application submission), then a collection date given from an office under surveillance, that is, monitoring all actions. It is an approach slowly attracting policy-making attention in Bangladesh, albeit that attraction is all too slow.
Technology makes the surveillance easier, indicating how (already extant) can be put to far greater utility: closed-circuit television (CCTV) can act to hinder malpractices, but also promote a more objective review process. Every official's action can be monitored, as too those of clients. This would help the passport, or any other application, be processed without any middle-person, smoothly and expeditiously. It would even reduce traffic jams and hawkers around the office, at the least, and eventually signal the expansion of this check-and-balance remedy to other arenas.
Most profitable other arenas would be airports, seaports, and border outposts, which would help promote trade transactions to flow smoothly, keep ambitious officials reined in, and promote passenger passages, reputation build-up, and image-enhancement to foreigners, investors, tourists, not to mention our own citizens who have themselves wanted exactly what they teach their children: be honest, clean, clear, and as a true Muslim, share rather than accumulate.
The pot-of-gold at the end of this rainbow can be guaranteed and permitted to expand the more transparent we become. This must be in all walks of life, beginning with the media, then incorporated into our official and public lives, but stopping at the water's edge at our front-door foot-steps. Among the implications, transparency, with its own penetrative capacities, can also water down many of the extremities we face in political competition, sports team-selection, economic transactions (especially of growth projects, or "tender" notices circulated by administrative agencies), and so forth.
Why do we not try these for a change? They carry symptoms of the middle-income society to aspire to join, and the rationale behind our own belief that we are better than our South Asian neighbours when Transparency International indicators perpetually leave us where we always languish, at the region's basement.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.