Corruption accountability and democratic governance

Wahiduddin Mahmud

Official Secrets Act 1923, a legacy of the colonial administration, needs to be modified along with other measures to ensure free flow of information. As Justice Brandeis of the US Supreme Court put it, "Sunlight is the most powerful of all disinfectants". Accountability and transparency are now buzzwords that the political parties will be too glad to include in their election pledges, but only in terms of general intent. What should be demanded of them are more specific commitments.

THE theories of political behaviour under democracy are based on two extreme alternative assumptions: one is that both politicians and bureaucrats are guided in their actions by altruistic motives towards public welfare; the other is that they only try to maximize their individual gains as far as permissible by the system. The popular British TV series "Yes Minister" was in fact inspired by this later cynical view of the system. In this series, both the top departmental bureaucrat and the Minister act to maximize their career initially in opposition but eventually in collusion. This is a depiction of a mature democratic system, albeit in a caricature form, where there are well-established norms of democratic behaviour as well as institutional mechanisms to effectively deter self-serving behaviour in public offices. Needless to say, the conditions are far less favourable in the new democracies like ours, where such democratic norms and institutions have yet to take root.


A free and fair election is the primary mechanism for ensuring accountability of the government and for screening the quality of public representatives. To the extent that the money and muscle power can influence the elections, the seeds of corruption are sown at the very beginning of the democratic process. This much is well known. But there is a deeper, and less recognized malaise. In a system like ours, in which patronage politics and corruption have got embedded, even fair elections are no guarantee that the right kind of people will get elected. Because of the deterioration in political culture, the common people have come to believe that there is not much scope for men of integrity and principle to be effective in delivering public service as elected representatives. Instead, they may feel inclined to gamble on accessing some favours and patronage by electing the corrupt and powerful candidates. The common people will need to be made conscious of the fact that they will get a much better deal by electing an honest government that will genuinely work for social development and poverty alleviation.


The above phenomenon is partly a reflection of, and is compounded by the structure of Bangladesh society. Social interactions at the community, market and state levels often reflect patron-client relationships and are determined by kinship, social hierarchy, economic status and regional identity. In this environment, no institution can guarantee impersonal and impartial conduct of public affairs or dispensation of rule of law that treats all citizens equally. It may be noted that even the United States had its share of patrimonial rule in urban political machines, corrupt county courthouses and overcentralized Washington bureaucracies. Over time, these problems were addressed by strengthening the local governments and by attempting to use formal procedures and legal constraints to convert patrimonial relations into impersonal rule.


The personalized and paternalistic relationships, embedded in a centralized state, are reflected in the functioning of our democratic institutions and the administrative system. Spoils and privileges are parceled out among different clientele as an essential tool of political management. All power is concentrated at the top resulting in delayed and ill-informed decisions. Since power is both concentrated and used at the pleasure of the leader, the incentives for corruption at all levels are very high. The corruption can take the form of lower-ranking officials accepting bribes from people who wish to short-circuit the official procedures or the higher-ups using their powers to line their own pockets.

In these circumstances, it is not very useful to argue whether a much larger portion of the pie of corruption goes to government officials than to the functionaries of the political party in power. That may as well be true. But it is a mistake to suppose that bureaucratic problems arise simply out of management problems and can therefore be solved by administrative reforms alone; they are essentially problems of political governance. If government agencies are to work in a transparent and accountable way, if authority is to be decentralized, if officials are to be judged by well-defined yardstick of performance or tasks accomplished, then the legislators, political power-brokers and ministers will have to act against their own interests. They will have to say 'no' to influential constituents and forgo the opportunity of expanding their own influence. Most of all, unless a political regime can itself portray a clean image, it will not have the moral authority to enforce drastic measures to eradicate corruption in administration.

Beyond political commitment, incentives and institutions also matter. New agencies are sometimes created to make a fresh start and break away from those that are awash with patronage and corruption. If the underlying problems are not addressed, such initiatives are unlikely to succeed. The creation of the DESA out of the PDB according to the World Bank's guidelines has been a failure in tackling the problem of huge electricity pilferage. Nevertheless, there are some 'islands of excellence' such as the BASIC Bank (a state-owned bank with an excellent record of loan recovery), the Rural Electricity Board (a state-run co-operative system that is virtually free from the problem of electricity pilferage) and the PKSF (a financial intermediary for micro-credit with near hundred percent loan recovery). Some of the characteristic features contributing to their success are full autonomy, strong championship in public service and home-grown project designs with a learning-by-doing approach.


In a society like ours where rules are routinely violated, multiplying rules and relying on increasingly stricter laws and procedures do not help control corruption. Every legal obligation provides a potential source of bribes to officials who enforce it. Suppressing corruption requires help from private individuals or citizens' groups who can act as 'whistle-blowers'; but when everyone breaks the law, anyone who reports someone else is vulnerable to counter charges. Ideally, proliferation of laws that will only lead to more noncompliance should be avoided, leaving in place those regulations that have a fair chance of being implemented.


Let me give an example. The existing laws regarding factory safety or labour standards are quite strict on paper but are routinely violated. As a result, the ready-made garment exporters allegedly have to pay monthly bribes to factory inspectors and the officials of Labour Directorate and the Export Promotion Bureau. If these laws are made more realistic and enforced more effectively, then it will be in the interest of the garment exporters themselves to uphold these laws and report noncompliance, since the image of the industry in these respects is important for the prospects of accessing the Western markets.

A certain amount of discretion on the part of government functionaries is unavoidable in a situation of poor compliance to law, so that enforcement, of necessity, has to be selective. Income tax officials often go after regular tax-payers on the pretext of one or the other minor violation of rules, while big tax-dodgers are allowed to go scot-free. The DESA supervisors, while they are party to large-scale electricity pilferage, often initiate court cases (and demand bribes for amicable settlement) against domestic electricity subscribers on some fine technical ground like a discrepancy in load capacity. In such cases, the officials concerned should be made accountable not on the basis of whether they have 'gone by the book' in the specific instances, but whether they have demonstrated a minimum sense of proportion in their selective application of law.


We have a large top-down, centralized bureaucracy that is unresponsive to public needs and grievances. In theory, we follow the British Parliamentary system, in which government officials are accountable to their higher-ups and the chain of accountability then runs through the Cabinet of Ministers to the Parliament, which is ultimately accountable to the electorate. In practice, this system rarely works in our case. Remedial actions against corruption and other irregularities are initiated, if at all, only when there is a public outcry, often resulting from media reports. The US system, on the other hand, is much more decentralized, with strong local governments and many parallel autonomous agencies that respond more readily to pressure groups and citizens' preferences. May be, we can emulate some of these features as a means of ensuring accountability of government agencies.


The critics of decentralization, however, argue that local governments will only shift the undesirable traits of our national-level politics to the local level. Such institutions, instead of being truly representative, may only promote various kinds of brokerage and rent-seeking and even outright criminal gang-type activities that undermine poor people's access to needs and rights. That danger is there. But if at all we are to set examples of accountable and representative governance, we have to start at the grassroots level. It is at the local levels that the brunt of misgovernance and corruption is directly felt by the general public whether in local courts, land record offices, police stations or primary health clinics. The misuse of public funds in the implementation of local projects directly affects community welfare. Efforts at strengthening the 'voice' of the general public in demanding better governance have therefore the best chance of success at the local community level.

Civic actions are of course no substitute for political movement, but at least some pressure can be brought to bear upon the political parties. Citizens' organizations may also try to forge alliances with the more responsible sections of the polity. Keeping in view the upcoming parliamentary elections, the political parties may be called upon to let public know their proposed action plan against corruption, if there is any. Such an action plan may include allowing the Bureau of Anti-Corruption and the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General function as fully independent bodies, making provision for the Public Accounts Committee of the Parliament to be headed by an opposition MP and setting up of the office of Ombudsman as provided by the Constitution. Official Secrets Act 1923, a legacy of the colonial administration, needs to be modified along with other measures to ensure free flow of information. As Justice Brandeis of the US Supreme Court put it, "Sunlight is the most powerful of all disinfectants". Accountability and transparency are now buzzwords that the political parties will be too glad to include in their election pledges, but only in terms of general intent. What should be demanded of them are more specific commitments.

Wahiduddin Mahmud is Professor of Economics, University of Dhaka.

Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, July 21, 2001



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