The state of our governance
by Mahbub Husain

By the time the third elected government in power since 1991 has come to govern the country, a record of poor affirmation of human rights, increasing violence and decreasing performance of officials maintaining law and order, and ascending degrees of corruption have become matters of grave concern within the country and in international forums. Most recently questions were raised at the Paris Consortium meeting about whether the state of our governance will be able to further the economic welfare and reforms in our country. The Human Rights Report of 2001, formally released by the State Department of the United States on March 5 finds a poor record of human rights and the government’s weak commitment to this. According to the Report the year 2001 saw three governments – that of the Awami League, the Caretaker Government and the government of the newly elected BNP and Four Party Alliance.

In summary, the report lists incidents with dates of police excesses, crimes against women and children and other human rights violations. There was widespread police corruption and lack of discipline in the force. Violence and terrorism, often guided by political opportunism, have increased. There have been extra-judicial killings, custodial deaths and tortures. The rights of the free press have been hindered by attacks on journalists and efforts to intimidate them have increased. Though the higher levels of judiciary have shown a significant degree of independence from the political and bureaucratic executive, the lower judicial officers, such as magistrates, being within the ambit of the bureaucratic structure of the executive arm of the government, have been reluctant to challenge government decisions and directives. Despite promises of the new government to repeal the Special Powers Act and the Public Safety Act in the present form, no concrete move has yet been taken, and abuse of the Acts are still being observed.

In the face of such reports and allegations the ruling party’s initiative to establish a National Human Rights Commission has been put on hold. The government is now seeking more time for the separation of the Judiciary from the Executive. It has also gone slow on the proposal for establishing Ombudsman. Coming hard on the heels of the government-promoted euphoria about the success of the first one hundred days of governance of the ruling party, the disappointment felt by the people of our country, and the queries of the international forums including the international banks who would be assisting us in our programme of economic reforms, spell a gloomy socio-economic scenario in the near future.

Most of all, we have not been able to brush aside our reputation of being one of the most corrupt countries in the world. The many faces of corruption have now become a familiar experience for the people who are involved almost daily with the structure and functionaries of the government machinery. Whether in the mainstream bureaucracy, or in the semi-government public and autonomous corporations, or in local government bodies, the spreading bane of corruption is engulfing all of us, public persons and public officials. A comprehensive definition articulated by Dr. Saadat Husain (now Home Secretary to the government) covers the context of Bangladesh now: "Corruption for a public servant may be defined as intentional use of his official position or influence or allowing it to be used with the object of obtaining for himself or others he is interested in, some benefit – economic or otherwise – illegally undermining the system, and the public servant not being ready to explicitly justify on moral grounds such actions."

In recent months and weeks, there have been instances of public exposure of corrupt practices. The case of purchase of defective frigates by the Ministry of Defence, whose exposure is due to political reasons, has, in any case brought to light a controversial matter to public knowledge. Very recently, the death of an industrialist from the falling slab of a footbridge has highlighted the corrupt awarding of contract and the ineffective supervision system. The public corporations such as Bangladesh Biman, and the Bangladesh Shipping Corporation have been set up to operate commercial organisations keeping in view our national interests. But here also instances of corruption abound, though the pay and privileges of the professional staff in these organisations compare favourably with the pay and privileges of similar staff in other countries of the world. In an incident involving the national flag carrier Bangladesh Shipping Corporation, it is alleged that the Corporation has incurred a loss of over US one million dollars due to a shady deal of chartering out its larger ships to a Singapore-based company.

The best defences against such corruption are maximum competition, solid performance contracts a good system to track performance information and complaints, a capacity to investigate problems, and the threat of prosecution. The competition and performance information will expose and penalise firms whose contracts were not awarded for the right reasons, and the threat of speedy investigation and prosecution will discourage fraud.

As ‘information age’ democracies have loosened their bureaucratic systems of control, they have shifted to other forms of control – performance measurement and rewards, competition based on results, information systems that track financial transactions, careful auditing, and rigorous prosecution of illegal activity. Many developing democracies do this as well, leapfrogging decades of the bureaucratic era. Singapore has introduced many elements of entrepreneurial government, including performance budgeting, activity-based costing, and empowerment of organisation through a step-by-step process. Malaysia has initiated a management system in which public managers are held accountable for producing results and rewarded for excellent performance.

The government in power will now have to buckle down to the task of introducing administrative and judicial reforms. The question of enforcing human rights cannot be shelved and the good intentions of the government to establish a Human Rights Commission have to be translated to something much more tangible than election promises and pious wishes. The solution to the problems inherent in the bureaucratic syndrome in government and public agencies is now in the hands of the executive and legislative branches of the government in power. In recent times the legislature has been weakened by the decision of the opposition to resign. That decision has to be politically combated to bring back the opposition to the Sangsad. Solution is essential if our society is to transform into a society with a humane agenda for social and economic salvation of the people. As this is being written, time here is very short, action too long delayed.


Source: The Daily Independent, Dhaka, March 25, 2002


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