As per the World Bank, corruption is the abuse of public or private office for personal gain. Others call it the misuse of public office for private benefit.
The moralists view corruption as an immoral and unethical phenomenon that contains a set of moral aberrations from moral standards of society, causing loss of respect for and confidence in duly constituted authority. In the face of diverse approaches and views on corruption, it is really difficult to conclude with a unanimous definition of the term.
Gerald Caiden terms it as abuse of authority, bribery, favouritism, extortion, fraud, patronage, theft, deceit, malfeasance and illegality. Some have stressed upon looking at corruption in terms of legal criteria considering the problems inherent in determining rules and norms that govern public interest, behaviour and authority. However, a new type of corruption termed as uninstitionalised political influence, grew out of the growth of new groups of wealthy people at the time of modernisation.
It gave rise to the modernisation theory putting in place the hypothesis that the more rapidly a country modernises, the higher the level of corruption. In developing countries, this process of modernisation created high levels of corruption by the expansion of governmental activities resulting in the rise of a new rich social class looking for political influence and change of social values and norms. In Bangladesh, such a class grew pretty rapidly and firmly.
Market-centred protagonists opine that norms governing public office have shifted from a mandatory pricing model to a free-market model and greatly changed the nature of corruption. Public-office-centred protagonists stress the fact that misuse by incumbents of public office for private gain is corruption. Public-opinion-centred definitions of corruption put emphasis on the views of public opinion about the conduct of politicians, government and probity of public servants.
Corruption can be classified in terms of their nature as well. It can be foreign-sponsored, institutionalised, outcome of political scandal and administrative malfeasance. It has also been differentiated into three types - collusive, coercive and non-conjunctive. Corruption has remained deep rooted in the society in this region. Kautilya, many centuries ago, identified forty types of embezzlement committed by public servants. In ancient India, large-scale corruption dominated public life.
Another scholar observed that corruption prevailed on a larger scale in India during the ancient period and the periods that followed. There was an essential belief among officials of “making hay while the sun of British Raj shone”. In Bangladesh, corruption has continued to be an integral part of the culture where the degree of corruption depends on the influence of the position a particular incumbent holds. The citizens have also accepted the harsh reality that nothing moves before pleasing the concerned officials.
As per United Nations, corruption takes many forms. These forms are: receiving money and other rewards for awarding contracts, violation of procedures to serve personal interests, kickbacks out of developmental programmes, pay-offs for legislative support, change of public resources for private use, ignoring unlawful activities, intervention in the judicial process, nepotism, theft, overpricing, establishing false projects and tax assessment frauds.
The all-pervasive corruption has become a part of the politico-administrative culture and, after independence, the tentacles of corruption have swallowed up the whole society. Its influence has become so powerful that people have come to accept it as a fait accompli. Citizens have, in fact, accepted it as a part of their daily life experience and more alarmingly they feel themselves imbecile to deal with the phenomenon at any level.
The reason for such helplessness is the presence of corruption in almost all levels of government. Unfortunately, the shift from an authoritarian to a democratic system of government in the 1990s has not had any effect on the nature and dimensions of corruption. It is an open secret that almost all kinds of corruption perpetuate in politics and administration in Bangladesh. The most common form of corruption is, however, bribery.
Stanley A. Kochanek noted that petty corruption takes many forms. Payments are required simply to obtain an application form or a signature, to secure a copy of an approved sanction, to ensure proper services and billing from telephone, natural gas, electric power and water employees.
Project corruption permeates both public and private sector contracting. A substantial commission must be paid to secure large public sector contracts in Bangladesh. Programmatic corruption involves Food for Works and relief programmes.
To face up to corruption, the Bangladesh Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) was established according to the Anti-corruption Commission Act of 2004. The ACC is the entity in charge of combating corruption through investigation, issuing of arrest warrant, and lodging cases against corrupt individuals including public officials. In fact, effectiveness of ACC is dwindling mainly due to lack of political commitment underlying continuous legal, administrative and operational hindrances.
In 1997, Institute of Governance Studies produced a list of barriers to the functionality of the ACC. These were: legacy of the BAC (Bureau of Anti-Corruption); staff and workload; weak leadership; lack of political will; lack of ratified rules and organogram; internal conflicts; lack of coordination with other anti-corruption institutions. The ACC was very active during the time of the last Caretaker Government.
The number of cases initiated by the Commission dropped sharply later on. Of late, however, numbers of cases and high profile arrests have increased. By law, the Commission is independent and impartial but, in practice, it is under the broad shadow of political influence. The Commissioners are appointed by and report to the President, who according to the Constitution, acts in such matters only in consultation with the Prime Minister (Head of the Government).
According to Transparency International Bangladesh, the strengths of the ACC includes legal independence and status with adequate legal powers and mandate; stability of budget which has gradually increased over years; staff stability with low turnover; willingness to investigate complaints, as it is responsive to complaints, corruption prevention initiatives with organisational reviews, collaboration with other stakeholders such as civil society, development partners; and participation in international networks.
On the other hand, the weaknesses of the ACC include inadequate budget particularly for recruitment of experienced lawyers, low accessibility in terms of lodging complaints; inadequate/limited expertise and professionalism in investigation and prevention; low conviction rate; absence of independent oversight mechanism; and low level of public confidence and negative perception on ACC’s effectiveness. However, ACC’s main challenge is gaining people’s trust and confidence.
The writer is a Professor, Department of Public administration, Chittagong University.