Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Bangladesh’s image and the Padma Bridge

Daily Sun
November 6, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The foreign minister thinks that our image has not been tarnished by the allegation of corruption resulting in cancellation of funding of the US$ 2.7 billion Padma Bridge (PB) project by the World Bank. Unfortunately, soon afterwards, the ADB and JICA also took similar action as co-financiers. The IMF is also not willing to give Bangladesh the support it now needs desperately. In a recent meeting of the foreign minister with the US Secretary of State in Washington, the latter raised concerns over freedom of the media in Bangladesh and the Grameen Bank. She hoped that the noble prize winning institution would be allowed to function un-hindered.

These are scathing criticisms and serious concerns coming from powerful sources. These are not just hurting our image; more importantly are hurting where it matters more, our development efforts. Therefore, the foreign minister would have done better not to have dismissed the image issue outright because going into state of denial would neither bring funds for the PB nor improve the image that Bangladesh needs desperately to attract support and foreign assistance to become a middle income country by 2021.

Addressing the WB concerns, our government must not forget that it is governed by the big powers where the US has a dominant role. Hence the Bank’s concerns are not just its concerns; the concerns are shared by our other developments partners and also by other international financial institutions such as the ADB, IMF and JICA. The goodwill of these countries and institutions are indispensable to our future.

It must also be kept in mind that the issue on which the WB has stopped funding is corruption; that is of critical significance in development aid and project financing by developed countries and international financial agencies. The WB has a strong resident office in Dhaka that has been following Bangladesh on the issue of good governance. This office and offices of other international financial agencies and embassies of developed countries have formal and informal liaison among themselves in Dhaka. They watch every day how the country is sliding on the corruption index.

In recent times, they have watched our civil society’s bipartisan moves against corruption in the ministry upon which the WB has focused. In fact, a group representing the students, professionals and university teachers have started a movement seeking the resignation of the communications minister. The media has been continuously exposing corruption in his ministry and elsewhere in the government. Therefore the concerns of these agencies and governments cannot be just pushed aside by denial for the money they provide us as aid has to be accounted for or else they would stop coming. An “ostrich mentality” on such concerns would not help any of the stakeholders.

The seriousness of the WB was communicated forcefully to our government when it sent its Vice- President for Ethics to Dhaka to meet the prime minister, a step in itself very unusual that underscores the seriousness of the concern. Our government treated the concern in an astonishingly casual way. The WB expected the government to change leadership in the Ministry of Communications. Our government stubbornly refused to do so. Instead, the relevant parliamentary committee abused the WB and recommended that the government should seek funding for the PB elsewhere! The communications minister also spoke in the media that the government would raise funds for PB privately.

However, he also wrote to the Transparency International Bangladesh for investigating corruption in his ministry, a highly unusual and desperate step that confirmed the concern raised by the WB, instead of removing any one from the ministry. When the TIB refused to take the Minister’s offer, he wrote to the ACC showing his desperation for a certificate of honesty. His strange steps convinced no one; these just underscored the government’s knee jerk approach to governance.

Recently, on the TV programme Tritio Matra, a member of parliament of the ruling party openly named the communications minister as corrupt. He said that this minister and a few like him are tarnishing the honest credentials of the prime minister, her family members and the government. He told viewers that the minister’s claim of closeness with the prime minister, her sister and her husband are baseless. The prime minister’s sister, upon hearing he was using her name, had called him to her presence and rebuked him and warned him to refrain from such malafide acts.

The MP thereafter revealed an absolutely incredible story about the minister. This minister with Obaidul Quader and Saber Hossain were in Sheikh Hasina’s delegation to China when she was in the opposition. The MP was also a part of the team. On a sight-seeing outing one day during the trip, Sheikh Hasina in fun mood asked for a whistle to pull a joke on the three. When she was given one, she told them to run a race and added that the one who won would be made a minister when the AL came to power. All three ran but two of them for mere fun knowing that Sheikh Hasina was joking. The Communications Minister was serious and ran as if his life depended on it and won.

Now readers believe this if you want. The MP told viewers that after winning the elections, Abul Hossain went to Sheikh Hasina and insisted that she must keep her promise and make him the minister for communications. The prime minister obliged as he was persistent! I am not sure how many viewers would believe this astonishing story but it is another proof that the concern about the minister of communications is not just a concern of the WB and our international friends or of the opposition in Bangladesh but also shared by important people of the ruling party.

Most people would have no problem in believing that the communications minister is using the name of the PM and her family. If the minister is guilty of corruption as the MP has said on the programme, changing him would not just save the reputation of the prime minister; it would also satisfy the WB and the other financial institutions to reconsider the financing for the PB project. Therefore, it defeats logic why the minister is being allowed to remain in his post.

This is the first instance where a mega project of Bangladesh has been stopped by an institution like the WB for concerns of corruption. Those involved in sharing this concern are crucial to our development; they could make or break our efforts to break from poverty to economic viability for the majority of our people. Therefore the cancellation of PB funding is not one that is just harming our image for it surely is; it is putting into jeopardy our overall development efforts.

The foreign minister’s denial on the image issue, the communications minister’s move for “honesty certificate” from the TIB and ACC, and the MP’s attempt to clear the PM, her family and the government on Tritio Matra are not going to convince those who are looking towards Bangladesh government to be serious.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.

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