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STATE OF GOVERNANCE

IN BANGLADESH
MOHAMMAD MOHABBAT KHAN
The following sections contain an analysis of the state of governance in
Bangladesh and are based on the framework presented above. It is apparent that
any analysis of governance in this country, like any other, needs to be broadbased
and issue-oriented.

Nature of the polity


Bangladesh shows all the symptoms of an underdeveloped polity. Democracy,
as a system of governance, is yet to be institutionalized. This can be seen from
the presence of a number of variables. Politics is still dominated by big money
(mostly unaccounted for), goons and people with little background and training
in formal politics. Elections have become an expensive affair where ordinary
citizens have very little rôle to play except as passive voters with very little
interest in the entire process. Power and authority are concentrated at the top
echelon of the government based in the capital, leaving very little authority and
resources at the disposal of elected bodies at the local level.
The economic disparity between the rich and the poor continues to widen,
with frightening prospects for society. All the benefits of state patronage are
provided to the rich, in spite of the fact that most of them do not pay their taxes.
The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have recently
asked the three nationalized commercial banks (NCBs) to stop disbursement of
fresh loans against the backdrop of a soaring default loan (The News Today, 26
December 2002). The private sector banks, whose numbers continue to rise,
have already been chastized by the government for giving loans to their directors
and other influential individuals without proper collateral. This improper

practice has also landed many private sector banks in the quagmire of default
loans. The sponsors, promoters and beneficiaries of this default loan culture all
belong to the upper strata of society and consequently protect each other. The
middle class and salaried people are squeezed constantly by increasing rises in
the prices of essential commodities, house rents, children’s educational
expenses, medical bills and taxes. The toiling masses struggle endlessly to
barely survive in a man-made unjust world.
Social disparity among different strata of the population continues to deepen.
Contrasting values and conflicting ethos are evident. Morality has become the
biggest casualty at the present time. Nobody talks about ethics anymore (Khan
et al, 1995: 596). Corruption has become so endemic that it has engulfed both
public and private sectors and touched and affected, in one way or another,
many individuals in Bangladesh. So it is little wonder that the country enjoys the
dubious distinction of being perhaps the most corrupt country in the whole
world. No one seems to be too worried about this. This may be because the
policy makers of Bangladesh have accepted the reality and feel that nothing
needs to be done about it.

Political system
A country’s political system plays a pivotal rôle in shaping its destiny for good
or bad. Political parties, the structure of government, civil society and international
donors all in varying degrees influence or attempt to influence the
nature of the political system in Bangladesh.
Political parties, whether big or small, become most visible during election
time. At other times they organize protest meetings if they are in opposition and
bring out processions in support of government policies and actions if they
are in power. But serious questions have been raised in terms of the nature of
leadership, the sources and utilization of party funds and the nomination of
candidates for key elections. All parties profess to adhere to democratic
principles. But the reality is different. Even for senior leaders of the two major
political parties (holding memberships of central committees and presidiums) it
is risky to disagree with, let alone challenge, the two supreme leaders (Khan and
Husain, 1996: 329–330). Both the supreme leaders of the Awami League (AL)
and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) were given leadership positions
with very little or no previous political experience. Heredity and kinship were
the key determinants of their accession to power. The country’s two major
political parties thus survive on family tradition (Acharyia, 2002: 17). For the
past 32 years AL leaders at the central level have never been elected and
nurturing intra-party democracy has proved to be even more difficult for BNP.
The constant fragmentation of other parties like the Jatiya Party (JP) and Jatiya
Samajtantrick Dal (JSD) into many factions is primarily the result of the absence
of a democratic culture in internal decision-making processes among such
parties. Naturally, the top leadership remains unchanged even after a major party
loses major national elections. This permanent nature of the supreme leadership
has a number of adverse consequences for the healthy development of politics
and political parties in the country. Weaklings and sycophants have become
prominent in the parties’ decision-making processes. Capable and effective
leaders cannot be groomed. The succession for the supreme leader becomes
hazardous. Adherence to a genuinely democratic ethos is thwarted by internal
party politics and management (Khan and Zafarullah, 1990: 315–317).
The effective functioning of each and every organ of government is an
essential prerequisite of good governance. In Bangladesh the dominant position
of the executive within the political system is widely known. The parliamentary
system that has been in existence without interruption for a little over a decade
can best be termed a prime ministerial system. The prime minister enjoys and
exercises an enormous array of power to the detriment of the legislature.
A rather large and unwieldy cabinet consisting of 64 individuals is neither
effective nor necessary. It is doubtful whether major policies are thoroughly
discussed and analysed in cabinet meetings. Monitoring the implementation of
policies is an area where cabinet has not been successful. Thus there should be a
critical rôle for career civil servants.
The present size of the civil service is large compared with the tasks it
performs (Khan, 1998). But reform-resistant public sector officials and
employees are mostly poorly paid, ill disciplined and improperly trained. All
these facts are linked with the overall work culture of this country and the way
they are recruited. Avoiding responsibility for decisions and the non-meritbased
selection of personnel combined together has created a situation where
competence is lacking. This lack of competence has created an environment of
uncertainty, uneasiness and paranoia in the civil service. The greatest casualty of
this situation is the ordinary citizen, who has to be content with poor service
delivery, corruption and the bad behaviour of street-level bureaucrats.
The Jatiya Sangsad (parliament) is supposed to be at the centre of all activities
in a parliamentary system. Instead, parliament has become the vehicle
for passing bills sponsored by the government sometimes with very little
deliberation. Committees lie at the heart of a parliament. But committees are yet
to be formed in the present parliament thanks to bickering between the government
and the opposition with regard to fixing the number of members from the
treasury and the major opposition party. The parliament has been unable to
perform its designated rôle as controller and overseer of executive actions. None
of the governments that came to power since the restoration of the parliamentary
system has allowed it to function properly (Khan, 2001). As a result it has
not been possible to ensure accountability and transparency of governmental
functionaries. In the past when committees were formed they could not perform
in any satisfactory manner for a number of reasons. Committees were not
given adequate logistical and other support. They could not conduct their own
investigation into allegations of corruption and mismanagement. Hearings were
conducted mostly in camera. Committee directives, whether implemented or
not, could not be ascertained in many cases, mostly because of the unwillingness
of senior civil servants to keep the committees informed on a regular basis.
Because of a lack of adequate and appropriate training many law makers are not
sure what their exact rôle is. The process of law making is tedious and technical
in nature and one needs to go through a well designed orientation course to
master the process. One of the adverse consequences of this situation is that law
makers get too involved in all local development efforts and create conflict with
locally elected representatives and central government officials deputed in the
field, thereby thwarting development activities.
Judicial independence is a fundamental prerequisite for a society premised on
the rule of law. Although the Constitution speaks volumes about the separation
of the judiciary, this has not taken place after 30 years of independence. A
number of amendments to the Constitution leave the judiciary dependent on the
executive in several critical areas, including appointment of judges to the
Supreme Court, financial grant and logistical support. The lower judiciary’s
ability to function properly, it is alleged, has been considerably eroded by
constant government interference in its domain. Also the training of judges at
lower level is still inadequate and infrequently undertaken.
Bangladesh has a rich history of local initiatives undertaken voluntarily by
individuals and groups. But community-based organizations (CBOs) and nongovernmental
organizations (NGOs) as key components of civil society became
vocal, visible and powerful in the 1980s and 1990s. Many initially welcomed the
emergence of CBOs and NGOs in the belief that they would not only serve and
empower the poor but would take on the state on their behalf. This has not
happened. NGO accountability remains murky in spite of successive governments’
efforts to monitor their fund receipts and disbursement (Khan, 2003).
The recent trend among some big NGOs to venture into commercial activities
has raised many questions about their status as organizations, rôle of the poor in
profit sharing, etc. The direct involvement of some big NGOs in national politics
supporting one of the big political parties has had a number of consequences.
The recent split in the Association of Development Agencies in Bangladesh
(ADAB) is a case in point. Division among major NGOs with regard to their
rôle in the polity has seriously affected the credibility of the civil society in
general and NGOs in particular.
The rôle of the donor community in a country like Bangladesh is significant
as the country continues to depend heavily on the former’s aid and grants.
International multilateral organizations and major donors have openly expressed
their dissatisfaction with how the governance system works in Bangladesh
(World Bank, 1996; 2002). They have openly voiced concern about the
deteriorating law and order situation, continuing political turmoil, massive
corruption and inefficiency in the public sector, burgeoning size of the civil
service and failure to leave business activities to the private sector. There is a
strong unanimity of opinion among members of the donor community that
governance has weakened significantly in recent years mostly because of a lack
of collective improvement efforts.
So far we have discussed the state of governance in Bangladesh. In the
following sections we analyse the impact of poor governance in the country,
focusing on certain key variables.

Widening horizon of corruption


Corruption is widely identified as a governance problem as it is a clear
signal that something has gone wrong in the management of the state,
since institutions designed to govern the interrelationships between the
citizen and the state are used instead for personal enrichment and political
goals. (Ackerman, quoted in World Bank, 2000: 6)
The statement above typifies the existence of widespread corruption in
governance in Bangladesh.
Corruption is an inescapable fact of life in Bangladesh because the society is a
highly complex network involving reciprocal favours and obligations; as a
result, payoff is the lifeblood of the country (Maloney, 1986: 173). Payoff
benefits include money, jobs, luxury gifts, building supplies, overseas travel and
the payment of foreign tuition bills, foreign medical bills, overseas hotel and
restaurant bills and personal liabilities (Kochanek, 1993: 258). The symptoms of
a patron–client relationship are further reflected by the practice of some
businessmen maintaining rest houses and high-class exclusive hostesses to
entertain important foreign guests and big bosses (Siddiqui et al, 1990).
Patronage relationships and clientelism are pervasive in both national and local
politics.
Political and administrative corruption was evident during the first decade of
the existence of Bangladesh as an independent country (Kochanek, 1993;
Franda, 1982; Maniruzzaman, 1982). By all accounts the Ershad government
established record levels of venality (Blair et al, 1992). Under Ershad corruption
prevailed in each and every sector of national life and took the forms of petty
corruption, project corruption and programmatic corruption (Kochanek, 1993).
A number of surveys over a ten-year period unmistakably demonstrates widespread
corruption in Bangladesh. An opinion survey conducted in 1992 of
selected household heads in Dhaka city found that 68.25 per cent of respondents
paid bribes to members of law enforcing agencies, customs and income tax
departments (Aminuzzaman, 1996). The survey found that the higher the level
of bureaucracy, the lower the frequency but higher the amount of bribe; and the
lower the level of bureaucracy, the higher the frequency but lower the amount of
bribe (Aminuzzaman, 1996).
Another opinion survey was conducted in 1997 by the Bangladesh Unnayan
Parishad (BUP) of 2197 randomly selected individuals from 60 districts (BUP,
1997). The survey indicated that 95 per cent of the respondents felt that the
police department was the most corrupt, followed by the customs department
(91 per cent), taxation department (90 per cent) and secretariat (82 per cent).
Transparency International, Bangladesh (TIB) conducted a baseline survey in
1997 of 2500 households covering ten sectors. The survey found that widespread
corrupt practices were prevalent in education, health, the judiciary,
police, land administration, banks, utility-providing institutions and municipalities
(TIB, 1997). Another TIB survey undertaken in 2000 found large-scale
losses of public revenues through corruption in the customs department and
power sector (TIB, 2000). Payment of speed money is common to expedite
valuation and release of imports through collusion between customs officers and
importers over assessment of duty (Laking, 2001: 40). In the Power Development
Board (PDB) and Dhaka Electric Supply (DESA) the principal form of
corruption is system loss, mostly related to theft of power by illegal connections
or under-billing; in most cases, the theft requires the active participation of
employees (Laking, 2001: 40). There are cases of large-scale corruption in the
Roads and Highways Department (RH&D), symbolized by kickbacks and
managed tendering in the award of contracts; over-invoicing for materials,
equipment and work done; and completion to below specification or not at all
(Laking, 2001: 40–41). Corruption in the banking sector is rife. A study on bank
loan defaulters quoted by TIB (2000) found that 70 per cent of defaulters used
political connections to get loans approved. It has been estimated that bribes
typically range from 1 to 5 per cent of the loan amount (TIB, 2000). Corruption
in most ministries and departments is on the increase. The Comptroller and
Auditor General’s Office (CAGO) has detected misappropriation and irregularities
to the tune of $2,570 million in 24 ministries and government agencies
between 1994 and 2001 (The Daily Star, 4 February 2002). CAGO’s 73 audit
reports have found cases of embezzlement, theft, wastage, non-deduction of
VAT and income taxes and non-compliance with financial rules and regulations
(The Daily Star, 4 February 2002). A recent household survey was conducted
by Transparency International (TI), an international organization fighting
corruption world-wide, of seven major public institutions in five South Asian
countries. The survey found that in Bangladesh the police are the most corrupt,
followed by the judiciary and land administration.
Lack of accountability and transparency in the affairs of the state is considered
to be a major impediment to effective governance. The governance system in
Bangladesh is premised on a lack of accountability and secrecy. These two
factors combined together have made governance in this country inefficient,
ineffective and expensive.
Although the political system is a parliamentary one in theory, in reality, it
looks like a quasi-presidential system. It has been appropriately observed that
incomplete adjustment was made while changing it from a presidential to a
parliamentary system (World Bank, 1996: 51). With the introduction of the
parliamentary system the levels of control previously enjoyed by the president
were simply transferred to the prime minister, resulting in the transformation of
the office of the prime minister into an extremely powerful one (Khan 2001: 81).
The concentration of enormous power in the hands of the prime minister in
particular and the executive branch in general has serious negative implications
for accountability and transparency. These implications are discussed below.
In a parliamentary democracy the legislature plays an important oversight rôle
to keep the executive in check. But this has not happened in Bangladesh. The
executive controls the legislative agenda. The prime minister, the cabinet and
the bureaucracy are closely involved in the legislative process leaving little rôle
in it for individual MPs. Individual legislators have little political clout and as a
consequence much less opportunity to introduce bills on their own (Khan, 2001:
80). The passage of an anti-defection law by the fifth parliament as part of the
12th amendment incorporated into article 70 of the Constitution has considerably
curbed the power of individual MPs. The MPs of the ruling party are
debarred from voting against the party and are also discouraged from criticizing
government failures and mismanagement. As has been pointed out earlier,
parliamentary committees have failed miserably to act as a watchdog of governmental
actions and misuse of power.
In Bangladesh the public sector lacks accountability. The chain of accountability
stretching from the parliament to class IV employees is weak and fuzzy;
many of the links have been ruptured, resulting in an inability to enforce
financial contracts, stop theft in public enterprises or hold officials accountable
for improper or delayed judgement (World Bank, 1996: viii). Traditional
internal mechanisms like hierarchy and supervision have mostly failed (Khan,
1998: 166). It has been observed that the failure of administrative accountability
mechanisms has contributed to the indifferent and arrogant attitudes that most
bureaucrats hold towards citizens in general (Khan, 1983: 688).
Decision making in the public sector as a whole is non-transparent (Khan,
1998: 167). Decisions taken by the cabinet, and the deliberations involved
in reaching them, are not open to public viewing. Both in the political and
administrative spheres secrecy is jealously guarded. Continuance with certain
acts and rules like the Official Secrets Act, 1923 and Government Service
Conduct Rules, 1979 has enabled successive governments to deny interested
citizens access to relevant files and documents. The tendency to mark files
secret and top secret has not only prevented citizens from being more aware of
how public decisions are arrived at and how this adversely affects governance in
the country but has denied citizens rights to the free flow of information in this
age of globalization.
Despite repeated calls for reform, the public administration system in
Bangladesh continues to suffer from the ill effects of lack of accountability and
transparency. The consequences of the present system are evident for all to see.
Public service delivery is regulations-driven and input-oriented rather than
results-directed (World Bank, 2002: xxi). Information on services provided is
extremely scanty and effective procedures for receiving complaints and settling
grievances hardly exist (World Bank, 2002: xxi). The public is obliged to endure
neglect and harassment from service providers (World Bank, 2002: xxi). It is no
wonder then that there is no audit for results, rather the focus is exclusively on
conformity to and implementation of rules (PARC, 2002: 9). The judiciary,
because it is largely inaccessible to the general populace, has failed to come to
their aid to make governmental operations transparent and accountable.

Worsening human rights situation


The unsatisfactory state of human rights in Bangladesh is related on the one
hand to the lack of accountability and transparency, and to the existence of a
number of black laws in the book on the other. These laws include the Special
Power Act (SPA), 1974, the Special Security Forces Act (SSFA), 1986, the
Suppression of Terrorist Offences Act (STOA), 1992, the Public Safety Act
(PSA), 2000, and the Speedy Trial Act (STA), 2002. It is worth mentioning that
the last three acts were passed and operationalized during the tenure of the past
three democratic governments, ie the BNP (1991–96), the AL (1996–2001), and
the BNP (2001–). All these repressive laws have been justified for controlling
crime, punishing criminals and protecting law-abiding citizens. But they all
violate the individual’s right to life and liberty, and are discriminatory in their
application. It has been asserted that these laws are in clear contradiction with
the fundamental rights of individuals as guaranteed in the Constitution. In this
country these laws have been misused in many ways. Political opponents have
been harassed. This trend, unfortunately, has been on the increase.
STATE OF GOVERNANCE IN BANGLADESH
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Recently, the Secretary General of London-based Amnesty International
expressed concern about police brutality, maltreatment and torture and death in
custody under the SPA, which allows their misuse (The Independent,
24 December 2002). She termed the SPA a black law and an instrument of
harassment and victimization of political opponents.
Increasing concern has also repeatedly been raised about the abuse and
maltreatment of minorities, women, children and the poor, and about violation
of their human rights by some members of law-enforcement agencies using the
black and other laws.
‘Operation clean heart’, a recent military initiative started under the direction
of the present government, is intended to control terrorism, to capture hard-core
criminals, to recover illegal arms, and to contain the rising tide of violence.
Although this initiative has generally been hailed by the masses, the outcome
has not been as satisfactory as expected. Enthusiasm for the operation is fading
fast as godfathers and mafia bosses of the criminal world continue to elude
arrest, captives are denied recourse to legal protection and ‘innocent’ individuals
suffer and die in captivity.
Increasing politicization of public bureaucracy
One of the pressing problems in governance today concerns the politicization of
the public bureaucracy and its effect on administrative performance (Zafarullah
and Khan, 2001: 989). Politicization is used here in the sense of partisan
interference of the political executive in the career practices of public servants.
It has been observed that during the initial years of independence Bangladesh
witnessed partisan influence over the civil service. This trend continues
unabated. Successive military rulers have in various ways encouraged, favoured
and promoted senior civil servants who would continue to advise and support
them. Servility to persons rather than to institutions and rules became the
dominant feature of the day.
The return to pluralist democracy in 1991 did not change the situation in any
qualitative manner. During 1991–96 the promotion of civil servants in some
cases was subjected to non-merit criteria and recruitment to the bureaucracy
came under political influence. Politicization continued between 1996 and 2001.
By abandoning neutrality some career civil servants played a critical partisan
rôle in mobilizing the masses against the government. The new government lost
little time in rewarding loyal partisans in the civil service. The present government
moved swiftly to ‘cleanse’ the civil service of past governments’
supporters. A number of actions were initiated. Between October 2001 and
January 2002, 2000 officials from civil, defence, police, ansar (civil defence
force) and other services were transferred (The Daily Star, 13 February 2002).
The present government has created a record by making 350 officials an officer
on special duty (OSD) (The Daily Janakantha, 14 December 2002). These
OSDs include one secretary, two additional secretaries, 67 joint secretaries,
26 deputy secretaries and 189 senior assistant secretaries (Prothom Alo,
4 September 2002). It has been reported that an unofficial cell of three former
and two incumbent secretaries prepared lists of officials for transfer or sacking
with the consent of the Prime Minister’s Office (The Daily Star, 13 February
STATE OF GOVERNANCE IN BANGLADESH
401
2002). The lists were prepared on the basis of a number of criteria that included
those who had served as field level officials (DC, SP, UNO and OC) between
1996 and 2001, those who had served under different ministers of the AL, those
who were actively involved in AL politics during student days, and those who
had benefited ‘unduly’ during AL rule (The Daily Star, 13 February 2002). The
Ministry of Home Affairs prepared a list a few months back of 83 officers who
belonged to the AL (The News Today, 27 August 2002). Many on the list are
alleged to be involved in different cases, including sedition.
Another form of politicization that has affected the career prospects of civil
servants is the tendency on the part of the government to retain civil servants on
a contract basis after they have reached retirement age. All governments have
resorted to this practice but the present government has surpassed all previous
records by retaining a large number of retired civil servants on contract. It is
estimated that among 60 secretaries half of them are on contract. The contractual
appointments of many secretaries have also been renewed. This practice not
only blocks the promotional prospects of mid-ranking competent civil servants
and creates frustration among them but speaks poorly about human resource
policy planning and development in the public service of Bangladesh.

Increasing expenditure on the military


Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world, continues to spend more
and more on the military. Between 1972–73 and 1998–99 military expenditure
increased by a whopping 153 per cent (Muhit, 1999: 222). Keeping up the trend,
the budget for the military has consistently increased over the past four years
under two successive democratic governments—for 1999 it was $517 million,
for 2000 $645 million, for 2001 $669 million, and for 2002 $679 million (The
Military Balance, quoted in Rahman, 2002). This spiralling cost of maintaining
a military has continued with much discussion and debate about its costeffectiveness
and rôle in society. A defence policy delineating in clear terms
the rationale, philosophy and goals of the military is yet to be formulated.
Non-formulation of such a policy will raise questions about the size, rôle,
effectiveness and utility of the military and this will adversely affect governance
in Bangladesh.