CORRUPTION is under every blade of grass, it is endemic, it is systemic, it is ubiquitous, corruption is a way of life, no place is free from corruption, corruption is functional, corruption is dysfunctional, corruption is no big deal, don’t make a federal case out of corruption, it is everywhere, corruption is as old as humanity, and so on — these are some of the common refrains that we come across from time to time in all kinds of media, features, conversations, and everyday interactions. Millions of Bangladeshis are concerned — quite legitimately — about the high incidence of corruption, the nature and direction of corruption, corruption in almost all spheres of life, the high ranking of the country as exceedingly corrupt in the published reports of several global organisations, the infirmity of the Anti-Corruption Commission in stamping out corruption, outdated and ambiguous anti-corruption legislation not serving the cause of corruption prevention, the muddled approach to corruption control, the corrosive effects of corruption and dysfunction on national life, civil society, and life quality.
Lamenting corruption is not new in human history. Corruption — big as well as petty — has always existed in one form or another in all times and places. Hardly unique to Bangladesh, all countries that we know about have a share of corruption. What really is at stake is not the existence, but the degree, level and severity of corruption. This is a hot-button issue in Bangladesh.
Assuming various manifestations, such as bribery, embezzlement, speed money, graft, kickback, palm-greasing, etc, corruption entails deviating from long-established ethics/morality and standard operating procedures, yielding to special interests, providing services or outputs in lieu of financial transactions, sharing in illicit money income, asking for and getting percentage of money in a transaction, setting up a slush fund, and so forth. It could emanate from any facet of management, including finance, purchasing, procurement, personnel selection, promotion, transfer, operation, service provision and customer service.
Some theorists maintain that corruption in management exists because there are inherent inefficiencies in the system that corruption-induced speed can address far more promptly. Some maintain that corruption exists because of low compensation for the majority of personnel. Such postulations are skewed and specious. Corruption is often greed-based and not need-based and becomes habitual in many cases. Evidence abounds in that those who have more seek more, and those who have more want more and tend to get more, with the interplay being almost endless.
Corruption may, and frequently does, take many and varied forms. A quick non-random sample will serve the purpose of illustration. First and foremost and the most well-known form: a customer looking for a licence, clearance or approval, for instance, may experience long delay and may decide to put speed money into the hands of a group of employees or brokers who look into the matter and get it done. There are countless instances of such illicit financial transactions between and among customers and service providers at all levels in the public sector. Second, an employee working in one unit may decide to get to another unit — where he can make big money through illegal transactions — bribes his way through his contacts. In several revenue-generating agencies, lucrative and attractive transfers are arranged by influential insiders for money and favours.
Third, an extraordinarily lucrative activity cycle is at work in a certain agency, for example, a customs outpost, a police station, a security check-post or a forest range and the personnel concerned can and often do indulge in group-based corruption, booty-sharing and revenue looting. Fourth, rules, regulations, procedures and standards are periodically, or for that matter constantly, bent to accommodate special interests or influential customers who enjoy priority positions because they are connected or have filled the pockets of relevant employees, e.g. a scholarship for a lesser applicant or a credit application from a farmer or entrepreneur who does not fulfil the required criteria. Fifth, an honest employee is engaged in a process — including decision-making, resourcing, budgeting, recommendation and approval — on behalf of an agency, and gets squeezed by a group of personnel in the same or related units to turn the work and its decision around in a certain direction and for a certain individual/party. A classic situation in many agencies, this is a case where honesty and integrity succumb often readily to concerted, conspiratorial and clandestine efforts, good work gets railroaded and clobbered by corruption and corrupt practices by pressure-building, coercion, blackmail, threat, intimidation, undermining and isolation, despair and cynicism spread with all its negativity, and indifference gets to be an art-form.
Sixth, bidding, tendering and contact-awarding have been perverted considerably nowadays, putting in place a practice where the most cost-effective bidder does not necessarily qualify, and someone with backing, support, muscle power, money power, connection and networking get the contract by breaching all the known and established operating procedures and criteria. Seventh, a new breed of wrongdoers and lawbreakers — soaking in corruption — has risen and has ensconced itself in and around the public sector whose mission is to make as much money as possible within a short time, say, an electoral cycle, and who operate in an underworld fashion, uses covert and overt methods of money accumulation and management.
The funny thing — if one could call it funny — is that corruption is seamless and endless. It is as many, as varied and as wide-ranging as organisational activities, personnel diversity, and human ingenuity. The funnier thing is that corrupt behaviour does not take ‘no’ for an answer, does not seem to know where to stop and draw a line, and fiercely claims that everybody has a price. Corrupt personnel keep on using and exploring tested and tried channels and inventing and adding new ones. Some corrupt employees are creative, ingenious, and aggressive. Sometimes, they lay out traps and play elaborate hoax. They are well-connected with certain key strategic players. They get protection from the big players, carry on with corruption, spread the money around and take share of the speed money. Still, some other operators serve as extortionist and rent-seekers, if the situation so deserves. Yet, some of these guys have close connection with the law enforcement agencies, including some sections of the judicial institutions. Corruption can defy any or all borderlines — nationality, language, region, ideology, religion, community, and so forth.
Corruption has a glitzy and dark side to it. The money, the affluence, the opulence, the ambience, the sensation, the glamour, the grandeur, the dream and the hype that are unleashed by the corrupt and the unscrupulous create a bubble and a nouveau rich class comes into being and spreads wing. Things seem to get carried away by such a bubbly milieu. Things zip along smoothly and grandly, and for some the sweet, even if vacuous, life rolls on. Not to slight, petty crime is involved with nickels, dimes and pocket change, so to speak, although even these seem to run into hundreds of thousands of takas. But big-league corruption entails taking hefty percentage of available funds, thus introducing intrigues, plots, easy money and decadence. But one day the things come to an end, as they always do every time, every place.
The corrupt and the corruptible tend to demonstrate certain traits. He/she tends to be amoral and immoral in relation to making money through illicit channels. The means-ends incongruence is of no consequence to them and does not seem to bother them. They are always on the lookout for opportunities for making connection and money, often big money in a short time. They are connected to the top, the middle and the base. Their good friends and backers at high places provide protection to them but are also known to desert the corrupted when the heat is on. It is essentially a world of self-preservation and survival of the most ruthless, a kind of dog eat dog uncanny surreal world. They act as intermediaries or brokers at times and placate the interests of the output providers and output recipients. Basically, they are risk-takers, even gamblers, are not averse to certain dangers, and sometimes they take big risks. The money they make is often a reward to them for risks they run. They brag about their connection with critical and highly-placed players. At times, they are known to resort to extralegal and extrajudicial means for quick investment return. They hardly worry about life’s finer, more lasting and more profound aspects, such as equity, justice, access, principle, egalitarianism, affirmative action and equal opportunity. Often deriding or scoffing at these, they seem to advance the view that that these are high ideals and lofty ideas and that they are unattainable because of flaws in human nature and socioeconomic structure. With the perpetrators winning and the victims losing, corruption’s predatory, brutal, rapacious and sinister nature leave law-abiding, tax-paying and peace-loving customers twisting in the wind, invoking a kind of dominant-subaltern relationship.
Corrupted management’s fallouts are deep-reaching, e.g. perverting the management process and procedure, undermining the established and legitimate authority points, ridiculing planning, analysis, rationality, data, criteria, standards and objectivity, disparaging queue discipline ,orderliness and fairness in management, treating certain customers preferentially, demoralising customers as well as customers, nullifying the operating culture, preferring money, power and influence to management principles and organisational values, trashing knowledge, skills and research, spawning a culture of spuriousness and fear, and driving up the cost of management and operations.
Legislation alone cannot curb corruption. The realistic objective is retraining corruption, and not eliminating it. Sometimes it is pointless being a starry-eyed idealist and a naïve optimist, crusading against all kinds of corruption and dysfunction and spending scarce resources all over the place. No doubt, anti-corruption legislation has to be fearless, tough, deterring, and prompt. Legislation must be continually updated, or else new kinds of corruption and crime will render anticorruption legislation hopelessly inadequate. Legislation must be bolstered by prompt law enforcement and judicial action. Corrupt policymakers and personnel must be promptly dealt with, including the appropriate application of human resource management sanctions. There must not be any delay, hesitation, ambiguity, protection and cover-up. When the latter occurs, anticorruption agencies send wrong signals to the general population. In corruption prevention, time, toughness and deterrence are of the essence. Just so, media control, popular social censure, leadership quality, moral restraint/suasion, better and competitive compensation and incentivating can be effective in containing corruption. Especially, media can play in Bangladesh, as they sometimes do, an aggressive, monitorial and watchdog role by publishing exposes, revealing scams, investigative reporting, blowing the whistle, running sting operations, etc. Justice-seeking behaviour, consciousness, participation and prompt fearless legal action are the best deterrents against cynical and systemic corruption.
Dr Jamal Khan was a professor of public sector management at the University of the West Indies. email@example.com.