A bridge in troubled waters
What is most upsetting about this situation is that our political leaders take our people for granted. They think that we are too naïve and can easily be led into believing anything they say. They have always struck our emotional chords to cover-up misdeeds by taking recourse to stir patriotism. It appears that the same game is being played in case of the Padma bridge debacle, writes A Ahmed
THE storm raised in our country on the issue of the Padma Bridge reminds me of Simon and Gurfunkel’s memorable song ‘Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down’.
The Padma Bridge dispute has transcended from a socioeconomic investment to a political issue. It would appear intriguing to many that a global financial institution, mandated to help the poorest countries in development and combating poverty, would choose to victimise a poor country like ours because of perceived corruption conspiracy and inter alia, the Bangladesh government’s decision not to oblige with the World Bank to include its nominated contractor as a potential bidder. It is also intriguing that the bank took such a serious political decision whimsically without considering the consequences and its impact on its own credibility and impartiality.
The present fiasco sparked off when the World Bank backed off from financing the project on allegations of corruption, charges that the Bangladesh government has ‘rubbished’. In fact, the whole issue has been allowed to snowball, putting Bangladesh at odds with the world’s largest international financial institution. Surely, this does not augur well for a least developed country like Bangladesh.
Remarks and statements emerging from the administration and political leadership of our country has, to a large extent, exacerbated the situation and undermined our image in the international community. Their speeches have been mercurial, to say the least, swinging like a pendulum. We heard from the highest quarters that the government had found no evidence of corruption, challenging the World Bank to come out with solid proof if it had any. Our ministers and politicians boast that the government is capable of finishing the project on its own. We have heard the rhetoric that rabbits could be pulled out of hats that would produce financiers on more lenient terms than the World Bank loan. Our learned and venerable finance minister, who has earned notoriety for his knee-jerk and often angry outbursts, preferred to go into a blame game by accusing the immediate-past World Bank president Zoellick for taking this decision as his last chance to demean Bangladesh. I do not carry any brief for Mr Zoellick. But my understanding of his profile does not suggest that a man who has held such high level positions in the US government and has involved himself in international conflict resolutions would stoop low to be vindictive in a matter so vital to Bangladesh. The new president of the World Bank has stood by him and so have other institutions including the Asian Development Bank.
What is most upsetting about this situation is that our political leaders take our people for granted. They think that we are too naïve and can easily be led into believing anything they say. They have always struck our emotional chords to cover-up misdeeds by taking recourse to stir patriotism. It appears that the same game is being played in case of the Padma bridge debacle. Our politicians are now blaring slogans that the World Bank did not insult only the government, but also the 160 million people of Bangladesh. The people, in my understanding, are not foolish enough to take this seriously.
As a country that is overly dependent on foreign aid for its development projects, we have to come to terms with certain hard realities. We are not living in the world of Hatim Tai or Harunur Rashid but in a globalised world that is ruthlessly conditioned by political considerations and interests. As the popular American saying goes, ‘nothing comes free’; the financial aid or support coming from any source, including that from philanthropists, will have a political catch and/or agenda. This is no matter of hide-and-seek for the international financial institutions. All aids, including bilateral economic assistance from donor countries, will have a political price tag. If you are poor, you are given the Hobson’s choice of ‘taking it or leaving it.’
Given that Bangladesh can indeed mobilise resources on its own, do we have the technological knowledge to construct a modern state-of-the-art project like the multipurpose Padma Bridge? Do we have contractors and firms who have the experience and financial wherewithal of taking on such a huge project? The answer is a blunt no. Because, even if we have to put in whatever we have in our kitty for the project, we cannot dismiss the likelihood that much of it will go into the pockets of our engineers who cannot build roads that could outlast even one monsoon. The overseas contractors that we may appoint will not overlook this institutionalised culture and can very well be expected to make hay since profit would be their principal motivation.
Having said that, hopelessness cannot be an option either. We have to reopen our dialogue with the World Bank and this time with members who enjoy confidence of the people and have a reputation of integrity, impartiality and negotiating expertise. The two advisers in the Prime Minister’s Office have done enough damage to the country in our international relations and it would be best to keep them out of any renewed initiative.
So, going back to my preamble sentence of a bridge over troubled waters, I, as an ordinary Bangladeshi, would appeal to the honourable prime minister to be that bridge. She should lose no time to visit Washington, Tokyo, Riyadh and other important capitals to earn the confidence of our partners in development by investing on our greatest strength: a committed democracy. I believe that only the prime minister and her word on transparency, accountability and sincerity will be taken seriously and have an impact.
A meeting of the prime minister with the new president of the World Bank should not be ruled out as an option towards healing the present wounds and reopening the negotiations for a fresh and new chapter. If an escape from the present imbroglio should necessitate axing one or two individuals from enjoying ministerial privileges for the sake of accountability and transparency, so be it. The prime minister has made a commitment to the people and it must be kept. The Padma Bridge is a national issue for Bangladesh and must be above politics. The leader of opposition should stand by the prime minister on this issue.
A Ahmed is a civil servant.
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