Photo: Sk Enamul Haq

Bangladesh at 40: Addressing governance challenges

Barrister Manzoor Hasan, Dr. Gopakumar Thampi and Ms. Munyema Hasan

Nations like humans undergo a mid-life crisis. From the youthful exuberance of a young democracy, and past the turbulent adolescence, Bangladesh is settling down to mature middle age. And with this transition come new challenges and the need to square up to existing ones. In many sense, Bangladesh today stands at a critical crossroad. The country, once infamously caricatured as an 'international basket case', has made tremendous strides on both development and democratic fronts. A resurgent economy and a resilient society have given the nation a robust economic foundation and an enviable democratic quotient. When Doomsday pundits predicted an inevitable economic catastrophe during the global recession, the economy responded with astonishing buoyancy. And, in a region increasingly under the threat of sectarian fundamentalism, Bangladesh's strong secular credentials reflect a commanding gravitas. However, confrontational politics, weak institutions and the scourge of corruption stand out as formidable challenges.

Photo: Amirul Rajiv

It is this Janus-faced evolution that provokes the oft-quoted profile of Bangladesh as a perplexing 'conundrum'; a puzzling and complex picture of robust economic growth superimposed on a weak governance framework. We argue that part of the reason why the conundrum continues to confound is due to the manner in which governance has been conceptualized in purely technical imperatives, without factoring in prevailing political contexts and actors. Governance is the exercise of political, economic and administrative authority to manage a country's affairs. It is the complex interplay of mechanisms, processes, relationships and institutions through which citizens articulate their interests, demand their rights, exercise their obligations and mediate their differences. The governance conundrum positioned within a seemingly vicious cycle should be viewed alongside the much underplayed democratic quotient. The latter envisioned as an opportunity to take Bangladesh forward.

PHOTO: Imagezoo

There exist numerous analyses both empirical and narrative that discuss various facets of Bangladesh's governance landscape. Most of these exercises however use a lens that places an over emphasis on the efficiency imperatives of governance that conflates the scope of the assessment to that of a technical exercise without any real grounding on contextual factors. A multidimensional view of governance and its impact on development would reveal a much more nuanced understanding of the country's performance. We now proceed to employ Six lenses to locate and nuance out major governance trends and their implications on Bangladesh's past, present and future scenarios.

1. Political accountability: Political accountability refers to the constraints placed on the behaviour of politicians and public officials by organizations and constituencies having the power to apply sanctions to them. How did Bangladesh fare in respect to enhancing political accountability?

After about two decades of unstable and turbulent political developments, Bangladesh reverted to a parliamentary democracy in 1991. The country's Parliament, the 'Jatiya Sangsad', is a unicameral house with 300 directly elected members. However, democratic practices have been largely limited to the holding of regular elections, with the result that a confrontational, centralised, money and personality (rather than issue) based, winner-takes-all political system has undermined the checks and balances of the political process, fuelling political instability, politicisation of the bureaucracy, and politically motivated violence. The lack of internal democracy within parties, the politics-business nexus and the perverse incentive of politics being a 'low risk but high return' investment have facilitated the development of a system where the winner of election takes complete control of all public resources and while doing so ensures that the loser gets none. As an offshoot of this confrontational politics, political parties develop certain informal norms, which subsequently influence their functioning in parliament. And the combined dynamics of weak formal rules and thriving informal practices guarantee that parliamentary procedures are thoroughly undermined. This results in a vicious cycle of democracy characterised by highly antagonistic and confrontational political stances, combined with weak or absent executive accountability mechanisms. The way out of this to a virtuous cycle hinges around either a trigger from the legal environment or the 'demand side' pressures arising from the informal practices.

During the last decade several steps have been taken to enhance political accountability, primarily through legal and institutional reforms. Key among them are:

-With regard to integrity and transparency in election processes and the funding of political parties, a number of reform measures were proposed to the Representation of the People's Order (RPO), 1972 . The changes aim to ensure objective criteria in determining participation in elections to public offices. If fully implemented, the proposed amendments to the RPO, 1972 will be instrumental in democratizing political parties and the manner in which they participate in elections.

-The Supreme Court of Bangladesh in the landmark case of Mr. Abu Safa Vs the Election Commission, 2007 has confirmed the mandatory public disclosure of eight types of personal information by electoral candidates, which include: academic qualifications, any pending criminal proceeding(s), records of criminal cases and their outcome, sources of income, assets, liabilities, and amounts of loans taken from banks and financial institutions (personally, jointly or by a dependent). This move can be furthered strengthened by making these disclosures public through websites.

-Progress has also been made with regard to the participation of women and minorities in the political process. A high quality photographic electoral roll and computer database of voters has been established with more than 81 million eligible voters, of which 51% were women. Improved electoral processes were widely credited with facilitating increased women and minority participation in the 2008 parliamentary elections.

-Institutions critical to the conduct of free and fair elections have also been strengthened. The Election Commission has been very proactive in pushing through broad electoral reforms including delimitation of the constituencies, and setting timelines for local government and parliamentary elections. The Election Commission Secretariat Act 2009, separates the Commission from the Prime Minister's Office and ensures that decisions can be implemented without government interference. This gives the Election Commission formal authority to recruit and manage its own staff.

-Though intra-party democracy continues to be weak under a system of dynastic leadership, there are promising signs that 'bottom up' pressures are building that hint at democratic reforms of parties.

2. Strengthening Institutional Checks and Balances: The institutional structure of the state plays an important role in strengthening principles of good governance. Leading ideas include the effective separation of powers among state entities with each operating as a check on the abuse of power by the others. Strengthening and raising the credibility of the judicial system by enhancing the independence and accountability of judges and matching functions with budget and capacity are particularly important. To hold governments accountable, parliaments need public accounts and audit committees, powers to require disclosure of government documents, and the capacity to implement credible sanctions. While many enabling initiatives have been taken to strengthen institutional oversight and restraint, subsequent developments in some cases pose cause for concern:

-Revamping the Anti-Corruption Commission. Endemic corruption continues to stifle Bangladesh, as it has done since the nation's inception. Corruption has impeded the country's economic development, impaired investor confidence, prejudiced the development of public education and health, weakened our democracy and called into question the rule of law. The former Bureau of Anti-Corruption (BAC) proved to be completely ineffective in stemming the tide. The new Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), established on 21 November 2004, was given a redefined thrust in 2007 to make it more functional and effective. However, the Government drew sharp criticism for attempting to curtail the authority of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC).

Photo: Amirul Rajiv

-Bangladesh acceded to the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) in February 2007. To support the Convention's implementation, the National Integrity Strategy was designed as a national anti-corruption plan. Unfortunately the Strategy is yet to be placed before Cabinet despite repeated assurances.

-A National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has been established to protect and promote human rights. Key functions of the Commission include investigation of complaints; promoting awareness; advising and assisting government in the formulation of policy and legislation; and encouraging ratification and implementation of international human rights treaties.

-Implementing Police Reforms: Bangladesh has also made some progress prioritising efforts to improve services for the safety, security and protection of life, liberty and property. Despite these efforts there remains widespread concern about law and order and public safety. The Government has also committed to legislative reform to support greater professionalism of law enforcement agencies.

-Separating the Judiciary from the Executive: In a historical move, the Code of Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Ordinance came into effect on 1 November 2007 by ensuring effective separation of the Judiciary from the Executive in respect of criminal procedure. This was an important step towards ensuring independence of the Judiciary and strengthening democracy in the country. The incumbent Parliament, however, passed a new act titled, 'Code of Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act 2009' on March 2, 2009. This allowed government discretion to empower executive magistrates to take cognisance of offences, which was deemed to go against the spirit of separation of the judiciary

3. Strengthening civil society participation: The most notable development under this theme during recent times has been the promulgation of the Right to Information Act, 2009, which explicitly guaranteed a critical civil right one of demanding disclosure and information. However, success in RTI legislation depends on a large extent on harmonizing all existing laws and regulations with the RTI Act so as to remove any inconsistencies and contradictions that could impede the prospect of implementation. It has been almost two years since the law came into force, but progress in implementation has been sluggish. A three-member Information Commission has been set up but it is facing a lack of manpower and is not yet prepared to deliver services under the Act. No steps have been taken to set up the Information Delivery Units as required by the law. The Parliament also passed the Consumer Rights Protection Act, 2009 on April 6, 2009. The Act based on Articles 15 and 18 of the Constitution of Bangladesh sets out standards and procedures to protect and promote consumer rights in Bangladesh.

4. Building a Competitive Private Sector: Stimulating private sector investment has been a top priority of successive governments during the recent years. However, an appraisal of key indicators on doing business reveals a mixed picture.

Though overall rank has improved by four notches, a more nuanced look reveals an interesting pattern in that promotional incentives are not matched by regulatory and procedural ones. The key issue is the lack of a shared technical vision to orient government and development partners' investments, in spite of a stated commitment in the 2005 PRSP. The current government's election manifesto pledged to establish a 'one-stop facility' to simplify legal and procedural formalities in order to encourage investment by local and foreign entrepreneurs and expatriate Bangladeshis. However no concrete steps have been taken in this regard. The shortfall in power and gas and the lack of infrastructural facilities have also plagued the investment climate.

5. Balancing Efficiency with Equity in the Delivery of Public Services: Notwithstanding some major governance deficits, Bangladesh has achieved impressive social sector performance. Bangladesh is among the few developing countries that are on target for achieving most of the Millennium Development Goals. As a result it is now an over-performer in most social development indicators in relation to its per capita GDP compared to other countries. A large part of the credit should be given to the state's strong focus on the pro-poor, especially in terms of improving access to basic services like health and education. However, the distribution of benefits at the cutting edges is rendered weak by errors of inclusion and exclusion; intended target populations left out of the net and unintended groups let in. Once again, it is a repeat saga of good intentions let down by poor implementation.

One area where the current Government can take credit is the stimulus economic package that was rolled out to withstand the ongoing global economic recession has been widely acknowledged to be successful. Economic and financial in dicators are generally showing an upward trend. Manpower export has also increased, though the trend seems to have been reversed of late. The Government's response in ensuring agricultural inputs for food production has also been commendable, especially providing farmers with electricity for irrigation and subsidies for fertilizers this year. The global food price hike in 2008 however plunged the country into a food security crisis and increased the number of food insecure population by 7 million to 65 million. In response to this the Government undertook large scale expansion of open market sales (OMS) programmes throughout the country and introduced programs such as the 100-day employment generation program for the rural poor which worked well. However the recent skyrocketing of prices of essentials has again posed a challenge to the Government that is yet to be addressed comprehensively.

The formation of a non-communal democratic education policy of the Government has generated positive reactions across the board. The education Minister drafted a new Education Policy in 2009 that aims to ensure education for all. It was unanimously adopted by the Parliament in December 2010. Key policy elements include the increase in total schooling years from 10 to 12, the extension of free mandatory primary education from 3 years to 8 years, emphasis on girls' right to education and efforts to ensure that indigenous children can learn in their own languages. The Government allotted BDT 300 crore to provide free textbooks for all the schools, madrassahs and vocational training institutes across the country from the beginning of the new academic year 2010. For the first time over 2 lakhs 76 thousand students across the country got most of the textbooks for free.

In contrast, the Government's draft national health policy 2009 has been subject to much criticism. There are concerns that it is not pro-poor and that health services are being subject to mass commercialization which will reduce access for all people. The policy does not address the high levels of inequality in health care gains. Nutrition, environment, safe drinking water and natural disasters which are related to people's improvement in health standards have also been completely ignored by the draft. One welcome addition has been the emphasis on community health clinics. However it has been noted that this is a complementary measure and needs to work side by side with strong upazila health complexes to form an integrated health care system.

6. Reforms & Innovations in Public Sector Management

The current government also needs to be complemented for providing unprecedented political support for the development of Information & Communication Tools (ICTs) for empowering people through the Digital Bangladesh (DB) agenda. However, ambitious blueprints need to be backed with quality infrastructure. That is where the potholes come up in the information superway. Poor telecommunications infrastructure and extremely poor landline density pose formidable challenges to enhance access to the Internet. Further internet charges in Bangladesh continue to be high; currently, it is ten times higher than that in India. The silver lining, however, has been the phenomenal growth of the mobile telephone sector. Mobile phone subscription stands at around 60 million, which is approximately 36 percent of the population. Growth and competition in the sector has resulted in Bangladesh offering the lowest tariff in south Asia.

Efforts have been taken towards administrative decentralization and strengthening local governments. For example, participatory budgeting; involving constituencies in planning, implementation, supervisions and monitoring of service delivery; the transfer of functions to the lowest tiers of local government; quotas for women representatives; improved long term planning and linkages with the national 5-year planning cycle; and private-public partnership have all contributed to strengthen local governance.

Upazila level elections were held for the first time in 10 years on January 22, 2009. A Local Government Commission Ordinance was promulgated on 13 May 2008 which emphasised financial self-sufficiency, administrative efficiency, and service and manpower structures among other things. However, the enactment of the Upazila Parishad (Reintroduction of Scrapped Law and Amendment) Bill 2009 on April 7, 2009 is perceived to be a retrograde step as the MPs hold advisory powers over the Upazila Chairpersons and the lawmakers suggestions binding on the lowest tier of administration.

A serious constraint on both rural and urban local government is its dependence on central government. The limited powers, functions and jurisdiction of local government are all delegated by central government, which retains a high degree of overall control in both rural and urban areas. For example the heavy dependence on central grants limits the autonomy of local government to fund their local development priorities. The centrally appointed Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) retains close control over fund distribution and release. On an average union parishads spend only 20-25 percent of total development expenditure incurred in a year. Thus a weak financing base and non-participatory development spending undermines the autonomy of local governments. The already limited independence of local government is also increasingly being squeezed by national level political intervention at the local level. Party political structures have much more control over local government, particularly through the Upazila Development Committee's than before. While most public investment decisions take place centrally, the distribution of resources and service provision are carried out through upazila and union levels. This may affect development performance in two ways. It is negative in that parties may siphon off resources to reward party activists or pay for party programs. It is positive in that parties may deliver resources to increase popularity of the party locally, thus ultimately benefitting the local community.

Governance as if people matter: Public voice speaks a truth that no academic tome can reveal in a democracy. The recent Daily Star Neilsen opinion survey (January 16, 2011) on the current government's performance during the first two years of power narrate a powerful and perhaps prophetic warning. There are couple of pointers which stand out. Quite clearly, the government seems to have squandered the enormous goodwill that was given by the citizens in the form of the biggest victory margin witnessed since the advent of parliamentary democracy in 1991. Government's popularity and public perception on performance have both shown a telling decline in the survey. The harshest criticism has, however, come for the performance on the economic front. Even if macro indicators like the GDP are showing a healthy status, in electoral politics what really matters is the reality at the ground level. The feedback on how the administration has handled the food inflation, especially the efforts to control and regulate price of essentials, has come under severe criticism. The biggest dampener from a long term perspective, however, is the feedback on politics and political leadership. Clearly, the roles played by the leaders of the ruling and opposition party have been perceived to be disappointing. The verdict from the population is a clear negation of the current trend of confrontational politics. One ominous figure revealed by the survey is the growing number of disenchanted voters. The final reading is quite clear: democracy wins, politics disappoints. With two fast growing super powers in the neighbourhood, Bangladesh stands to gain enormously if the country can get its act together. What Bangladesh needs is a bold leadership that places people's choices, aspirations and needs at the centre of reforms. The latest State of Governance in Bangladesh 2009 Report from the Institute of Governance Studies underscores this theme by pointing out that entitlements, responsiveness and sustainability hold the key for the future of the country. A strong reiteration that citizens have rights and entitlements that need to be protected, that a democratically government has a moral and ethical calling to be responsive to its basic constituency, and that reforms need to move beyond the parochial populism to become sustainable strategies for the benefit of generations to come. The defining question is whether the political leadership is ready to face these challenges by going on a 'war footing' as Bangladesh stands at the cusp of a new phase.

Barrister Manzoor Hasan, Dr. Gopakumar Thampi and Ms. Munyema Hasan, Institute of Governance Studies, BRAC University.