Of all the issues currently affecting Bangladesh, the most talked about, most contentious, and perhaps most important is the endemic, institutional corruption in the country, and how to get rid of it.
I could link to a hundred blog-postings, op/eds and articles on corruption, but they tend to repeat themselves, and I fear – given the very nature of corruption as a concept – that people will be writing many more thousands of essays on corruption in Bangladesh long after I leave the country.
The essential point is that Bangladesh over the last five years has been shown to be the most corrupt country in the world. Causes of this corruption can be attributed to base human greed, exacerbated by the economic, social and political conditions of the country over the last thirty years that have allowed human greed to flourish unchecked. And of course the worst aspect of corruption is that it reproduces and replicates; the worse the corruption is, the greater the economic, social and political problems become, and the more attractive corruption practice is as a relief – for those able to take advantage. And so this downward spiral has continued throughout the life of Bangladesh, made worse by the false democratic legitimisation of the last 15 years.
And the result is happening now, with a State of Emergency, a military/technocratic interim administration running the country, no sign of elections on the horizon, and essential political freedoms banned. The reformed Anti-Corruption Commission has just issued a list of 50 high profile politicians, who have to go to the ACC in person and declare their suspiciously obtained property, or else it will be confiscated. They’ve had their fun, and now they and the rest of the country are paying the price.
How the corruption affects me personally, and the majority of the country, is the power supply. The electricity supply in Bangladesh at the moment is just awful. Currently, Bangladesh can only meet about 60% of demand for electricity, so the supply is rationed around the country, one hour here, one hour there, maybe two hours… so no matter how hard anybody, in any sector tries to improve their own life or the lives of the people around them, you can only do so much because anything that relies on using electricity, you just can’t rely on.
This is because billions of taka has been looted out of the power industry over the last decade. Existing power plants haven’t been maintained properly, new ones haven’t been built, and demand has spiralled as urban development has rocketed unchecked and often illegally.
The cost to the country is staggering. In my office, for example, we only have one computer anyway between four people, and our work ethic could hardly be described as Japanese Beaver. But when the power’s off, which is about 3-4 hours a day, almost nothing can get done, so we effectively waste 12-16 man hours a day because of the power. Over our six day week that’s around 70 hours, which is the equivalent of two week’s full time work for one British civil servant, for example. If we were a business, we would effectively have to fire a member of staff to keep costs down. And that’s just our small NGO. I waste about an hour a day sitting around waiting for internet connections to be reset because of the power, and this blog posting itself has taken me two attempts and about an hour to do, whereas in the UK it would be five minutes.
And this is during the winter. In about two months, when the humidity hits 80-90% and the temperature climbs above thirty, it’s very hard to concentrate and get anything effectively done. In October when I had Bangla classes in Dhaka, we were next to a construction site and had the farcical situation of either sweating and fidgeting away in peace and quiet, or the power would come on, you’d have five minutes of comfort and then over the road a pneumatic drill would start and you wouldn’t be able to concentrate again.
The very worst aspect of the power shortages though, is that it has the greatest and most negative affects on the poor. The rich have generators in their homes, big businesses have generators in their offices (including the VSO Bangladesh office) so no risk of losing your work when your computer goes off four times a day. Large shopping malls are being constructed all over Dhaka, and Sylhet, with huge demands on the power supply, just so the middle-classes and rich can buy consumer items 12 hours a day, whereas people in the villages have their routines governed by daylight. The interim administration has just issued an edict stating that these malls can no longer stay open after 7pm, which is certainly an advantage of not being beholden to electoral politics.
But there is no better illustration, to me, of the debilitating affects of corruption on a country than the power industry in Bangladesh. It so greatly enforces and maintains inequalities, acting as a barrier to economic and social development, and those responsible, who can afford generators for their big homes with their stolen money, just won’t see any of the negative effects of their theft while enjoying the benefits. I think of this every time I sit in my house in the evenings in the dark, or lose something I’d spent an hour working on, and it’s terrible.
It’s a great paradox that almost every single person I’ve encountered here in Bangladesh has been incredibly kind, generous and welcoming to me, and the trend is that the less they can offer, the more they give. Whereas the people who have everything just take take take, and make the country harsh and inhospitable for nearly everyone. I’m no socialist, but this situation really does ram some realities home.