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The article was published in The Dhaka Tribune, Dhaka, Bangladesh on 10 Dec

2014 under the title, The ghoosh, the bad, and the ugly.

Anatomy of Bureaucratic Corruption in Bangladesh

By : Syed Mujtaba Quader
The Finance Minister deserves thanks for highlighting the issue of bureaucratic
corruption through his peculiar way of focusing on issues. He has recently said that
speed money given to expedite official work is excusable. While having to deflect
allegations of empathy or even camaraderie for individuals considered leeches of
society, his statement actually did make a valid point. Facilitation money or speed
money, as opposed to bribery is defined as resources spent to expedite work done
by officials, the work itself being completely legal. Bribery on the other hand is
money paid to officials to do something that, in itself, is illegal. However,
conceptually speaking it is easy to see how totally legal work can be rendered
petrified, without adequate payments, thus making speed money appear to look
like bribery. This means, that, while work obtained through bribery is not legal,
which may be made invalid by a court, work obtained through speed money can be
perfectly legal. But extra money, whether it be speed money or bribery, can
collectively be called ghoosh, in our local terminology, for the purpose of this
discourse. Ghoosh also includes all sorts of extra perks eg. after retirement jobs,
promotions, lucrative transfers, foreign travel, and a host of perks of dubious moral
We all agree that official corruption in the form of ghoosh in bureaucracy has
reached an epidemic level in Bangladesh. The 2014 Index of Economic Freedom, a
publication of the Heritage Foundation in partnership with the Wall Street Journal
states corruption is a serious impediment to investment and economic growth in
Bangladesh. By some estimates, bribes and other off-the-record payments paid by
firms related to public procurement, tax and customs collection, and other
regulatory authorities may reduce annual GDP by 3 percent. The overwhelming and
all-encompassing power of the government bureaucrats have ensured that no work
can be done in government offices without extra money, whereas much can be
accomplished through extra payments.
But where is this ghoosh culture leading us. Bureaucrats run circles of fiefdoms in
their offices, where even the lower rungs are interconnected to form a single
impregnable mass of corruption where the buck passes from one table to another in
a perfect environment of impunity.
As it stands
The level of ghoosh has no heads and tails, and depends on the officials
perceived notion of how much the citizen can be squeezed to pay the amounts
demanded. Once the official understands the relative power position of a specific
person, he may raise or lower the amount unilaterally and arbitrarily. In business
circles, it is often said that there are 4 kinds of bureaucrats those who are honest
and responsive about the work, those who are honest but unresponsive, those who
are dishonest but responsive, and those who are both dishonest and unresponsive.
Understandably, the first and the third kinds are the most preferred by working

citizens. One important scourge about ghoosh is that it is difficult for the
uninitiated to know how much is the standard amount to be paid for a specific work.
If the amounts for specific jobs were uniform for everyone, then the matter may not
have been so grave. But the situation is that, since the transactions regarding
ghoosh are almost always done undercover, the specific amounts vary from case
to case for the same kind of work. This is the cause of much distress. Common
citizens in their day to day work always lag behind and are often left to running from
door to door in a labyrinthine maze of agents, officials and tables. Persons more
adept at manipulating the system get more mileage for their efforts at lesser time
and less money.
The culture of ghoosh has established that money, and not merit is the
determinant of success. Tenders and contracts may be awarded not on the basis of
economic viability and competence but on the amount of facilitation paid. Lucrative
positions in government offices can be obtained through payment of cash that gets
shared by the highest authorities including political echelons. Competent and
honest officers are left behind, often to become, in later years, subordinates of
morally decadent manipulative colleagues. The prospect of earning ghoosh
sometimes even incents officials to invent problems relating to civic and criminal
matters in the hope of extracting ghoosh money from innocent citizens. This
happens regularly in law enforcement and in land matters where small changes in
records can have serious implications in ownership documentation. In some cases,
the government stands to lose huge amounts of revenue in the customs and income
tax departments, or municipal corporations. Companies which import raw materials
legally cannot compete with companies who import goods with ghoosh. Ghoosh is
all pervasive, and some would say, is even present in the defense departments.
The effect of ghoosh in the judiciary is extremely serious and therefore should be
dealt with separately. The judges are burdened with 2.3 million cases and a salary
structure that cannot guarantee their financial freedom to do what is just. Anyone
who has traversed the realms of the judicial process knows how contorted the legal
processes are. Payments must be paid at every step to judicial employees in court
cases that run for years. Delays can be manipulated through payments to officials.
Everything is guided by lawyers who sometimes benefit from milking both sides.
One extremely pernicious aspect of ghoosh culture is how it affects foreign
investment in the country. Foreign companies are usually guided by the laws of their
lands which prevent the companies and their individual officers to engage in bribery
or in payment of facilitation expenses in foreign lands. The USA and the UK among
other nations have specific laws to enforce these, namely the US Foreign Corrupt
Practices Act 1977, and the UK Bribery Act 2010. Companies belonging to these
nations are reluctant to invest funds in countries where they are confronted by
compliance issues relating to corruption specially through bribery. They can only
compete in these countries through quality, service and price and therefore lose out
to local competitors who can also use bribery as a comparative advantage. In fact,
this debilitating aspect of ghoosh also prevents many ethical local companies from
investing in enterprises which require frequent interactions with government
The story of the moral

One very significant aspect of pervasive corruption is how it affects the socio
cultural position of individuals who mould their lives on ethical, moral or religious
models. Whereas, society expects this group to give moral leadership to a countrys
overall development these idealistic individuals get marginalised to the side lines
whereby ultimately they become the outcasts of society which is probably the
primary cause of the present day moral decadence of the country. Children of
officials flush with corruption money attend third rate universities abroad and at
home in shiny cars but learn nothing, while meritorious children of idealist parents
cannot even attend a government college. Morality has taken a back seat and the
corrupt and the immoral elements of society are in the driving seat.
Strangely enough, Indonesia is frequently cited by detractors of the effects of
corruption on developing economies as a country which has done well in spite of the
rampant corruption. It is now universally agreed that even Indonesia has suffered
immensely for its ubiquitous corruption which the authorities are trying to stamp
out perhaps through recognising its growth inhibiting aspects and from pressure
from foreign investors.
The why and the how of it
Perhaps it would be wise to try to understand first what motivates the officials to
engage in corruption. Is it just an inherent urge to engage in something profitable
because it can be done, or are there other factors involved ? Not only does it go
against the terms of service but corruption goes against the social, moral and
religious mores of the society. One would not willingly want to be tainted as corrupt.
Also, astute officials consider the consequences of times when idealism may play a
role and wealth statements and bank accounts may be looked into without impunity.
Interestingly, naughty cynics have suggested that a large proportion of the gold
bars being imported into the country these days is insurance for corrupt persons
wanting to circumvent the banking system during uncertain times.
Right after the independence of Bangladesh it was felt that the country needed to
move away from the legacy of the 22 families that was presumed to have taken a
stranglehold over the economy and was blamed as the cause of the subjugation of
Bengalis. To establish the impression that the country would be run along socialist
principles, it was necessary to cut down the salaries and pay-perks of government
officials. In time, politicians discovered an added benefit in this policy ; it provided
the tool necessary to subjugate the powerful body of bureaucrats who held the
actual reins of power. This situation has remained static ever since. Pay of
government officials is despicably low over their counterparts in industry. However,
with all encompassing power that they wield, they have found their way around this
constraint through institutionalised corruption.
Trade unions also played a vital role in the spread of corruption at all levels.
Immediately after independence, the country went on a tail-spin with a failing
economy and weak leadership at the top. Keeping control over trade unions became
the supreme objective of the political leadership, which they did through
empowering the trade unions to impose their own fiefdoms in their own
organisations. The organisation, be it a utility company or a government fuel
agency, was milked by union bosses who collaborated with politicians to stay in
power. Corporate profitability was replaced with corporate corruption. And the

cooperation to foster corruption that started between unions and the politicians,
which eventually drew the bureaucrats into its whirlpool, endure to this day.
The necessary evil
This is not to say that all bureaucrats are corrupt. There are numerous burning
examples of scrupulously honest officials who braved grave personal difficulties but
did not succumb to temptations. However, the question is, does the nation have the
right to demand so much from so few, and does it make any sense for these
individuals to make so much personal and family sacrifices, when the nation as a
whole refuses to recognise their heroism in any meaningful way ?
Nobody supports corruption for its own sake including its perpetrators. It is a byproduct of the system that sustains it. The political need to establish the perception
of socialism does not exist anymore. Many low-level employees of private firms now
earn several times the pay of senior government officers. This anomaly must be
Transparency International, Bangladesh has made great strides in recent years to
highlight the damaging aspects of bureaucratic corruption. But, unfortunately they
have not gone into the roots of the problem. Efforts to eradicate corruption must go
hand in hand with solving the root causes of it. If senior government officials are not
given the financial independence to live by their own conscience, then it is natural
that the citizens will not get a fair share of their efforts. Perhaps, sub-consciously,
the people at large have been forgiving enough to understand this. Perhaps, the
public have not recoiled from their sense of empathy for these individuals who
engage in something against their conscience day in and day out but have
collectively held the nation together. Perhaps the time has come to try to integrate
the needs of the people, who suffer so much at the hands of these officials, with the
genuine demands of the officials who are entrusted with the safe keeping of the
Everyone will agree that complete eradication of bureaucratic corruption is almost
impossible. However, containment to acceptable levels must be the goal of policy
makers. The fact stands today that payments are regularly made by common
citizens to bureaucrats for their various government related works as payment for
services delivered. Instead of salary that should be paid by the government, this
money is subsidized by the people, albeit grudgingly. If these amounts are being
paid already by the people, albeit in an underhand way, is it not time that strategies
be found to standardize and legitimise these in possibly quasi-legal open
arrangements so citizens do not have to suffer so much uncertainty, ego-bruising,
and time wastage, and at the same time bureaucrats be freed from guilt of their
conscience ? Bad management of a necessary evil is causing more harm than good.
Almost always, acceptance of an evil is the primary step to its ultimate eradication.
Bad apples shall exist always. Efforts should be made to monitor the wealth of
bureaucrats through stringent monitoring, preferably through the Bangladesh Bank
or the NBR, or otherwise through private monitoring by civic bodies established
specifically for this purpose. Individual cases of bribery should be pursued by groups
of local citizens, one at a time.

It is highly unlikely that political support can be secured to contain corruption,

because corruption is their raison dtre. Is it not strange that the present
opposition political party, although caught up in the most humiliating situation has
not voiced concerns about corruption which definitely would have ensured grassroot popular support for them ? Therefore, the banner must be carried by civic
bodies, and the media which exists on the basis of popular support, and pressures
must be mounted for the appointment of Civic Ombudsmen to oversee the activities
of government officials. And if everything else fails, then one lone man with a pen,
or one man in the street with a mobile phone must put in his two bits to combat this
great malaise that confronts this great nation.