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In a last ditch effort to save the Padma Bridge project, the World Bank last month put forward three conditions to the government of Bangladesh: (i) place all public officials suspected of involvement in the corruption conspiracy on leave until the investigation is complete; (ii) appoint a special inquiry team within the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) to handle the investigation, and (iii) agree to provide full access to all information to an international panel that would supervise the investigation.
The government has been adamant all along that no corruption took place in the Padma bridge project. For an administration that is convinced of its innocence, the above conditions should have posed no difficulty.
The government should have seized this as a splendid opportunity to clear the air and restart work on the coveted Padma Bridge. Instead, what we saw from ministers was a series of denials, half-hearted actions and bravado about finding alternative funding.
There is no reason to think that pulling the plug on the Padma Bridge fund was a hasty decision by the World Bank’s leadership. The Bank’s actions are completely consistent with its stated policies and with the image that Bangladesh has projected over the last few years.
The message that comes out of this shameful affair is loud and clear: Bangladesh’s credibility with the international community is at rock bottom. The seeds of the current crisis were sown in 2009, when the government moved to amend the Public Procurement Act and Public Procurement Rules. The World Bank expressed concern over the government’s initiative to bring amendments to the PPR at the time, saying it would open the door to corruption and hinting that it could hamper WB assistance. The government went ahead anyway.
Since then, the going has been mostly uphill. As allegations of graft and tender-snatching by ruling party men have mounted, international financing has dried up.
The government, though, seems determined not to heed the message. We note with dismay that following the World Bank announcement, instead of promising to clean house, the finance minister chose to attack the global lender. The minister’s words fly in the face of his stated desire to restart talks with the World Bank.
The government is used to getting its own way in the domestic arena. But it is doubtful whether a highhanded attitude will cut much ice on the global scene. This counterpunching strategy is a risky one for Bangladesh. While we understand that the uncompromising tone from government ministers may be intended for domestic consumption, it risks further alienating donors. It will almost certainly hamper efforts by Bangladesh to attract foreign aid, on which the government relies to fund about 40% of its development spending.
On the part of the government, the Padma Bridge fiasco is not only a failure of good governance; it is also a failure of diplomacy.
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