Originally posted in The Daily Star on 28 October 2021
For development workers, especially those working for the rights and entitlements of the poor and vulnerable, a common question we face is how we should go about improving governance in Bangladesh. The term “governance” comes up in every step of our work when we engage our project participants in demanding their rights from service-providing public institutions. We call them the “supply side” and our beneficiaries the “demand side.”
Under the rights umbrella in a state mechanism, this is a core and common relationship: the demand side, or citizens, pays money to the state through taxes, and in return, the state, as the supply side, is obligated to render services to the citizens. Simply put, this give-and-take relationship is called governance. Now, if you pay money, but the state does not provide its services to you properly, it is bad governance on the state’s part. And if the state renders its services to you, but you do not pay your dues, it is bad governance on your part.
This article is not aimed at raising a discourse on governance, per se—which has been the subject of so many definitions and discussions, and frankly, which has become a bit trite. But for the rights workers, they plainly take it as the decision-making process by the state’s government functionaries for the judicious use of public money to provide optimum, effective, and efficient services to its citizens. If there is any deviation in this format, they say the governance is bad. It is enough for our understanding beyond academic discourse.
Now, how is our governance? As rights workers, we try to find out, during our work, what level of corruption we are dealing with, because governance and corruption have a correlation—if governance is bad, corruption is high, and if corruption is high, governance will certainly be bad. Unfortunately, we are in a state of endemic corruption, which means we are badly devoid of good governance.
As rights workers, we have to take bad governance seriously, because without good governance, the rightful entitlement of the poor and vulnerable cannot be met. And if it is so, then all our development funds and efforts will go in vain, and the poor and vulnerable will remain where they are. So there is no alternative to improving our governance.
In an attempt to find out how we can improve our governance, we do a simple correlation among some well-defined indexes of two countries: Bangladesh as a country of endemic corruption, and Denmark as a country with the least corruption in the world. We have drawn upon some facts and figures based on the recent global indexes (2019-20), which show both positive and negative correlations among these two countries and can lead us to a credible solution.
We also choose Denmark because it is one of the leading trendsetters in all global indexes of development. For example, its global governance score is 95, while Bangladesh’s score is 21 only. Denmark’s score on the corruption index is 88—the highest—denoting that the country is the least corrupt, while Bangladesh’s score is 26, putting it at the 146th position among 180 countries. In the inequality index, Denmark’s Gini Coefficient is 0.25 (least) while Bangladesh’s is 0.52—the less the score between 0-1, the less the inequality. In the global democracy index, Denmark has scored 9.22 out of 10, meaning it enjoys full democracy, while Bangladesh has scored 5.88, meaning it is in a hybrid regime status. Denmark is the 10th best country on the Human Development Index (HDI), while Bangladesh is 133rd out of 189 countries. Denmark’s tax-GDP ratio is 46, while Bangladesh’s ratio is only 12.
From all this information, one can easily conclude that if you have a strong democracy, you will have the lowest level of corruption and high-performing governance. At the same time, you will enjoy super human development status supported by strong tax justice. In Denmark, their tax justice is based upon progressive imposition of taxes on all citizens based on their income. As a result, Denmark has the lowest inequality in the world.
For Denmark, this has been possible because they have shaped up their governance based on a strong democracy. If we are able to democratise our governance system like Denmark, then we can have better governance and less corruption in the delivery of services. This will lead to formulating a pro-people fiscal policy with higher allocation for healthcare, education, and social security; the existing allocation is far too less compared to the leading democratic countries.
In a fully democratic system, public representatives have to remain accountable and transparent to people; hence, they exert their full responsibility on the service-providing institutions under their authority to render services to people. Unless they do so, people remove them through the process of free and fair elections and bring in new persons of choice. This accountability mechanism is very strong in most democratic countries, such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, Canada, etc. The countries that fall under flawed democracy as per the democracy index show anomalies in voting and the provision of services to people. Some typical examples of these countries are India, the US, Brazil, Malaysia, France, etc. In terms of the democracy index, as Bangladesh falls under the hybrid regime, one can realise the quality of accountability and transparency of the public representatives and service-providing institutions to people. We face the crude reflections of this in our everyday lives through the instances of failure in our governance system. Therefore, it is imperative that we take the democratisation of governance in Bangladesh as our key agenda.
If we really believe in the motto of “leaving no one behind,” embracing the poor and vulnerable people in the development arena, then there is no alternative for the donors, partners, CSOs, NGOs and the United Nations organisations to set their agenda and mandate towards drastic political reform and a strong local government system in Bangladesh. The means of doing so may be robust civic engagement and vigilance, political education, aggressive advocacy, public disclosure, capacity building of CSOs and NGOs, higher fiscal budget, and strong IT infrastructure. This will also require strong political consensus and commitment, and those in power must lead the way.
A country with a democratic spirit must not live with the stigma of a hybrid regime—which is an unbearable shame for its citizens—and with the global indexes that say we are extremely corrupt with utterly poor governance. All actors of development must take on the key overarching agenda of democratising governance in Bangladesh, and formulate all relevant policies and programmes in line with that goal.
Shazzad Khan is senior programme coordinator at Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF).