Bangladesh: how UNCAC review helps build bridges with government

16 May 2013, by Iftekhar Zaman.

Proper implementation of UNCAC requires the coordinated efforts of many stakeholders from the key institutions of the National Integrity System, including all branches of the state, anti-corruption agencies, the media, civil society organisations and the private sector. Cooperation with the central bank, the national board of revenue and foreign governments is also important. The most crucial factor in successful implementation is the degree to which the Convention is owned by the political and bureaucratic authorities. Although the task may sometimes seem complex and difficult, the work of civil society can play the catalytic role in driving change.

Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) has been working with many relevant actors to improve UNCAC implementation for many years. Bangladesh became a State Party in 2007 and its implementation of UNCAC Chapter III and IV was reviewed in 2011.[1] Parallel to this, TIB undertook its own review which was published in 2011.

Soon after acceding to the Convention the government took measures towards its implementation. Bangladesh was one of the first of the States Parties to complete its Gap Analysis in July 2008. In 2009 a new government, which came to power after winning the election with anti-corruption as one of the top electoral pledges, adopted an UNCAC implementation plan.

TIB continued to work with the government with some success towards implementation of commitments related to UNCAC. For example the Right to Information Act 2009, drafted and campaigned for by a number of civil society organisations including TIB, was adopted in the first session of the Parliament after the new popularly elected government assumed power. TIB worked with the government in the process of drafting and reviewing the Whistleblower Protection Act (adopted in 2011) and the National Integrity Strategy (published 2012). Although not always smooth-sailing, these were good practice examples of government and civil society working together.

TIB’s parallel review

In conducting the civil society UNCAC review TIB contacted a number of relevant government departments including the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs (the coordinating authority for UNCAC implementation), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Bangladesh Bank. TIB initially met strong resistance rather than a willingness to cooperate. Even the Anti-corruption Commission, a legally independent body, was not too receptive to the idea of sharing information. TIB needed to reach out to specific government officials several times to access information on challenges and successes in connection with the implementation of UNCAC in Bangladesh.

Many government agencies have poorly organised information management systems which are not well supported by information technology. In addition there is a culture of secrecy prevailing in the government, particularly among more senior officials. Officials are reluctant to share information, often without good reason. Commonly, requests are not formally denied but a range of tactics are used to avoid sharing the information, such as deliberately delaying responses. A mind-set prevails that the government has a monopoly over the control of information and that sharing information means sharing power; something they are not always prepared to do. TIB also realised that for some government officials information on corruption was particularly taboo and for that reason could not be divulged.

The lack of access to information, in particular the lack of specific details, would have proved very problematic for the review report. However, things gradually changed for the better thanks to the persistent positive approach in TIB’s engagement with the objective of selling the idea that the effort at the end of the day was aimed at strengthening the hand of the government.

TIB’s engagement with the government in connection with UNCAC showed how important it is for civil society advocacy efforts to have modest expectations and adopt a patient and comprehensive approach.

Despite initial denials from the government and reluctance to engage, with some perseverance, good results can come about. TIB learnt that the government is not a monolith; there are people within it who can support civil society’s work. They may not necessarily come out in public but are certainly willing to support change.

By the time our review was coming to a close, coinciding with the visit of the peer review team, doors were almost open for us and TIB soon became partners of the government in the review process. TIB was invited by the government for their presentation of the draft report to the visiting peer review and UNODC team. TIB had the pleasure of presenting the draft civil society report to the government, the peer reviewers and UNODC representatives. TIB also hosted a dinner in which the peer review team and the relevant government officials had the possibility of interacting with a cross-section of other civil society groups and the media. In the end it was successful story of engagement.

About Iftekhar Zaman

Iftekhar Zaman is the Executive Director of the Transparency International Bangladesh.

  1. Bangladesh’s self-assessment report