By Inam Ahmed
Feb 16 2017 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh)
It was the country’s largest infrastructure project – that is up to that point of time in 2011, costing USD 2.9 billion. It was also the World Bank’s largest loan to the tune of USD 1.2 billion. Asian Development Bank, JICA and Islamic Development Bank also joined hands to fund the project that would be so vital for Bangladesh’s development, especially for the 30 million people living in the disadvantaged south for whom the River Padma stood as a solid barrier towards national integration.
And then a bolt from the blue. One fine morning, the World Bank brought the allegation that there had been a ‘corruption conspiracy’ in the bridge project. Suddenly, the bees were buzzing and stinging. The Bank went into hyper gear to take a stern stand against the ‘corruption conspiracy’, and its then country director Ellen Goldstein started shuttling between Dhaka and Washington, firming up the allegation.
Bangladesh reeled under the weight of the blow and the high profile activities that whirled on. But it remained firm in its stand – that there had not been corruption. Team after team from the World Bank came and met the government officials.
After prolonged discussions, the government took steps that the Bank sought to investigate the allegation. Then communication minister Syed Abul Hossain resigned, bridges division secretary Mosharraf Hossain Bhuiyan was sent to jail and PM’s adviser Mashiur Rahman was sidelined, though he held his post. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) embarked on an investigation which yielded no corroboration of the allegations.
And yet, the World Bank dropped the ultimate bombshell in July 2012 when it finally scrapped the project because, in its words, it had “credible evidence corroborated by a variety of sources which points to a high-level corruption conspiracy among Bangladeshi government officials, SNC Lavalin executives and private individuals in connection with the Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project”. It claimed to have gone “the extra mile” when it sent a high-level team to Dhaka to explain the Bank’s position and receive the government’s response.
“The response has been unsatisfactory. The World Bank cannot, should not, and will not turn a blind eye to evidence of corruption,” the Bank concluded while cancelling the project, sinking the hearts of 160 million people, putting this country along with its population to shame before the world.
And what was its evidence of corruption? Was it so compelling that the Bank could not refrain from taking such a harsh decision? Well, now that the Canadian court decision has come on the case, we know the worth of the evidence that the Bank also provided to the Canadian police. The evidence is worth nothing and that is why the Canadian court has thrown the case out.
But what about the price the country paid because of the Bank’s ‘solid evidence’? Its pride lost, albeit momentarily, to the world, cannot be measured. The insult suffered is immeasurable. Thanks to the country’s strong forex reserves and willingness of China to do business, the construction of the bridge is going ahead but at a much higher cost. What could have been accomplished for USD 2.9 billion has now reached USD 3.6 billion. The poor people of Bangladesh will have to pay the almost a billion dollar extra amount just because of the Bank’s ‘evidence’ that did not hold in any court.
Needless to say, another statement by the Bank similar to the one it issued to announce the cancellation of the loan was in order to clarify its position after the Canadian court verdict. An explanation of why those knee jerk reactions that yielded nothing but suffering for a nation was necessary. But it did not come.
It is incredulous that the World Bank, with its expertise on almost anything under the sun, failed to understand through its legal departments that the so-called evidence was all moth-eaten and flimsy. This one single incident will have dented the organisation’s standing in the eyes of the world.
Like it demanded a special inquiry team of the ACC to dig out the so-called ‘corruption’ in the bridge project, the Bank may now appoint its own special inquiry team to dig out what went wrong within and why.
The writer is Deputy Editor, The Daily Star.
This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh